02 June 2010

A Neighborhood Transformed

What happens when a neighborhood is in a state of decline? Cities such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Detroit, Michigan, have become empty shells of their former glory after industry left them behind. Prolonged vacancies result in neighborhoods that are no longer self-sustaining, filled with empty lots and abandoned buildings. 


fig. 9 and 10
The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI (Photos by Debra Jane Seltzer)

    The Heidelberg Project began in 1986 by Tyree Guyton in Detroit’s East Side neighborhood. It is an example of artworks that spark dialogue between vacancy and the community. Together with his grandfather, Guyton began cleaning up lots along Heidelberg and Elba streets in an area perceived as dangerous and unwelcoming. Guyton salvaged random material and transformed it into art installations, turning the neighborhood landscape into large art environments through the decoration of abandoned houses and yards6 [fig 9 and 10]. The art has empowered the neighborhood, instilling it with pride. It now welcomes 275,000 annual visitors to walk the streets at all times of day7

    The neighborhood provides a social critique of the blight and decay within the neighborhood and the city as whole. Twenty-four houses serve as inspiration to date, posing questions on the definition of community and the bonds that make a city work. On two occasions in the 1990s, the city of Detroit demolished a total of six houses in the Heidelberg Project, citing their existence as an impediment to urban planning. As a result, Guyton and supporters filed a civil lawsuit. The Wayne County circuit court ruled in their favor to protect the artist’s 1st amendment rights.  


fig. 11
Kea Tawana Ark, Newark, NJ (Photo by Camilo Jose Vergara)

    In a similar project, Kea Tawana built a wooden ark on city vacant land in Newark, New Jersey in 1981 [fig. 11]. Fed up with city neglect of the neighborhood since the 1967 riots, Tawana decided to create a massive structure – ninety feet wide and three stories high – using scavenged material. The ark served to provide hope and symbolize renewal. Unfortunately, the city decided to raze the structure, stating that its presence did not comply with code.

    All of these art environments respond to the social condition left by vacancy and address neglect by enlivening an abandoned lot or derelict building. They present playful and composed installations. Opinions of these creations vary between curiosity or intolerance. People living in the immediate area may be intolerant of the artistic squatting on the condemned property, and city intervention may coincide with neighborhood opposition through the introduction of city codes and regulations8.  


fig. 12
Evening view of the Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI (Photo by Mike Budziak)

    One problem with the Heidelberg Project is that in the evening, the works recede back into their environment [fig. 12]. Street fixtures turn on, and the area visually reverts back to their status quo. The Heidelberg Project’s large-scale installations become monstrosities that scatter the landscape like the refuse found in a vacant lot. In addition, the low color rendering index (CRI) of the high-pressure sodium lighting washes everything in a sickly yellow [fig 13 and 14], eliminating the vibrant colors painted by Guyton on these projects. Either taken as individual works or a whole environment, the failure to highlight these art transformations reduces the vital uniqueness on display.  


fig. 13 and 14
Evening view of the Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI (Photos by Mike Budziak)

    To provide the works with special lighting might allow the Heidelberg Project to continue its discourse. This can be accomplished with temporary fixtures strategically placed onsite to create dramatic effect. By using a lamp with a higher CRI than HPS, these scenes would contrast from the streetscape and better display the vacant condition. The creation of spectacle is not the intent. Instead, the light provides a vehicle to support the social commentary of the artist author.

6 Guyton, Tyree. Connecting the Dots: Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007), 1.

7 “Heidelberg Project”. Available from Wikipedia: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidelberg_Project> (accessed 1 February 2010).

8 Brown, Chip. “Tawana’s Ark”, New York Magazine, 6 April 1987, 22.

No comments:

Post a Comment