The other day I was conversing with a friend who is a big fan of street art. Street art is honestly something I know very little about, but it is definitely something I can appreciate and respect. We were talking about the similarities between his thing – street art and my thing – art environments, and noticed a lot of differences, but also a few similarities. Por ejemplo, art environments are more often rural, whereas street art is typically urban. Art environment builders are often older, whereas I would guess, without doing any research into the topic beyond watching 1980s break-dancing movies and the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Giftshop, that the street artists are typically younger. You could go deeper into the surface differences – art environments are built on the owner’s property, street art’s canvas is either public property or places actually owned by someone else who may not want art on it. Art environments take years to build, street art minutes or hours. Both are ephemeral, and their lifespan is left at the mercy of those with giant cans of white paint, or keys to the county bulldozer.
While there are many differences in the form, there are certainly similarities in their spirit. My friend argues that both mediums evade the cookie-cutter normalcy and are not establishment approved. Both have a rebellious spirit to them. I sort of hate using terms like “authentic”, or “genuine” when describing any art as I don’t want to come off as a reverse snobbery-snob, or create an us vs. them mentality against other artists. Both art forms are really generated by individuals that have a need to express themselves, often without monetary compensation, often knowing there will be a fight on their hands.
A few weeks ago, famous street artist Banksy unveiled his latest project to the general public, Dismaland – a bemusement park located in England. Along with several other modern artists and street artists, he has whipped up a large scale parody of amusement parks, namely parodying Anaheim Disneyland (as far as I can tell it is not meant as a parody to its lesser-known brethren, Hamtramck Disneyland).
Banksy has created a fantasy world – an immersive large-scale canvas, brimming with creativity. People all over social media are freaking out about the coolness of Dismaland and yapping about wanting to queue up to fly over to dumb England to check it out. And I don’t blame them, it looks great and strange and perhaps there is a wee bit of, “OK we get it, corporate culture has won our little brains,” but not enough to dissuade me from being a fan. It looks like a really fun, weird experience. But it is already sold out and soon it will go bye bye. So guess what friends, you more than likely will not get to check out Banksy’s statement.
But honestly, this is nothing new, Banksy is not the first person to create a larger than life experiential world. In fact, this very blog is dedicated to the hundreds of unique fantasy worlds that already exist here in the good ole USA. No, most art environments do not have the size, scope or financial investment of Dismaland. However, I would argue that several art environments give it a run for its money. And guess what, they are free, or cheap and have better visiting hours.
So, I was trying to think of comparable art environments and I thought of the Heidelberg Project, located in Detroit, MI. Like the street art ethos that Banksy comes from, it is urban, located in the heart of the big city, and at least initially, it covered other people’s property and took up residence in the no-man’s land of public property. It is large, covering a few full city blocks. It is part guerrilla art and living theater. It is totally rebellious – the city and other naysayers have tried to dismantle it numerous times. However, it is tough and it perseveres. It changes constantly and has points to make and stories to tell – its main tools are creativity and community (and lots of polka dots). And unlike Dismaland, it is completely free to visit and is open 365 days a year. You can go there whenever you want!
Starting in 1986 artist Tyree Guyton transformed a few city blocks in a rough shod neighborhood in Detroit into a piece of art. Guyton had lived through the Detroit riots of the 1960s and had seen his city and his neighborhood slide into bedlam. Poverty, racism, violence and crack rock had moved in. He had a vision that he could do something and make a difference. Driving around with family members, Guyton started collecting his art supplies – the discarded detritus of a decaying metropolis. Slowly the neighborhood along Heidelberg Street turned to polka dots. Doll parts, old vacuum cleaners, and hundreds of shoes covered the ground, porches, roofs, walls and trees.
The vision encroaches all over the area. It is found or assemblage art, using bits and pieces of left over stuff – including paint, used cars, toys, junk, stuffed animals, records, whatever fit Guyton’s fancy. It has gone through many changes and it freely moves with the wind. Some of the changes are due to the artist adding, deleting and adapting the space. These changes come from a positive direction. Other changes though, come from those who don’t get it, and have the weaponry to fuck it up for everyone else.
Not everyone likes it, and it has drawn its fair share of criticism. Some people in the community at first saw it as just a big junk heap, an eyesore. Neighbors felt that it was just drawing whites from the suburb to come look at garbage, and that is was not a good representation. But over the years the Project has started to change people’s minds. Some neighborhoods finally started to see the brilliance of the whole ordeal and started Heidelberging up their own house. After three decades, the community is starting to get that it was built for them. It is open to all and in an impoverished neighborhood where the residents don’t always make it to the expensive and imposing beaux arts – think big marble columns – Detroit museums, it has taken on the nickname of the “ghetto Guggenheim.”
It is a true survivor and has withstood outside aggression. The first large scale attack came from the city of Detroit who drove down Heidelberg Street with demolition equipment and knocked down a few of the abandoned, but artistically embellished houses in 1991. The city bulldozers came back in 1999 and obliterated several more houses. Guyton did not ask for permission and he paid the price for his independence.
The city stopped knocking stuff down after that. But now there is a new enemy, a firebug has been let loose. In 2013 and 2014, arsonists (one or many, no one has been caught), had destroyed about a dozen of the houses. Nevertheless, the Heidelberg Project perseveres and rebuilds. Guyton has turned his little piece of the world into a chaotic, colorful and amazing fantasy world. No, it is not the mid size-budget spectacle of Banksy’s Dismaland (which is not the mega budget spectacle of Disneyland). It is messy, but beautiful. Most every time I visit family in the area, I check it out and it always is a bit different. This is a piece of Americana that truly needs to be celebrated. There is so much to see and take in and you could easily spend hours wandering about. For a fun little exercise, check it out on Google Maps Street View. You can virtually drive down the street and see how it looked in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015.
How to visit:
The Heidelberg Project is located on Heidelberg Street in Detroit. If you are using a GPS or internet map just plug in the address 3600 Heidelberg St., Detroit, MI. The environment is open 24/7 and everyone is welcome. It is completely free to visit, but I away recommend if you have a few spare schekels loading you down, get rid of them here. Guyton is still alive and you may get to meet him or a visiting artist at work. What started as one-man covering the street in crooked smiley faces has become a well oiled non-profit community education machine. They provide scheduled tours and art classes. There is a gift shop on the premises (but no indoor toilet, just a honey bucket). There is plenty of street parking.
In the Area:
There is so much cool stuff to see and do in Detroit.
I would highly recommend visiting Hamtramck Disneyland (not to be confused with the non-existent Hamtramck Dismaland) which is only 4 miles away. Go there while the getting is good (as of this writing its future is unknown).
Soon I will write about MBAD’S African Bead Museum, which is about six miles away. This is another cool assemblage art site located in Detroit.
While I would not consider The Henry Ford Museum/ Greenfield Village, or the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) as lost wonders, they are still must sees.
In the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, about 25 miles north of the Heidelberg Project, you will find Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum. This place is greeeeaaaat! It is an arcade of vintage coin operated machines. This includes some very rare oddities, including P.T. Barnum’s Cardiff Giant. To make a long story so short that is probably hard to follow, in the 1800s a farmer in New York buried and then “discovered” the body of a petrified giant. Which was really a just a big sculpture he made. However, the farmer and his giant became a huge sensation and made a ton of money fooling people into thinking a race of giants had previously walked the earth. P.T. Barnum, probably pissed that he didn’t think of it first, built his own version to con the masses. The Farmer’s Museum in New York has the real fake, Marvin’s has Barnum’s fake fake. It is a great relic of the old, weird America. Marvin’s museum/ arcade is filled with amazing things and is a ton of fun to visit.
A quick note on Detroit regional delicacies- The Detroit area is most famous for the coney Island hot dog, basically a chili dog with Greek spices. There are figuratively hundreds of coney joints in the area. The two that get the most buzz are the oldest coneys in the city and they are literally right next door to each other, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. Both are good, but Lafayette never did any fancy remodels, so it wins.
Detroit also has their own form of deep-dish pizza. The pizza is square and the cheese is melted/burnt/ delicious all along the edges. My two favorite spots as a kid were Shield’s and Buddy’s. Suck it, Chicago!
However, my absolute favorite Detroit regional delicacy is a dish found at most, if not all, Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan area – Almond Boneless Chicken. It is a holdover dish from when Chinese restaurants became Chop Suey houses trying to appease white America’s palate. It is a deep fried breaded chicken breast covered in gooey brown gravy, with maybe like three or four almond slices thrown on top. I know that sounds gross, I am not a food writer, but it is so good. Go shove some in your pie hole.
Connecting the Dots: Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. (2007). Detroit: Wayne State University Press.