Go to navigation (press enter key)Menu

Before the Hipsters … Artists

The New York Times and other news outlets reported last year that signs encouraging New Yorkers to move to Detroit were mysteriously appearing in New York City neighborhoods—particularly in areas of Brooklyn with a high concentration of artists and hipsters. “Detroit,” read one of the signs, “Just West of Bushwick.”

The People’s House in the Heidelberg Project, by Tyree Guyton

It turns out that the signs were a private campaign launched by a young New Yorker, Philip Kafka, who had moved to Detroit and invested in real estate. He wanted to spread the gospel to his peers.

More than a few creative types seem to be on the same page. Last year, Robert Elmes, founder and executive director of the influential Galapagos Art Space, made big news with the announcement that he was moving the Brooklyn enterprise to Detroit. Also in 2015, Artsy magazine included Detroit on its list of the 15 most influential art cities in the world, and Detroit joined UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, becoming the first U.S. city to receive the UNESCO City of Design designation.

Yes, the art thing is happening in Detroit. But actually, it’s been happening for a long time.

This year, the legendary Heidelberg Project is celebrating its 30th anniversary under the artistic direction of founder Tyree Guyton. The project began in 1986 as a testimony to the devastation of Detroit. Guyton began collecting the detritus from abandoned houses and burned-out buildings on Heidelberg Street and elsewhere and using it to create a large-scale environmental installation that incorporated empty houses, vacant lots, sidewalks, and even trees. During its first decade, the project came under attack from the city of Detroit, and a significant number of the component parts, including the Baby Doll House—a house covered on the exterior with baby dolls of all shapes and sizes—were completely demolished by the city. More recently other houses, including the Party Animal House, the Obstruction of Justice House, and the House of Soul were destroyed or badly damaged by arsonists. But Guyton, who is notoriously publicity shy, keeps making his art and earning accolades and major arts grants. More than 275,000 visitors make the pilgrimage to Heidelberg Street annually.

Mural by Sydney G. James and Tylonn Sawyer which was part of the public art festival Murals in the Market.

This September, Guyton was one of more than 50 local and international muralists who particpated in Murals in the Market, a live-painting event in the Eastern Market section of Detroit. The market has been a site for public art for decades, but this event, spanning 10 days, brought artists together with muralists from as far away as Australia, Singapore, and Paris.