Development, Events

Saving & Supporting Diversity in Detroit through the Heidelberg Project

This is a guest post by Dana Davis, a human resources professional in the Detroit Metro area. You can find her on Twitter at

As a child in the backseat of my mother’s Chrysler LeBaron, I remember putting a death grip on my Cabbage Patch Kid when passing the house covered with baby dolls of all shapes, sizes and colors. Even at six years old, I figured something was wrong, or someone was granted special permission to decorate their house like that – with toys instead of paint. However, the impact of elementary school art class and continued trips by it eventually calmed my confusion and fears. I developed an appreciation for the unique landmark – a unique characteristic of my city, the “D.” Now, I appreciate not only its uniqueness, but the artistic and social commentary of that house, and others like it in this particular neighborhood – The Heidelberg Project (HP).

For the uninformed, a very brief history of the HP (as I remember it from my freckle-faced, redheaded tour guide and Heidelberg Project volunteer from Royal Oak this past weekend): A victim of the 1967 riots, years of an infestation of drugs and crime turned the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood into what looked like a war zone, and outside of the HP, still does. In 1986, fed-up with the state of this area, artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather Sam Mackey created art out of the deteriorated houses and empty lots in his neighborhood as a means of controversial beautification and political protest. Since that time, crime here has decreased and the HP has been featured in numerous publications; it’s even been featured on HBO and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Although its demise has been attempted on more than one occasion, and parts have been demolished, it is now protected under the 1st Amendment – an act of free speech.

My “dollhouse” was destroyed in one of the demolition projects that occurred, but on Saturday, August 14th, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with its counterparts at D.O.T.S: Dancin’ On the Street. In both rain and shine, visitors to the 3600 block of Heidelberg and Elba Streets were treated to, “a free festival celebrating Detroit’s diversity in music and dance” amidst the kids playing basketball, oddly-painted houses, flattened glass bottle installation, shopping carts on tops of trees, stuffed animals nailed to buildings, and flower sculptures made from scrap metal. Cool.

It all served as a beautiful backdrop to street performances by various groups, including the Sun Messengers, Raion Taiko Japanese Drummers and representatives from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). Sponsors and partners included the Museum of African American History, University of Michigan, Lear Corporation, DTE Energy, Daimler Financial Services, the ACLU, and Inforum (formerly the Detroit Women’s Economic Club).

From students to executives, and suburbanites to Ann Arbor-ites, attendees represented a cross-section of these regions, organizations and performers. Although we do not always maximize it, here was Detroit diversity at its best. Where else might one witness a reenactment of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, get an art history lesson and enjoy Motown classics while drinking Faygo Redpop on the street? But, if we can come together here to be entertained, why don’t we come together more often on issues that really make a difference in the social and political arena? Munching on samosas and quesadillas from Pink Flamingo, I pondered it all…

Despite the reality of the struggling surrounding area, this was an all out celebration of Detroit’s diversity, and the HP art was a nice juxtaposition. Multi-colored polka dots lined the streets, the homes, the shuttle buses, and the shirts of the volunteers, perhaps an artistic representation of Detroit and Detroiters. The dots (and dolls) signify that we come in all shapes, sizes and colors, which afford us the chance to experience the many types of music and dance seen here at D.O.T.S.

Regardless of our hometowns, we are like the art of the Heidelberg Project. Comprised of remnants, artifacts left behind by people and experiences, our lives are collections of our own personal histories that are beautiful to some, and junk to others. We should ask ourselves if, despite their subjective beauty, are our lives beautiful enough to save? Are they saying something? Would someone fight for, develop, promote and save you as they have the Heidelberg Project?

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