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Who are Detroit’s pioneers?

The Heidelberg Project

by Daniel Cherrin

In the 1980’s Tyree Guyton returned to the street he grew up on and found it in shambles. Armed with a broom and paint brush and an army of neighborhood children, Guyton turned an abandoned street into The Heidelberg Project, one of Detroit’s greatest display of public art and a shining example of Detroit’s Renaissance. 

Some would call Guyton a pioneer, someone who stepped in to turn around a city house-by-house, using art as its economic development tool. Ben Bella Books recently published The New Pioneers, How Entrepreneurs Are Defying The System To Rebuild The Cities And Towns of America, By JP Faber. (Available on Barnes and Noble, Amazon and perhaps at Pages Bookshop on Grand River in Detroit). 

In the 1980’s Guyton didn’t ask the city for its permission to turn vacant lots into lots of art. He just did it. Today, however, it’s a different story. For the past few years, The Heidelberg Project has tried to acquire property through the Detroit Land Bank Authority so that it could create a new community of artists. It wants to buy 40 parcels around it’s existing project, but the Detroit Land Bank has denied its request to become a community partner, which would allow it to purchase properties in bundles.

In New Pioneers, Faber writes a about Lean Urbanism, a movement that allows people willing to rebuild forgotten neighborhoods with nothing but elbow grease and youthful energy. Where there is little if no regulation in allowing people to come in and make something out of nothing, or a willingness by the authorities to allow these urban pioneers to bend, break or ignore the rules for the sake of progress.


In his book, Faber writes about five large cities and five small towns found in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Arizona, Louisiana, California and Michigan, including Detroit. 

Faber writes that big business has access to capital the resources to maneuver around the regulation, while the young, the small and the maker get bogged down in the process that, takes too long, costs too much money, requires experts and other resources.

There are places in the US that recognize the barriers that exist to progress and are implementing creative strategies that are paving the way to renewing the spirit and vibes of cities ready to emerge from their past. This includes Pink Zones that cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Miami implemented removing restrictions and regulations to growth. Staying below certain thresholds to avoid triggering more regulatory oversight in places like San Diego, or calling projects by names to avoid language that would bring excessive regulation in places like Phoenix or Orange Beach Alabama.

Faber’s first chapter is dedicated to The Post Apocalyptic City, or Detroit. While I disagree with his characterization of Detroit (which is why we started Detroit Unspun in the first place) and although his book was just published it is already dated. I support what he is trying to accomplish. There are barriers to progress in every town, no matter how or small that need to be re-examined or removed.

Faber will be pleased to know that plans are moving forward with the former Tiger Stadium site with a mixed use development now set to open in 2018, complete with housing, retail and a sports field. There is also movement on the former Packard Plant. 

So while I may be sensitive and at times defensive of my city, I support Faber’s underlying themes that more needs to be done to allow the young, the small and the maker to make an impact.  I do think he should have spent more time in Detroit, talking to people like Guyton or Ann Perrault and Jackie Victor the founders of Avalon Bakery. These are the people that never left the city, through the worse and the bad, but stuck to their convictions in rebuilding their neighborhoods.

It is important for us to learn from others. To take the good and turn it into something positive for our city. We are not alone in this journey and should force our elected leaders to take a closer look at the barriers to progress and start chipping away at what stands in the way of moving forward. This includes finding a way to help realize Guyton’s vision.

The New Pioneer by JP Faber is definitely worth reading now, a great guidebook for those running for mayor or city council, and an important reference to rebuild our community together.

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