Within the first month of moving to Detroit two different friends took me to see the Heidelberg Project. For those of you unfamiliar with this incredible public art space, check out their website. Founded in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, his wife Karen, and his grandfather Sam Mackey, The Heidelberg Project has been around for nearly my entire life, and like any great work of art, it has garnered its fair share of controversy. For instance, according to their website, Guyton was a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1991; soon after his appearance Mayor Coleman Young ordered the destruction of four of Heidelberg’s structural installations. Guyton, has garnered some local disdain, popular support and international attention for his work, and through it all, there are still people foolish enough to ask the age old question, “but is this art?”. If you have to ask… The photos you see here were all taken on my second visit. On my first visit, we stayed in the car, and marveled at the scaffolding of the new House of Soul in the dimming light of dusk.
The next visit came on a grey and frigid day in November when a friend and I explored for a bit. The piece that captured most of my attention that day was the ark, pictured above. In particular, I fell in love with the lone giraffe waiting to board the heap of animals. I’m not a religious person, which is to say I was raised in a household with no religious practices. Both of my parents had been raised Catholic but rejected the church long before I was born. We celebrated Christmases devoid of Jesus with our extended family, but that was about it. When I was very young, my brother and I had known Easter as the celebration of biting the heads off of chocolate bunnies, but by the time I was eight or nine, it had been banished from our house. I say all of this to say that I’ve never had a particularly spiritual connection to Judeo-Christian imagery—except for the ark.
The first time I read any part of the Bible, it was as literature—required reading for my senior year AP English class in high school. That same year, my best friend and I also constructed an independent study around world mythology, where we read a lot of Joseph Campbell and made art based around different pantheons. One of the only things that stuck with me from that time was that so many cultures and religions told the story of a Great Flood in ancient times. The two-by-two propagation of life on the planet seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but that was true of every interpretation of the Flood I encountered. I was fascinated by destruction and resurrection of all of them, but the Judeo-Christian narrative about the why of it seemed so rooted in the idea that when humans screw up en masse, a greater power will set things aright at all costs. Guyton’s ark seems to me like a glorious metaphoric extension of this—humans are doing a bang up job of destroying a beautiful planet today, after all. In some way, I feel like so many of us know how that lonely giraffe feels—we’re holding on to the idea of some kind of salvation, warily eyeing its vessel being dwarfed under the weight of its burden. And of course, in Detroit, destruction and re-population, not to mention an over-abundance of water, are all heavily loaded concepts.
The friend who took me on this outing had interviewed Guyton previously, and told me a bit about what she knew of Heidelberg’s history. I won’t recount my second–hand interpretations here. Instead I will say that I have never known another work of art with this kind of tenacity and regeneration. Beyond the many waves of sanctioned destruction of parts of Guyton’s work, there has more recently been a troubling spate of arsons. Over the past 2 years alone, there have been at least nine fires partially or completely destroying several of Heidelberg’s houses. To put this in perspective, a September, 2014 article from the Detroit Free Press stated that for the last ten years, the yearly average of fires in Detroit ranges between 11,000-12,000. When I read these statistics, I can’t help but hear an echo of Howard Cosell’s voice declaring, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, Detroit’s been burning”. Even though I’ve only been here for a little over two months, I’ve seen it too.
(Heidelberg Project's memorial to the original House of Soul)
One day in November, a life-long Detroiter picked me up and gave me a tour of Palmer Woods and part of Livernois, detailing much of the history of those areas. On the ride North on 75, going back to my house, there was a thick tree of smoke in the distance to the west. It was foreboding, and according to my guide, all too common. I’d yet to see such a massive plume barely contrasting the grey sky, but I knew she was right. My neighborhood, when compared to the majority of places I’ve lived over the last decade, is fairly quiet. I feel safe where I am, I know plenty of my neighbors, and aside from acclimating to living alone, it’s been fairly low-anxiety. Four years ago, I lived in an eight bedroom house with anywhere between 10 and 19 roommates in Boston; three months ago I lived in a loud and peopled five-story Brooklyn walk up in a four bedroom apartment that was only slightly bigger than what I’ve dubbed The Brave New Home (aka the Peach House) with three roommates, a dog and my cat. My brain is not used to this kind of tranquility. In Brooklyn, I could often mistake the passing traffic outside my window for waves crashing—until a souped up dirt bike or car with Tectonic-plate shifting bass drove by. Here, hardly a raindrop goes unheard.
There have been multiple incidents on my street over the last month or so that, for this reason, have been particularly unnerving. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because it is not my intention to make this the focal point of my post, and I’m also writing a longer essay for another publication that will be able to go into greater detail. What I will say is that my neighbors’ windows were smashed in the middle of the night. These were not burglaries, but vandalism occurring over two nights shortly before Christmas. Following the second night, a midday fire that may well have been arson wrecked another neighbor’s home. The fire department put out the blaze swiftly. I have always had a great deal of respect for firefighters, but watching them at work was utterly surreal. I witnessed everyday heroes kick in doors and pop out windows with rapid precision, and there it was again—far less symbolic this time—water as salvation, deliverance from frightening flames. The neighborhood flocked around to see how bad the damage would be. While the house did not disintegrate, it’s uninhabitable—most of the eastern facing wall is completely gone, as are the southern facing windows. Thankfully, my neighbor was not inside when the fire broke out, but the security of a roof over her head is gone.
What’s surprised me most about the incident isn’t the fire itself but my neighbor’s attitude about it now. We don’t know each other well, but I’ve probably seen her more frequently since it’s happened than I had leading up to it. While these encounters are minor glimpses into her life, she really doesn’t seem shook. I’ve seen and put on my fair share of doing-fine poker faces in my day, to the point where I’ve come to think of them as the de facto poor/working class survival mask—but I know if I were in her situation and anyone asked me how I was doing, my reply would be “apocalypse” every time. When I’ve run into her, I ask how she’s holding up and she always points to some positive thing happening in her day, even if it’s as miniscule as warmth, without complaint. I cannot imagine what it is to be in her shoes, and I certainly can’t sugarcoat or simplify her experience through these brief interactions. All I can say is that she’s surviving. In some weird way, it reminds me of Heidelberg—still creating and re-building in the face of destruction—surviving time and change. It makes me feel like in some alternate version of the Noah story, God never gave him the head’s up, so he just had to master the backstroke and sleep in trees until he got the rainbow sign. Given the state of things, I’m hoping for no more fire—just seeds, next time.
Casey Rocheteau,Inaugural Write A House Recipient