DETROIT — On Detroit’s Heidelberg Street, where a local artist turned the shell of a crime-ridden neighborhood into an interactive public art project, visitors coming to see offbeat display are noticing something that’s not part of the quirky exhibition: Yellow fire tape.
There have been at least eight fires since early May— the latest last Sunday — leading to questions about who might be targeting the installation known as the Heidelberg Project, and why they want to burn it down.
Founder and artistic director Tyree Guyton and his compatriots vow to carry on, make more art and overcome the assault on his vision, yet worry threatens the whimsy as the fires snuff out building after building.
Now, piles of rubble alternate with the three remaining house installations within the two-block area on the city’s east side that’s become famous over the years for the exhibition featuring shoes, clocks, vinyl records, stuffed animals and other found or discarded objects.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been investigating along with Detroit authorities. ATF spokesman Donald Dawkins said investigators have interviewed several people — some more than once — but he said there is no one yet that officials consider a suspect or person of interest. El Don Parham, chief of the Detroit Fire Department’s arson unit, said it’s far too early to speculate on a motive but believes that “someone is pinpointing” the Heidelberg Project.
“That makes it a greater concern for us — that someone is targeting this area,” he said.
Project officials announced this week a private donor is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for the fires. That’s on top of $5,000 offered by the Michigan Arson Prevention Committee.
Guyton, often out working or cleaning up the site, has declined requests to speak with The Associated Press and likewise offered no comment to other media outlets in recent weeks. He told The Detroit News recently that he was “following the advice of the Greek philosopher Socrates: Be quiet and listen.”
In late November during Heidelberg’s annual fall fundraiser, Guyton said he would “do it bigger and do it better than before” but needed financial help.
The project has muscled its way into cultural and public acceptance despite rocky beginnings. It was originally viewed as an eyesore by city officials, who demolished parts of it at various points in the 1990s, but it now attracts tourists from across the country and globe and gets a seal of approval from the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.
It’s not lost on supporters that the Heidelberg — launched in response to urban decay — is fighting to save itself as the Detroit Institute of Arts fends off creditors eyeing its collection in Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr hasn’t said whether he will sell art as part of any restructuring plan.
Judy Bradley, secretary at the nearby Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, said she first visited Heidelberg in the late 1980s and has taken out-of-town family and friends many times since. She has wondered if Guyton has enemies, if an individual or group perceives the artwork as “ostentatious” or people just “want to get rid of it.”
“I think that what he is doing is just being proactive to the city and giving back. I think that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “It’s just a shame.”
Follow Jeff Karoub on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jeffkaroub