My first story for NBC News is a dark one. I feel the stakes of this one, and won't pretend I didn't cry during the reporting. Here's how it opens:
The air on Heidelberg Street reeked of smoke one recent morning. Char and ash darkened the snowy sidewalks. But the color remained: shocks of red and yellow and blue that polka-dot this blighted east side neighborhood, making it one of the city’s leading tourist attractions.
For 27 years, The Heidelberg Project, founded by artist and Detroit native Tyree Guyton, has arranged found objects — tires, televisions, toys — with artful grandeur, transforming vacant homes and lots along more than two blocks into an outdoor art museum unlike any other. “It’s true to the city,” said executive director Jenenne Whitfield. “Detroit is a city of originality.”
But The Heidelberg Project is under attack.
Eight arsons since May — the most recent on December 8 — resulted in four of the seven main Heidelberg houses being burned to the ground. One of them, known as the War Room House, was the former home of Motown legend Wilson Pickett. There is a $30,000 reward for information that leads to the conviction of anyone responsible for the fires, but to date, there are no suspects.
The Heidelberg staff is mystified as to why they are targeted. Lisa Rodriguez, chief curator, takes a philosophical look: “Throughout history, art has always had that impact: Someone has to remove it, steal it, vandalize it. So while the fires are a horrifying and terrifying thing…that art was burned down because of how powerful it is. That’s a big statement.”
Rodriguez added that while her first concerns are for public safety and for the culprit to take responsibility, she feels empathy for whatever pain may be behind the fires. “I mean, you can throw a rock through a window and make your statement. But to burn it flat, you must be really hurt.”
And elsewhere in the story:
Meanwhile, the remains of burned houses linger: blackened foundations, steps that lead nowhere, and ominous circles of yellow police tape.
“We have what we believe is a new canvas. It requires a new vision,” said Whitfield.
It also requires help: The arsons are an ongoing threat. Detroit, which is in the midst of America’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, struggles to protect its citizens. Fire is one of the most infamous hazards, as chronicled in the new documentary Burn; even a four-minute response time from firefighters wasn’t enough to save the most recent Heidelberg house that was set alight.
This leaves the community to fight for itself, and to protect this symbol of community resilience. The Heidelberg Project, which is managed as a nonprofit with 12 staff members and an expansive corps of volunteers, has resorted to crowdfunding on IndieGoGo for complete security of the neighborhood in a campaign called “Art from the Ashes.” The security system, involving improved patrolling, lighting and surveillance cameras, will cost a little over $50,000.
Money raised beyond that will help repair the home of a neighbor that was damaged by the second fire. Even further funds will help replace the House of Soul, one of Heidelberg’s famed art pieces. It was a two-story house with more than 2,000 records attached to it. When it burned, melted and cracked discs were strewn across the block.
The Heidelberg Project is Detroit’s third most popular tourist destination, behind the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Visitors come from 140 countries and 49 states, as well as from across the city, according to guest book records kept by the Heidelberg Project.
“We’re an art project in the heart of a war zone, so to speak, and people are coming from all over world,” said Whitfield.
Fun fact: I visited The Heidelberg Project during one of my earliest visits in Detroit, and the first visit that was neither a show nor a baseball game. It was on a field trip with my Art of the African Diaspora class my junior year of college. I don't think I closed my jaw the whole time; I'd seen nothing like this, ever. It is extraordinary.