DETROIT — One of Detroit’s many claims to fame in the popular imagination is the tendency among the citizenry to set things on fire. Bolstered by the special intensity of Devil’s Night fires — on the wane in recent years, thanks to citywide efforts — Detroit still leads the nation in suspicious fires per 1,000 residents by a wide margin, according to this 2015 Detroit News article. But few cultural sites can claim as many trials by fire as iconic outsider art installation the Heidelberg Project, which suffered the loss of its “You House” this week to a mysterious fire.
This is only the most recent in a long-running string of arsons that have reduced a huge portion of the Heidelberg Project to charred foundations — and by extension, a good number of the formerly derelict houses on and adjacent to the two-block stretch of Heidelberg Street, where the project is situated on Detroit’s near-East side. Twelve fires hit the open-air art project by creator Tyree Guyton, which has evolved on his home street over three decades. The highest-profile arsons started in 2012, picking up steam through 2015 and causing irreconcilable damage to pieces of the Heidelberg Project, including the Soul House, the Party Animal House, and others. After that, things quieted down for awhile on the Heidelberg front, likely due in part to the installation of a security system, and in 2016, Guyton began to turn his thoughts to dismantling his self-made monument, rather than continuing to build it.
Perhaps someone felt he wasn’t working fast enough. Fire struck again early on Monday, September 23, this time engulfing the upper floor of the “You House” — permanently destroying the last remaining house that flanked the project’s eastward-facing boundary of Mt. Elliott St. Firefighters were quick on the scene, but delayed from doing more than monitoring the blaze due to a succession of five non-working fire hydrants — possibly the result of water main repairs ongoing on the East side.
Mike Nevin, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, told the Detroit Free Press, that while quicker access to a hydrant wouldn’t have saved the Heidelberg house. “It jeopardizes the safety of not only the public, but my firefighters on the scene when they can’t get water,” he said.
Various articles published earlier in the week suggested that police were questioning a neighbor of the Project in connection with the fire, but no further details about their identity or motive have been released. One has to wonder about what exactly makes the Heidelberg Project such a frequent target for arson. Though the international art destination is anomalous to the surrounding neighborhood, its presence in the area has been longstanding and organic. With the creep of gentrification edging ever closer to bridging the Gratiot corridor with some of the interior east-side neighborhoods, one has to wonder if the Heidelberg Project will be the literally charred battleground between old Detroit and new.
Regardless, one expects Guyton and his nonprofit will emerge phoenix-like from the ashes, given their long history of bounceback. The Free Press also quotes Heidelberg spokesperson Dan Lijana, who says of the Heidelberg Project’s at this point legendary relationship with arson: “Every time we’ve emerged from it stronger.”