DETROIT DAYS : History is all junk in the Pompeii of Motor City

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If there's a weirder, yet more uplifting place than Heidelberg Street at Mount Elliott Road on Detroit's east side, I've yet to see it. The sum of the parts couldn't be less: just junk collected by a local artist called Tyree Guyton, from the ruins of what once upon a time in this 20th century was the greatest industrial city in America. But the whole adds up to a miracle of exhilaration, a festival of lunacy and colour in a kingdom of despair.

Turn into the street, and an amazing spectacle confronts you. There are gaudily painted houses festooned with ornaments of every kind. On one side of the street stands a forest of vintage vacuum-cleaners, with gloves on their handles; on the other a tree wrapped in battered, yellow-painted bicycles. Near by stands a 30ft boat, filled with discarded children's toys. Alongside, where a house once stood, stand battered suitcases and cracked leather shoes lined up in rows, half covered with grass and tendrils of ivy.

These days, this part of Detroit is one of the saddest, most fearsome places on earth: lot after vacant lot, eerie overgrown urban meadows, often surrounding a single marooned building which sometimes is inhabited, but usually is charred and derelict.

This is the spectral landscape of an inner-city disaster without parallel, where everything burns or rots. On the horizon shimmer the towers of the Renaissance Center, emblem of an intended new Detroit. But rebirth has never truly happened: not downtown, and certainly not here.

Consciously or otherwise, Guyton captures the feeling of destruction. The tracts of unused space, the abandoned buildings, all testify to the visitation of a mighty disaster. Almost appropriately, the day I was there was the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. A better parallel, however, is Pompeii.

These days, much of Detroit is a vast archaeological site. True, the relics are not 3,000 or 300 but only 30 years old. But America is the land of fast-forward, where other countries' centuries are compressed into decades. Here Vesuvius erupted in the form of race riots of July 1967, when 43 people died. Whites and countless businesses fled to the suburbs. Shortly thereafter the industry on which the Motor City built its wealth began to founder. Abruptly a civilisation vanished, and most of its monuments with it.

But close your eyes, and you can imagine what this lost Detroit was like: tidy, hard-working neighbourhoods from an age before drugs and racial conflict, when children played in the streets and everyone had jobs.

And with the artefacts he has collected, Guyton has created a museum of the period. His message is invigorating, that even in this blighted district you can fashion something striking that need not be sinister. His is no political statement: just an attempt to breathe new life into a place which was dead.

Inevitably, politics has sometimes featured large in the nine-year history of Guyton's exhibit. By the end of the 1980s, its fame had grown, to the point where nervous suburbanites would venture to take a look. But the trend was not overly to the liking of Coleman Young, the city's despotic former mayor, who once told whites unhappy with Detroit's plight, "If you don't like it, get out." And when the white-run Detroit Institute of Art began to promote Guyton's work, Young acted on some local complaints to send in bulldozers to flatten four buildings on Heidelberg Street, leaving nearby crack houses unscathed.

These days, however, things are looking up, for Tyree Guyton at least. Coleman Young stepped down last year, and the new mayor is the moderate Dennis Archer, who has left the Heidelberg project alone. Plans are afoot to expand it with a theatre, a new museum, a design centre and studio space for visiting artists. Maybe the immediate neighbourhood can be revived. But for the living Pompeii that is the city of Detroit, it may already be too late.