Detroit, Part 1: The Heidelberg Project, A People’s Critique of Systems, Institutions and Their Decades-Long Failure

Art, at its best, is personal. It happens in the space between the viewer and the art object/action.

In Detroit, Michigan, at the Heidelberg Project, the full text on “Beacon for Broken Health Care” piece above reads: 

Detroit currently only has primary care resources to meet the needs of approximately 1/4 of the 200,000 residents that are uninsured. “I’m not the only one who this is happening to. My dad was in the hospital for an aortic aneurysm and had to sell his motorcycle to pay the hospital bill. $ $ $ “They have to treat you. But they don’t treat you like they should. Once you’re done, it’s see you later. And like me, I have cancer, it’s a whole big runaround. It hasn’t hit me yet, but when it does, what am I going to do? Even if it isn’t full coverage, a visit here and there could help you see something, ya know? Preventative…

I’ve got one of these so-called ‘pre-existing conditions.’ After my last full-time job ended, so too, my employer-sponsored health insurance went g’bye. Out of necessity, I started consulting and working as a freelance contractor for a few folks. It was catch-as-catch-can, and I was frankly sick of relying on someone else (an employer) for a livelihood. I figured I should get health insurance even as a self-employed business person. I’ve gone without health insurance for stretches in-between jobs – at the extreme worry of my retired RN momma -, but I was trying to be responsible now. Health = wealth after all. Not getting any younger, either.

Well, figuring out health insurance was an exercise in frustration with the system/the Man.

I approached Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois, with which I was previously covered via my former employer. I didn’t want to switch doctors, and that was really important to me. The funny thing about pre-existing conditions is that they apparently don’t go away for seven years… an arbitrary time period decided on by bureaucrats – not doctors nor patients.

My application was denied by BC/BSIL.

The institution of healthcare insurance is backward and disjointed (much like parts of this installation). Why can’t I just pay the doctor directly when I go to the doctor? Or the pharmacist when I get medicine? Why is some other entity – a corporation – involved at all in my healthcare? Shouldn’t the only people in all up in my health business be me, my family and my doctors? Looks like I answered my own question right there. HEALTHCARE IN THIS COUNTRY IS A FUCKING BUSINESS. Insurers are companies, not people. And they treat people as assets, ones that add to the bottom line, or liabilities who don’t. Back to the story.

Fortunately, one of my healthcare providers told me about a program here in Illinois called ICHIP: Illinois Comprehensive Healthcare Insurance Program. Under Illinois law, ICHIP, a state health benefits program, offers a number of plans to Illinois residents who have been denied healthcare by private insurers. To qualify, applicants to the ICHIP program have to be denied coverage by three separate private health insurers (yeah, that was fun), and then send proof of these rejections to the program. So I had to apply to two more insurance companies, knowing full well they were going to reject me because of the “pre-existing condition.” And I wanted to be rejected. I wanted these companies to tell me, “You’re not worthy of health care” so I could get healthcare. Can you see how messed up this is?

I qualified for and was accepted into ICHIP. ICHIP, while supervised by the State, is run by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. (Can you see how messed up this is now?) I kept my doctors and healthcare providers. The ICHIP program is funded by its users like me in the form of premiums and by the State of Illinois. It’s a lot more expensive than an employer-sponsored insurance plan, but at least this option is available at all. Thank God, I am an Illinoisian.

It’s a story that is mine and of close to 50 million fellow Americans who do not have health insurance. Beacon for Broken Health Care speaks to the hypocrisy of the US healthcare system for all of us directly and viscerally.  And it’s a relatively small part of The Heidelberg Project in Detroit.

The Heidelberg Project is a massive, neighborhood-wide art installation in Detroit, Michigan. The Heidelberg Project is a project started by artist and former Detroit East Side resident Tyree Guyton in 1986, together with his wife, Karen, and his grandfather/mentor Sam Mackey. From the project website:

Bruised by the loss of three brothers to the streets, Guyton was encouraged by his grandfather to pick up a paintbrush instead of a weapon and look for a solution.

Armed with a paintbrush, a broom and neighborhood children, Guyton and Grandpa began by cleaning up vacant lots on Heidelberg Street. From the refuse they collected, Guyton transformed the street into a massive art environment. Vacant lots literally became “lots of art” and abandoned houses became “gigantic art sculptures.” Guyton not only transformed vacant houses and lots, he integrated the street, sidewalks and trees into his mammoth installation and called the work, the Heidelberg Project (“HP”).

Walking amongst people’s homes, the kids playing basketball in the street, and the matriarchs cooling their heels on their porches, I felt, at first, a little bit like an intruder. Like some tourist/privileged person parachuting into this poor community and taking pictures in an exploitative way. (That was not my aim and I approached with respect.) This is the art the residents of this neighborhood created in response to their circumstances, and which they meant for all to see, and in fact, they invite us inside, through their streets, on their sidewalks and into their empty lots.

Heidelberg, to me, is a lot of things. It’s the beauty of resistance and of survival. (Apparently, the city of Detroit has demolished parts of it and wanted to raze it completely, though now it’s protected from that fate.) It’s the beauty of the process of articulating one’s emotions and analysis of life that transforms people and their neighborhood. It’s the beauty of owning your own history and telling it your way. It’s a scathing social commentary on Detroit, commercialism and capitalism and healthcare that is immediate, violent at times upon its viewer, and unmistakable.

If you’ve read this far, you may have noticed that this post is much longer from here. You may think, gee, this is a lot to process. Heidelberg is a lot to process (as much installation art is by nature all-encompassing and a full sensory engagement, but especially an installation of this scale), and I think Heidelberg is that way by design: A people’s critique of entire systems and institutions and their large-scale failing Detroit’s families for decades and generations should be overwhelming. My hope is that this post can give you a glimpse of Heidelberg’s enormity.

I do not consider myself well-read on Detroit’s history, so I’m not going to speak on that. I encourage you to read about Detroit’s history, healthcare systems and more. I encourage you to look at multiple sources: mainstream media, blogs, asking real people who live/d there in person, going to Detroit yourself perhaps. (I strongly suggest the last two on that list.) Here I prefer to share the art of Heidelberg and the ways I reacted to and read it. Especially as an outsider/non-resident, I feel the only thing that I can honestly comment on is my reaction/read. And perhaps if someone from Detroit reads this post they may say I’m completely misguided in my reading/interpretation. That is fine, I will take that if it comes. I welcome all comments 🙂

My ten takeaways from the Heidelberg Project (in no particular order):

1. The broken clocks mark our natural mortality. But even a broken clock (like a broken system) is still correct two times a day, so don’t be fooled if the clock happens to be accurate, it can still be broken, after all.

2. Corporate peddlers of death, addiction and poo-y breath. Whose “Pleasure to burn” is it? What is marketing and what is the truth? Are those answers different? Why?

3. How is the New York City taxicab industry is tied to Detroit and greater Michigan and its people and their lives? Is Santa coming to Detroit this year?

4. The great flood has come. Who will save us, like this once-loved motorboat/island of misfit toys?

5. War kills us all.

6. Let’s connect the dots. (Can we?) How do we make this beautiful?

7. God? Are you there? Are you? Here are signs of life: shoes, flags, toys, photographs. But where is everyone?

8. Is this a place to raise kids in?

At this particular house, Jenny and I were stopped by a man in his car who yelled out, “Hey! Hey! I grew up in this house!”

“Really?” we said in stereo as we walked toward his car.

We chatted with him and his girlfriend as they leaned toward the rolled down passenger side window. He told us that his uncle started this project and that, as a kid, there was a scary house covered with doll heads that he had to pass twice a day to go to school. We learned he was driving his girlfriend by his old house on their way to dinner. She said she had heard a lot about his childhood but had never seen Heidelberg, though she had also grown up in Detroit.

Not wanting to keep them from eating and asking the many questions we had, we asked if we might take his picture outside his old house and get his contact information to mail him the Polaroid later. Before he could say a word in response, his girlfriend unbuckled his seat belt from the passenger seat as she encouraged him to go and giving me the impression that dinner could wait a bit longer, for this reason anyway. He happily posed for us. (I’ll post his picture later if I get his permission.) And he also took our pictures on his old stoop, too. As we sat on the stoop to pose, the floorboards shifted, giving Jenny and me a bit of a fright, but he reassured us that the porch has been that way since he could remember. I won’t soon forget his warmth and generosity of spirit, and the way he said “Smile!” as he took our picture in front of his childhood home.

9. What does mass media tell us? Are we looking at mass media critically? In what ways is media consumption like a religious experience?

10. There is a future for Detroit. How it will look is up to Detroit.

The Heidelberg Project is at 3600 Heidelberg Street, Detroit, Michigan. The HP offers art education programs for youth, hosts exhibitions of emerging artists’ work in its Number House Gallery and nurtures aspiring young adults in becoming part of the Detroit arts community. Guided tours are available for a fee (Heidelberg is a nonprofit with 501-c-3 status) and upon request, please allow two weeks’ time to process guided tour requests.

Please click on a thumbnail below for a full-page view.

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5 thoughts on “Detroit, Part 1: The Heidelberg Project, A People’s Critique of Systems, Institutions and Their Decades-Long Failure

  1. Hello Sarahlynn,

    What a wonderful connection you made to the Heidelberg Project. My name is Jenenne Whitfield, Executive Director and as always, we love it when a viewer takes away their own personal story. I think you did the HP justice in your description of the elements of the canvas and appreciate very much what you shared. The HP is a magical place and so you be sure to pay attention to what follows–especially as it relates to your prognosis.

    All the best.
    Jenenne

    • Hi Jenenne,

      I’m so honored to hear your response, truly. Thank you for what you do for Detroit and its visitors.

      Continued strength and success to the Heidelberg Project and all Detroit!

      Sarahlynn

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