A Place for Wonder in a City of Ruins

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North America » United States » Michigan » Detroit
May 31st 2011
Published: February 26th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Stuffed Animal HouseStuffed Animal HouseStuffed Animal House

A house covered by stuffed animals in the Heildenberg Project
Today is my last day in Detroit.

I used to explore more of the city’s artistic legacy.

First, I headed deep into an eastern neighborhood.

This is the Detroit of the popular imagination; all vacant lots (residents call them “urban prairies”), boarded up houses, old business buildings with ancient “For Rent” signs on them, and stoplights that have been turned off because there are no cars to use them.

My goal was Heidelberg Street.

On this street a group of artists has turned the urban devastation into amazing works of art.

They call it the Heidelberg Project.

Heidelberg Project

The Heidelberg Project is a massive folk art installation, covering four entire city blocks.

It’s unbelievable to walk around.

Abandoned houses have been covered in stuffed animals, old posters, found objects, and painted symbols.

Empty lots have been filled with constructions of urban castoffs, painted signs, and piles of oil drums.

At one point, a painted gravestone pokes out of the sidewalk.

An old piano is covered in paint and yarn.

Four stelae have been made of old boards.

The innards of old car engines have been turned into human
Urban Prairie brought to lifeUrban Prairie brought to lifeUrban Prairie brought to life

Abandoned cars and lots become art at the Heildenberg Project
like sculptures.

Most of the work is surrealist, but some is very political.

One installation is a model of a destroyed doctor’s office.

The sign behind it (painted to look like an American flag) talks about the limitations of Detroit’s public health system, and how it doesn’t help most residents.

Another section is a wall of old cigarette posters.

On these old images of glamour, the artists painted cartoon balloons with words like “I have cancer” and “Spreading disease to Detroit since 1930”.

The bitterest section has to be a set of posters of a white man in a suit, who I take to be a former city mayor.

Written on them all are the words “Stop cops killing children”.

I really enjoyed seeing this place, and every visitor to the region who loves art should make time for it.

One very BIG caveat: the neighborhood the project is located in is not the best.

Anyone who is not comfortable in marginal areas, or does not know how to conduct themselves in one (For example, the street has no warning signs to
Polka Dot HousePolka Dot HousePolka Dot House

A house covered in polka dots at the Heildenberg Project
hide valuables because it already should be second nature) needs to think hard before venturing this way.

Motown Museum

The other artistic legacy I explored in Detroit was Motown.

Motown Records was founded by one Berry Gordy to bring rhythm and blues music to a mass market.

He did so for twenty years out of a nondescript house in an outer Detroit neighborhood that he called “Hitsville USA”.

After Motown Records moved to Los Angeles, the house was preserved as a museum.

The museum is shown on guided tours, which also cover Berry’s office and recording studio (shades of Sun Studios in Walking in Memphis).

The area around the house is not great, but it’s safe enough during the day.

Berry Gordy was very successful at what he did.

He was very good at finding musical talent, but his real genius, as the museum makes clear, was promotion.

Rock and roll has always been a combination of youthful rebellion and the careful packaging of that rebellion.

Berry Gordy was the first promoter to take the slick production and marketing techniques used by mainstream white artists and apply them
Oil Drum ArtOil Drum ArtOil Drum Art

At the Heildenberg Project, anything can become art.
to African Americans.

He hired the best talent he could find, and pushed them to produce at high levels.

His most important hires were probably Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, and Lamont Dozier.

They were good songwriters.

At Motown, they became one of the best songwriting teams in history.

They ultimately wrote the most hit songs ever on the pop chart by non-performers.

They created a distinct smooth form of rhythm and blues that to this day is called the “Motown sound”.

Berry hired a stylist, who created a distinctive glamorous look for all his acts, and a choreographer to create distinctive dance moves for them.

He made most of his hires ignoring ethnic background, which was a radical thing in the late 1950s.

His explained that if the music appealed to a widely diverse staff, it would appeal to a widely diverse audience.

The guide describes a few unusual things that Berry did to promote his label.

In the days before the civil rights movement, selling African American music was a very touchy business.

Most record buyers found out about new music from the radio.
Found metal sculptureFound metal sculptureFound metal sculpture

Sculptures made from found metal at the Heildenberg Project

Except for stations aimed exclusively at African Americans (such as the Memphis blues station which broke Elvis Presley) very few radio stations would play African American acts.

Berry found ways to change this.

First of all, he set up a tinny speaker in an upstairs attic.

A staffer had to listen to music over the speaker during record mixing.

The tinny speaker was Berry’s way of simulating the relatively bad acoustics of most radios at the time, to ensure his records sounded good and desirable in the format.

Secondly, he sent out staffers to drive around various cities in the middle of the night, listening to the radio.

They took notes about what stations were playing Motown songs, and which ones.

Berry adjusted his promotion activities accordingly.

Finally, early Motown albums featured clever graphics on the record covers instead of a picture of the performers.

Berry Gordy figured that the graphics would draw people to play the record, at which point they would be hooked and broadcast it.

He was right.

Once an act was established, then the cover featured their picture.

Anti-smoking adsAnti-smoking adsAnti-smoking ads

Repurposed cigarette posters at the Heildenberg project

Once Motown became popular, Berry Gordy ran into a different problem.

Radio programmers would only play a certain number of Motown acts at a time, or would limit a particular song to a certain number of weeks.

Berry Gordy created six other record labels, and spread his acts between them.

Many radio programmers were fooled by this, and kept a steady stream of Motown groups on their playlists.

He also created group concert tours.

The tours combined groups that were selling well with new acts.

People would come to hear the stars, and get exposed to the newer groups along the way.

The technique worked well, and many other labels adopted it.

Some still use it.

The museum also discusses the performers, of course.

The most famous are the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder (who started as a session musician) and Marvin Gaye.

The museum has a wall dedicated to each of them with albums and other memorabilia.

One of Michael Jackson’s gloves and canes is preserved under glass.

One of the more important items is a set of album
Detroit healthcareDetroit healthcareDetroit healthcare

An installation about Detroit's health care system, or lack of it
covers of speeches by important African American leaders of the 1960s, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Berry Gordy had a division that recorded civil rights rallies, and released the results on records nationwide.

He gave the meetings much more exposure than they otherwise would have.

Martin Luther King was so impressed with his work that he hired him to record the National March on Washington, including (of course) “I Have A Dream” .

After the museum, the tour goes into Berry Gordy’s office.

It was also his living space at the time.

The four room apartment is a study in early 1960s style.

Most of the furniture is original.

The living room table contains a stack of 45s, promotion singles that he was constantly mailing to radio stations.

The tour enters the studio last.

It is surprisingly small and cramped given all the people who would occupy it at once.

During a recording session as many as fifteen people may be crammed into the space.

It really was a garage initially, although it’s impossible to see that while in it.
Heildenberg trash canHeildenberg trash canHeildenberg trash can

At the Heildenberg Project, even the trash cans are works of art.

The studio has the piano where Stevie Wonder wrote his first songs, and several guitars used by session players.

Unlike Sun Studios, this one is no longer in active use; it has been preserved as it was in 1975.

The walls are covered in acoustic tiles, most of which are stained a dark brown.

The color comes from tobacco smoke; many people at the label were heavy smokers.

If asked, the guide will point out that several session musicians died of smoke inhalation or lung cancer.

Michigan Central Station

On my way out of Detroit, I caught a glimpse of one last famous Detroit building.

It’s famous for reasons that the city government wishes didn’t exist.

When it was built in 1913, the Michigan Central Station was the grandest building in the state.

It was a neoclassical marble and concrete palace, designed by the same architects who later did Grand Central Station in New York City; Whitney Warren, Charles Wetmore, Charles Reed, and Allen Stem.

Above the station was a grand office tower.

Passenger traffic peaked during World War II and then collapsed; by the early 1970s the station was
Hitsville USAHitsville USAHitsville USA

The home of the Motown studio where hundreds of hit songs were recorded.
effectively abandoned.

Over the next thirty years, it became the city’s most famous and compelling ruin.

Until the current owner put a security fence around it, the station was a magnet for photographers of urban decay from around the world (along with the homeless, scrap scavengers, and people looking for a bad thrill).

It’s nearly impossible to find a website dedicated to the subject that does not have pictures; one of the best is by Joe Braun.

I saw the tower portion from the highway, where the lost grandeur is all too obvious.

For far too many people, it’s the perfect symbol of the city’s rise and fall.


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