Tyree Guyton’s erratic behavior alarms neighbors, visitors of Heidelberg Project

Tyree Guyton, with his polka dot coat
Tyree Guyton, with his polka dot coat

A preacher was forced to cut short a donation drive for the homeless at the Heidelberg Project this weekend because he said the controversial founder of the outdoor art exhibit, Tyree Guyton, angrily approached him and reduced his wife to tears.

Bleach Detroit's fundraiser at the Heidelberg Project.
Bleach Detroit’s fundraiser at the Heidelberg Project.

“Tyree came over to us in an aggressive manner and proceeded to tell us that our game wasn’t tight enough to collect donations for the homeless there,” said Preacher, whose identity is protected because he leads a citywide neighborhood watch group, Bleach Detroit. “We had permission from the office of the Heidelberg Project.”

Preacher’s encounter highlights growing concerns about Guyton after arsons consumed six art-festooned houses at the Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s east side between November and March. Preacher helped patrol the area in the midst of the arson spree.

Head's house was damaged by two fires.
Head’s house was damaged by two fires.

Two of those fires burned the home of 68-year-old Mildred Head, who said Guyton promised to repair the estimated $15,000 in damages to the roof and two sides of her house. Head said Guyton has been dismissive since, and she can’t understand why the nonprofit wouldn’t spend some of its $200,000 budget on making improvements to her charred house and the surrounding neighborhood.

“They feel like they can use all of these donations on anything they want but they aren’t doing anything with the money in the neighborhood,” Head charged. “People are dumping money on him left and right but have no idea what he’s doing.
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It is pitiful.”

Documentary filmmaker Charles Shaw said he was chased out of the Heidelberg Project in March after trying to interview Guyton.

“He was very rude and forced me to leave,” Shaw said. “He was yelling and erratic.”

Home owned by Guyton’s mother.

What Guyton never said was that the Heidelberg Project owns just four of the 50 parcels in the two-block area because the nonprofit allowed some properties to fall into foreclosure. In other words, Guyton has no authority to remove visitors unless they are on one of his four parcels.

Guyton and his wife, Heidelberg Executive Director Jenenne Whitfield, declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

Polka Dot Rebellion: Heidelberg Project survives on guts, vision of Tyree Guyton

To address growing animosity towards the project and Guyton, supporters held a meeting Sunday with neighbors and encouraged them to embrace the Heidelberg. Among the supporters at the meeting was state Rep. Rashida H. Tlaib.

The Clock House burned down in December.
The Clock House burned down in December.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has declined to discuss the Heidelberg Project, saying he hasn’t yet formed an opinion on the property.

In 1986, when Guyton was 32, he decided he’d had enough with crime and blight and began decorating crack houses, trees and empty lots with toys, hubcaps, shoes, tires, vacuum cleaners, mannequins, old bikes and TVs.

The artwork has been razed by the city several times, but Guyton never quit building.

The ATF and Detroit Fire Department are investigating the arsons.

Other Heidelberg Project stories:

Federal investigators captured video of latest arson at Heidelberg Project
Investigation: What the Heidelberg Project doesn’t want you to know
Arsonist burns down iconic Party Animal House at Heidelberg Project

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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