In her column “Detroit Archives,” Aisha Sabatini Sloan explores her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit.
For a period of time in 2014, I couldn’t stop watching the surveillance video of a person setting fire to the Heidelberg Project, a world-renowned art installation by Tyree Guyton in a residential area of Detroit. The recorded arson struck me as a performance piece in itself. In what appears to be the very early hours of the morning, a figure approaches the threshold of a structure called “Taxi House,” a home adorned by boards of wood that have been painted with yellow, pink, green, and white vehicles labeled “taxi.” There is a painted clock, real tires, and toy cars. A meandering, peach-colored line has been painted along a sagging corner of the roof, then it comes down onto the siding, where it moves geometrically, like Pac-Man.
The installation as a whole is like a painting brought to life, imbued with the spirits of Kea Tawana, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Robert Rauschenberg. In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Guyton describes how he began the installation with his grandfather, an act of reinvention rooted in nostalgia. M. H. Miller describes the collection of carefully planned assemblages as “an act of Proustian reclamation, as if Guyton were creating a new neighborhood out of the one he’d lost, embellishing his and Grandpa Mackey’s memories out of the wreckage that surrounded them.” In the video of the fire that destroys “Taxi House,” the figure holds something that resembles a gallon of milk; after a short time, a fireball blooms, and the figure runs away.
The Heidelberg installation has the vibe of Plato’s lost city of Atlantis, the mythic civilization that sank into the ocean overnight after its people lost their sense of virtue. It also brings to mind Jason deCaires Taylor’s undersea sculptures, human figures engaged in activities like typing, playing the cello, or watching TV; cement bodies surrounded by schools of fish. What’s so remarkable about Guyton’s effort is that he’s constructed a frame around the present moment. The collapse he draws our eye to is not a myth or a dream of the future, it’s now.
Though Guyton had originally hoped for the installation to be a solution of sorts, the traffic it brings (around two hundred thousand people a year) also serves as a reminder of the tension inherent to a city undergoing gentrification. In a book written about the project, Connecting the Dots, one neighbor explains, “Every summer night we’ve got people riding up and down looking at what we’re doing. It’s an invasion of privacy. They look at us like we’re animals on display.”
From what I can tell, no motive ever emerged for the arson, and no arrests were made. The one person who checked into an emergency room for severe burns on the day of the fire had been trying to deep-fry a turkey. More fires have been set at the installation in years since.
Guyton exhibits widely, and has a special fan base overseas. Recently, he has decided to take the Heidelberg Project down. According to M. H. Miller, Guyton and his wife plan to “transform the buildings that still stand into a series of cultural and educational centers dedicated to the arts, and then build housing and work spaces marketed for artists out of this central core.”
As buildings around the country were set on fire in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I thought about the Heidelberg arsonist. Widely dispersed memes featuring the Martin Luther King Jr. quote “The riot is the language of the unheard” have encouraged more and more people to see fire in the context of social upheaval not merely as an act of destruction but as an act of ritualized desecration. What language looks like at wit’s end. A kind of screaming.
So, what did we learn in the wake of the Heidelberg blaze? For one thing, the firefighters who came to put out the fire were delayed because none of the hydrants in the area were working owing to widespread water shutoffs across the city. But, also, the fire begs some of the same questions that Guyton’s work elicited when he first began in the eighties: Who is the artist? Who is the criminal? Who is the bystander? Who is the institution? Can you occupy more than one role at once?
The first photograph my father took for Newsweek magazine was of the 1967 uprising in Detroit. In the image, a young man looks toward the camera as a warehouse burns bright orange behind him under a dark night sky. My father likes to point out how he caught the boy in a moment of bewilderment, of total awe. Recently, I asked my dad to take my wife and me to the place where the image was taken. My mother came along, too.
My dad begins the journey by veering into oncoming traffic, because the street has gone two-lane; a street construction project that has turned the neighborhood into an obstacle course. As we make our way down East Grand Boulevard, a painted storefront next to Flamin’ Moez Soul Food reads US AND THEM. The grandiosity of what my parents call the Boulevard clears, and now we are passing grassy fields. We are taking a detour from our detour toward another detour.
We drive past the Packard plant, which has become a kind of unofficial graffiti museum. The British artist Banksy consecrated the space a few years back with a painting of a black boy in a strange black suit holding a can of red paint, next to the message “I remember when all this was trees.” I can’t say I get it, given that the area is and long has been surrounded by overgrown lots. Banksy’s arrival prompted a minor controversy when local gallerists removed the section of concrete he’d spray-painted and sold it for over $100,000. A bit farther down the block, a huge sign promises COMING SOON! PACKARD PLANT BREWERY. I think about the way that ruin is being involved, here, in a kind of transaction. The image that comes to mind is Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son.
We pass a public art installation featuring white figures kneeling. On Woodward, a billboard shows a black cop with his arms crossed and it reads: ANSWERING THE TOUGHEST CALL. Later, we will find out that the night before, Detroit cops, “fearing they were under fire,” drove into a crowd of protesters.
Our plan is to first find the site of the Algiers Motel, where a group of police and National Guard killed three people and tortured several others in the midst of the 1967 uprising. My mom says, “On the map it looks like an empty field.” Up a ways, there is a sizable gathering of Black men on the steps of a church, with signs that say GOD BLESS OUR FATHERS. Black men and boys are holding their hands in the air in surrender or praise.
The site of the motel is now a well-cared-for park, gated, mostly empty and surrounded by brick walls. We pause, then turn back into traffic.
Next, we attempt to find the place where my father took the photograph that began his career. After getting caught in a loop in a fancy neighborhood and circling a beautiful garden where a white man in a fedora appears to be considering purchasing the property, we turn in a direction my father hadn’t planned to take. My mother says she’s “going to call Rodney,” my father’s best friend, which is a euphemism for “we’re lost.”
At a red light we find ourselves staring at the bottom of a toppled SUV. It takes a moment to decipher the car’s undercarriage, a desert-colored thing at an odd angle. At the intersection, people are streaming across the street, like liquid, toward what we now understand to be an accident. The crowd does not even look at the wreckage as they cross. I peer more closely into the window of the toppled car but can’t make anything out. A man holding a baby keeps darting toward it. There are fire trucks and a police car, city officials wearing masks and looking at the vehicle, but no one is touching anything. The plan of action seems to be hanging, still, in the air.
I request that we end the tour. I’m not sure what meaning we can make of the site of a long-ago fire when all this emergency is unfolding in real time.
On the way back home, my wife and I tune in to the end of an episode of This American Life. The story is about a community leader in Detroit who recently hosted a pancake breakfast, putting cops in conversation with the communities they are meant to protect. He talks about bringing people into difficult conversation with one another across the city. The breakfast took place just as coronavirus began to spread, and afterward, several people became ill.
It takes us both by surprise to realize that the man whose voice we’ve been listening to, Marlowe Stoudamire, just died of COVID-19. Many lament that he would have been a natural leader in the protests against police brutality that sprang up shortly after his death. Voices attempt to describe him, only to break. His wife tells the story of watching him tear up on a recent family vacation to the site of the Colosseum, a place he never expected, in his lifetime, to see.
My wife and I don’t talk much for the rest of the day. Not until debriefing that night do we realize that we’ve both spent the past few hours replaying the scene of that horrible accident, replaying the moment when we realized that Stoudamire was dead. Even though we’re inundated with bad news all day, every day, there is weird relief in the specificity of this sadness. At least we are not numb.
Later, I look up Stoudamire to see what else of his story I’ve missed. He was the director of an exhibition for the Detroit Historical Society called Detroit 67. The project features a wide swath of voices that collectively tell the story of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967. There are hundreds of collected oral histories. One woman recalls walking around with her father on mornings after nights of unrest. He would take photographs as they processed what they saw. Another woman, a professor of anthropology, talks about how the uprising reminded her of the time she spent studying in the Middle East, and compares the situation to the Arab-Israeli War, which took place that same year. A man who served on the National Guard says that there are things he saw during his deployment at the uprising, things that the police did, that he’d rather not share. The fact that he is being invited to revisit a memory that he’d like to keep to himself gives the whole project a new kind of valence for me. It reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In reflecting on his career, my father talks about how he often had to argue with white editors who saw the Black subjects of his photographs as criminals and perpetrators. Meanwhile, when he looks at the photo he took of the boy and the burning building, my father sees a bystander, an innocent. He is trying to defend the young man from an accusatory, racialized gaze. But lately, I’ve wondered how else to interpret what’s captured there. What if he did set the fire? What might he have been trying to say? On the Solange song “Mad,” which has served as a much-needed balm for Black listeners since 2016, Lil Wayne says, “Now tell ’em why you mad, son.”
During his own interview for Detroit 67, Marlowe Stoudamire says, “It’s important that nobody gets their story left out.”
Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. She is the Helen Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Michigan Writers’ Program.