We bump down an alley, trying to remember how we got to our destination the last time. We’re on a hunt for Hamtramck Disneyland, my favorite place to take visitors to my newly adopted city of Detroit. I like taking out-of-towners — who’ve heard me enthuse about the city’s outdoor art for the past year and a half — to places not packed with Instagram-snapping tourists, where artists don’t emerge from their studios to remind you to tag your photos with their names.
The teetering outdoor art installation in Hamtramck is one of those only-in- Detroit experiences, a pair of garages festooned with, well, stuff. A creation more than 20 years in the making, the project began as a way for Dmytro Szylak, an immigrant from the Ukraine, to pass the time after retiring from his job on the line with General Motors. The assemblage of found and built objects ultimately grew to include mechanical figures, a Concorde model and Santa in a helicopter, along with a slew of other vividly painted items.
My husband, Brian, and I came across it during a weekend hunt for the more unusual outdoor art projects in a city with no shortage of public art, be it official or unofficial. Joined by two other sets of gawkers, we stood in an alley craning our necks to make out Szylak’s hand-lettered signs. We were chatting with the artist’s next-door neighbor when a white-haired fellow in a shiny blue “Detroit” jacket appeared at the back gate.
“You want to come in?” Dmytro asked, in heavily accented English. “There’s more. You pay, you make a donation, you come in.” The other tourists shuffled off. Brian pulled a five out of his wallet; I elbowed him and he pulled out another one for the gentleman already making his way back to the house.
Standing in Dmytro’s back yard — a visual tilt-a-whirl of primary colors — I tried to take it all in as our new friend asked how we found him. “I am on the Internet,” he said, and showed us a plaque from Hamtramck’s mayor honoring his work in five languages. “Some people don’t want to pay. But paint is expensive!” We haven’t seen Dmytro out in his yard since, though I’d love for the friends and family we’ve taken to his place to meet him.
We take people to the Heidelberg Project, too, because skipping it would be akin to skipping Big Ben in London. This iconic street-art project on the city’s east side began with creator Tyree Guyton’s polka dot-emblazoned “Dotty-Wotty House” nearly 30 years ago and has won international acclaim as a model for community-building. And Guyton is still at it despite the arson that continues to plague the neighborhood and his work. Sure enough, the friends I take there are enthralled with the city block that Tyree has transformed with discarded objects (dolls, shoes, a television frame). Vacant lots, trees, sidewalks, abandoned homes — even foundations of burned-down houses — they’re all part of the artist’s evolving canvas. Every time I go it’s a new experience, a new creation bound to transfix.
Another favorite place to go, house-guests in tow, is Olayami Dabls’s MBAD African Bead Museum. Well, technically, it’s the field behind the shop, where the artist’s sculptures stand in a swathe of grass rimmed by buzzing Interstate 96. I sometimes get museum anxiety when I hear people gushing about pieces that I find bizarre, but I have no such qualms out here. I wish I could say I discovered this place, but a local photographer told me about it last summer on my first trip to Detroit. “If you like the Heidelberg, you’ve got to go see Dabls’s place,” he urged.
Every time I go, I’m drawn past the space’s other works — corralled filing cabinets; a classroom setting; an eerie scarecrow figure; acres of broken mirrors — to Dabls’s “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust.” In this installation made of found objects and recycled materials, a dining table holds a multi-tiered cake made of rocks. The occupants of the folding chairs gathered around the table: also rocks. At each setting is a plate of rusted metal. No matter how sunny the day, this piece gives me chills. And though I’ve heard that the work is a metaphor for Europe’s appropriation of African culture, I see another story, one about a lavish party, abandoned and left to decay.
It’s Detroit, I think, and it breaks my heart, while its very existence — proof that someone cares enough to tell stories through art — reminds me that hope is flourishing here. Where people are creating, there is hope. And you don’t have to look far in this city to see the vivid colors of hope.
It’s found embedded in the vibrant walls of Mexicantown, where stories-high murals draw you into the artists’ worlds. I go again and again to “Hijo del Maiz” (Son of Corn), where I stand in awe before the massive depiction of a farmer. It’s found in the Lincoln Street Art Park in New Center, where a whimsical dinosaur stands tall among salvaged-material sculptures. It’s found in the orange silhouettes of a man perched atop buildings throughout Detroit. The project, “Man in the City,” doesn’t mean anything, says artist John Sauve, he just wants people to look around them. In fact, I can’t stop looking around in Detroit. I’m at peril of running my car off the road sometimes trying to take it all in.
Our trek through the alleys of Hamtramck is no different. We find Disneyland only after its visual cacophony looms unexpectedly into view, pile out of the car and join tourists from London who’ve come a mighty long way to see this back-alley creation. Judging by their smiles and the number of photos they’re snapping, it was worth the trip.
Frontier Airlines offers nonstop flights from Dulles Airport to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
84 Ferry Ave., Detroit, Mich.
This collection of restored Victorian mansions and carriage houses set in the heart of thriving Midtown offers the best of both worlds, with hotel services and a B&B vibe. Rooms from $169; discounts available.
1114 Washington Blvd., Detroit, Mich.
The Italian Renaissance-style downtown hotel, featured on the National Register of Historic Places, offers elegance and comfort. Rooms from $119.
New Center Eatery
3100 W Grand Blvd., Detroit, Mich.
It’s the place for chicken-and-waffles, but a large menu of soul food is also available. Entrees start at $8.
2445 Michigan Ave., Detroit, Mich.
Thai-inspired fare is served out of a converted SWAT van parked behind a distillery in hip Corktown. Entrees start at $13.
12087 Klinger St., Hamtramck, Mich.
An installation in a back alley created by a Ukrainian immigrant. View from the alley anytime, using your own judgment. If Dmytro is home, admission into the back yard is by donation.
6559 Grand River Ave., Detroit, Mich.
Gallery hours: Noon to 7 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; outdoor installations are open anytime.
Indoors the space overflows with African artifacts, including a vast collection of beads for sale; outdoors find buildings overlaid with mirrors and the “Iron Teaching Rocks How To Rust” installation. Admission, free.
Lincoln Street Art Park
5926 Lincoln St., Detroit, Mich.
Public sculpture garden behind a recycling facility features constantly changing salvaged material creations and murals. Open anytime. Admission, free.
McMahan is a Louisville-based freelance writer who recently bought a house in Detroit.