I am writing this blog post in August 2015, just over three months since Dmytro Szylak, the mastermind behind Hamtramck Disneyland, passed away at the age of 92. Right now, the place is doing fine, but it’s future is unclear. According to a July news article, the property is tied up in probate court, but the mayor of Hamtramck, with the aid of local arts organizations are fighting for its future.
Art environments often do not survive after the creator passes away or moves on. This is because they are often built on personal property. Once the property is sold, the environment is often demolished. Sometimes the property remains in the family, which can extend its life; however, family members may not have the same obsessive nature, time or know how to keep a site ticking.
Hamtramck, MI is a small working class city that is almost completely engulfed on all sides by Detroit. For many years it was known for its large Polish population. Szylak, an immigrant from the Ukraine started building this unusual monument in his backyard in the 1990s, after retiring from General Motors – boredom acting as a powerful muse.
It is one of the most colorful and quirky environments I have ever visited. It is an absolute joy to walk around. The site is primarily in his back yard and grows up and over two small garages. It was made using reclaimed materials, including assorted toys, posters, lawn ornaments and pieces he constructed and painted. There are kinetic whirligigs that rotate in the wind, as well as a large replica helicopter, a jet and lots and lots of horses – things that move ya place to place. Although not a big environment, it is a tiny yard; it is hard to focus at times because there is a lot jammed in there.
I can only hope that the family, the city or some arts organization swoops in and saves this place. Preservation will be an ongoing project because it is mostly painted plastic and wood. Michigan’s brutal winters can be harsh art critics. Szylak liked having visitors as he would give tours and gleefully spin his whirligigs and point out the different pieces. So time is tight. I hope Hamtramck Disneyland keeps going and going and I will be keeping my eye on the news. But just to be safe I suggest that you drop whatever you are doing and fly to Detroit. If you are wealthy I highly recommend that you purchase Szylak’s house and spend a lot of money preserving his creation and keeping it available for the community.
How to Visit:
Hamtramck Disneyland, unlike its unrelated namesake in Anaheim, is completely free to visit (although both are deluged with giant colorful animals). It is located in the backyard of 12087 Klinger St, Hamtramck, MI 48212. The best way to view it is by driving down the alley behind the house. The view from there is great. Szylak used to give tours and for a donation let visitors tool around his backyard; however, I cannot suggest that you enter the back gate and walk around the backyard. I’m not sure if the neighbors or the family would appreciate it (as it is private property). I was lucky enough to visit around three years ago when it was OK. I am trying to find out the official rules on this and I will update this blog when I find out.
This is the Detroit area and there is a ton to see and do. In the immediate area there are a couple great old school Polish restaurants, Polish Village and Polonia, both worth checking out. This city was 90% Polish in the 1970s, that has dropped to less than 15%. There used to be a lot of polish restaurants in the area, now just two. Old-school Polish restaurants may also be on the endangered species list so go fill your face with dill soup and pierogis before it is too late.
If you are looking for more art environments in the area, you are in luck. I am aware of at least three nearby.
The Heidelberg Project, about four miles away, covers several city blocks and is brainchild of Tyree Guyton who uses a whole neighborhood as his canvas. Open 365 during daylight hours, the Heidelberg Project is a great example of an environment that has survived many battles (city bulldozers and asshole arsonists) to become the cornerstone of community arts activity in the area.
Mbad’s African Bead Museum, about eight miles away has an interesting art environment attached to the side.
A little farther away, about 15 miles, in the Detroit suburb of Redford Township, you will find Silvio’s Italian American Historical Artistic Museum. In his defunct pizzeria, Silvio Luigi Barile has covered the inside of the store, as well as his neighboring backyard, with statues that tell the story of Italy, it’s people and their contributions to society. This is a little gem of a place and my short description does not do it’s strangeness justice.
Go get ’em tiger
Look I added a map of Detroit area art environments and other cool stuff talked about in this here blog