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From the sidewalk, there is little to suggest that the house at 12087 Klinger Street in Hamtramck is that out of the ordinary. Yes, the front porch of the duplex displays a couple of homemade woodcut figurines, roughly person-sized, with one seemingly dressed as the Statue of Liberty. The chain-link gates leading into the backyard are elaborately woven with brightly-colored plastic stripping, and one features an arcade-like arch with two rearing plastic blow-mold bouncy horses. Yet even taking that into consideration, it is not wildly outside the scope of decorative kitsch that might adorn any given house in the diverse and expressive municipality of Hamtramck, which over the last century has played host to wave after wave of Metro Detroit immigrant populations—once German, Polish, and Ukrainian, and of late, largely Bangladeshi and Yemeni.

Hamtramck Disneyland, installation view from the back alleyHamtramck Disneyland, installation view from the back alleyUkraine native Dmytro Szylak came to Hamtramck by way of a displaced persons internment camp and worked for Chrysler from 1956 to 1986. It wasn’t until after his retirement that he began, innocuously, to create the sprawling outsider art installation that has come to be known as Hamtramck Disneyland.

If one approaches Szylak’s home by way of the back alley that divides Klinger St. from Sobieski, they will be afforded a very different view of the property. On scaffolding mounted tenuously between two garages, the colorful chaos of Hamtramck Disneyland reaches improbably skyward. The first impression is one of a collapsed roller coaster, with wooden infrastructure in nonsensical arches and twists, heavily adorned with carefully selected pieces of salvage: fans and propellers, hand-painted signs, strings of lights, and an entire herd of blow-mold horses.

“He started working on this piece right after retirement, so ’87, roughly,” says native neighborhood historian and freelance journalist Walter Wasacz, who developed a strong rapport with Szylak in the course of writing articles about Hamtramck Disneyland for the Hamtramck Citizen.

“Nobody was paying attention to it until the early ‘90s, so he was working on it for five or six years before the developing art community in Hamtramck began to pay notice.” 1992 was a watershed moment for the burgeoning Hamtramck art scene; of particular importance was a show called Generators + Transmissions, organized by Gary Zych (who later went on to become mayor of Hamtramck) in a raw space on Edwin Street (which later went on to become the gallery 2739 Edwin). Syzlak was among the contributors to the show—it was his official debut into the Hamtramck art scene, and put his ongoing work of outsider art on the map.

HD2“People were discovering these homegrown outsider artists,” says Wasacz, speaking generally about the growing interest in the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia in Los Angeles, or interest in Georgian artist Howard Finster, sparked by his album cover art commissioned by the Talking Heads for their 1985 album Little Creatures, and of course, Detroit's own The Heidelberg Project, which many locals just discovering Hamtramck Disneyland cannot help but notice visual parallels between. “Szylak became Hamtramck’s version of that. People started coming to look at this.”

Szylak’s vision quietly proliferated over a decade or more, and by the time of its completion in approximately 1999, it had become a Hamtramck landmark. But the status of this work of quasi-public art came into question on May 1st of last year, following Szylak’s passing; a legal struggle over the properties housing Hamtramck Disneyland subsequently ensued between his surviving family members.

Following the settlement, which upheld the will leaving the properties to the faction of the family that supports the preservation of the artwork, the properties have been taken up by artist collective Hatch Art, spearheaded by Alice Schneider, in an effort to restore the aging installation and renovate Szylak’s home and the property he owned next door into a Hamtramck Disneyland artist residency space. “I had a friend in from Mexico City last year and took him on a tour of all things Hamtramck,” says Schneider. “It was my first trip to Disneyland as well, and when I got there, I fell in love with the installation—even more so given the fact that Dymtro was an immigrant [auto] ‘factory rat’... can't get more Detroit than that!” 

Hamtramck Disneyland, now accepting donations!Hamtramck Disneyland, now accepting donations!Schneider discovered that her visit to Hamtramck Disneyland had coincidentally occurred on the day after Szylak’s passing. “My friend leaned over and said, ‘You know, there was a reason you went today... you have to do something,’” she says. “That’s when I decided to see if Hatch Art wanted to get involved, and sent an e-mail to the board asking if we could take over the space and start an artist residency program, specializing in artists with a focus on installation artwork.” With Hatch’s efforts being buttressed by a diverse range of art benefactors, the drive is on to raise $50,000 by August 20th, which will unlock a matching grant being offered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

“Our plan for ‘Hamtramck Disneyland’ is to repair and maintain the installation in accordance to the original artist’s vision, preserving the core components of the artwork, while proceeding with gradual updates as materials succumb to the elements,” says the fundraising materials on Patronicity, the online crowdfunding platform being used to raise the money. “The intention is to honor Dmytro Szylak’s work by keeping the future of the installation as lively as he did in the past.”

These passionate community art enthusiasts seek to preserve this whimsical and weird work of original art, hopefully enabling future generations of Michiganders to say, “I’m going to Hamtramck Disneyland!”

A series of events will take place between now and August 20th. For more information, click here

All images courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

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