As Lao-Tzu opined, time is a created thing; and to say we don’t have time to do something is tantamount to saying we don’t want to. After many years of traveling to the Detroit suburbs to visit family I wanted to see the city itself, so I created a bit of time.
Automotive history holds little fascination for me (sorry, Uncle David), but public art and offbeat neighborhoods do. The Heidelberg Project was our first stop, where we wandered several city blocks that, gradually since 1986, have been transformed into a public art installation. The project started as a political protest over the deterioration of his childhood neighborhood observed by artist Tyree Guyton.
From Heidelberg Street we meandered through Belle Isle Park conservatory and the Great Lakes Museum, then rode the People Mover elevated train downtown, which features different art works (mostly tile) at each station:
We closed out the day with a stop at Hamtramck Disneyland, a magnificent folk art installation in the backyard of a small house in a quiet, historically Polish community north of downtown:
The next morning I walked the streets of Hamtramck, a small enclave city completely bounded by the city of Detroit, for several hours. Once a predominantly Polish Catholic community, it recently became the first majority-Muslim community in the United States. The Muslim call to prayer floated out over the rooftops while I stopped briefly at Pope Park, which honors Pope John Paul II’s visit to Hamtramck in 1987:
I trekked to outer Hamtramck to see the Flower House, another well-known folk art institution, but alas it had been torn down and all that remained at the address was a muddy pit filled with water. Turning back toward “home”, I wandered through the sleepy Saturday morning streets of Hamtramck, admiring the postage stamp gardens and the evident pride so many homeowners took in maintaining their homes. This is clearly not a neighborhood that has had an easy time of it, but its aura is sober and purposeful. Despite the presence of many vacant and deteriorating houses I never felt unsafe for a moment.
On my return trip I stopped by the Detroit Zen Center, which sits unobtrusively on a small corner lot and blends in quietly with the neighborhood while also asserting its identity via a Japanese-style fence and a gold Buddha on the roof. In any other urban neighborhood the Zen Center might have felt like encroaching gentrification, but not here. Far from the business district on a residential street, the building blends right in with the humble neighborhood homes, and barely touts its presence with a small sign you can only read when you are right upon it. There are little to no signs of gentrification in Hamtramck, where there are no chain stores or restaurants and no large grocery stores; instead, there are tiny restaurants selling pierogi and kebabs, and corner grocers where nothing was labeled in English and I had to take my best guess.
In some ways Hamtramck feels like a step back in time, but it is not. New immigrant populations are surging in and layering on their own cultures. The Heidelberg Project and Hamtramck Disneyland both have a sad, nostalgic quality (in fact, clock images are a theme of the Heidelberg Project). However, these too will pass and in fact Tyree Guyton has announced his imminent plans to completely dismantle the Heidelberg Project, much like a sand mandala, and create something new and different in its place. As the Zen teaching goes, one time contains all times, and every piece also contains the whole. Detroit has suffered, and it is healing, but everything is staying the same and nothing ever will be again.