Hamtramck Disneyland - Folk Art
"You got donation here?" asked Dmytro Szylak, opening an empty box decorated with the cryptic word, FREEDONATION.
We were in Dmytro's back yard, a slab of concrete between his house on Klinger Street and a service alley. Rising above our heads was Dmytro's masterpiece of mass, Hamtramck Disneyland. It can be seen from the alley for free -- but not from the yard. Dmytro watched as we placed cash in the box, then he nodded with approval.
"You watch here. I show you thing."
Dmytro was born in 1920 in the Ukraine. He moved to the Klinger Street house in 1956. For three decades he worked on a GM assembly line, then he retired and got itchy for something to do. The back yard was a convenient place to start. "I make small thing," Dmytro said. "It working, then I make it bigger, bigger. It go up up up up."
What Dmytro made eventually filled and spanned the roofs of his two garages and spilled into the alley. He called it Disneyland; Hamtramck is the name of the Detroit neighborhood where it stands. What it lacks in scale it more than exceeds in density.
From the alley, visitors are treated to an elevated collection of wind-powered ducks, repurposed lawn ornaments, and colorfully painted ceiling fans and rockets. Eye level is a salvage smorgasbord: plastic toy cows, paintings of landscapes and bullfights, a stuffed dolphin, a framed photo of Elvis. Near the top of the structure is a circle of bouncy horses on a wire frame carousel. Hidden loudspeakers sometimes play Ukrainian music, Christmas lights jut from the struts and hang from most of the displays. Dmytro leaves them up year round and turns them on at night.
On the yard side, wooden Marines and sailors march up the gangway of a large supersonic jetliner. A windmill powers tiny women who pump water and churn butter, while men saw logs and hammer on anvils. A hand-built helicopter, which Dmytro said weighed one ton, has "Ukraine USA" on its tail and Santa Claus in its cockpit. When we asked about Santa, Dmytro barked, "Pilot!"
Then Dmytro repaid us for our donation. He opened a garage door, revealing a warren of power cables, switches, and circuit breakers. He methodically flipped them on, careful not to blow out the grid. The electric motor for the helicopter hummed and buzzed -- but the rotor blades stayed still. Frustrated, Dmytro grabbed a long pole, walked slowly to the helicopter, and began whacking the blades. Whack, whack, still no movement. Dmytro returned to the garage and reappeared with an extension cord. "I will go up. You stay here."
Mindful of Dmytro's advanced age, we told him that he'd done enough and asked him to please stay on the ground.
Hamtramck Disneyland looks like it should fall down, but old photos show that it's always looked that way. Its durability is a credit to Dmytro's construction skill. He told us that it took 13 years to build and that he stopped around the turn of the millennium. He continues to tend to his creation, sometimes repainting it, sometimes rearranging its displays, but not really adding much that's new.
"No place put it!" he said, gesturing at the colorful cluster against a blue sky. "Too many!"