A different kind of theme park

arts / Article

I was glad I took time this Independence Day to explore Hamtramck Disneyland. That's the informal name of a legendary folk art installation that covers a residential backyard and two small garages, reaching, improbably, at least two stories into the air. What better way to celebrate the holiday than a stop in Michigan’s most ethnically diverse city, a tiny enclave of Detroit, to see a work of crowded, kitschy Americana made by a retired Detroit autoworker originally from Ukraine? Turns out Hamtramck Disneyland is a lot more than crowded and kitschy (though it is, gloriously, both of those things); it’s also a remarkable technical achievement and a compelling and joyful exploration of the US and all its messy contradictions.

Dmytro Szylak, who is now in his 90s, began the piece in 1992 and continues to add to it. It’s a dense but carefully arranged assemblage of windmills, toys, fans, propellers, art and religious iconography from various cultures, carved figures, model rockets, lawn ornaments, a massive model airplane, a couple carousels and several Santa Clauses (including one that’s gleefully riding in a helicopter). It has many moving parts. It’s crazy and overwhelming, described as both “Disneyland on acid” and “the physical embodiment of happiness” on Yelp. It’s also an intricate structure and a remarkable feat of engineering (by which I mean it doesn’t fall down, even though it looks like it should).

There’s so much of America in Szylak’s work. It presents a vision of a country that’s been enriched by immigrants, but that’s also warlike and awash in material culture. We’re an industrious nation, it suggests, but maybe one that has trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. The juxtaposition of so many disparate objects brings an array of (sometimes contradictory) truths about America to mind at once; this makes Hamtramck Disneyland feel like a space in which the viewer can comfortably consider the country’s complexities without having to summarily glorify or condemn it.

Of course, this might be the Fourth of July talking. For all I know, you might not even consider what it means to be an American when you visit. You might just marvel at its countless, intricate wonders and smile, like I did, when a colorful carousel next to you starts turning unexpectedly in the breeze.

You'll find the site behind 12087 Klinger St. in residential Hamtramck. Access it via the back alley. By all accounts, Szylak is a warm and welcoming host. Knock on his door and ask him to show you around.

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