The look on Piotr Piluk’s face is one of awe mingled with delight. As
we pull up to the curb, his eyes are fixed on the red and purple houses
— some tattooed with polka dots and others covered in shoes, toy
animals and pennies — that line Detroit’s Heidelberg St.
out of the car and out come the cameras, Piluk’s and mine, and we start
to walk around one of the world’s most gloriously strange and original
streetscapes. Dressed in black from head to toe with the exception of a
button on his lapel displaying a cartoon image of a yellow cat, Piluk
looks every bit the picture of the serious Eastern European artist. He
has not smiled much until now, understandable considering that we have
spent our time looking for traces of Jewish cultural life in
cemeteries, and in buildings that decades ago housed places of commerce
and worship. We must have looked as if we’d brushed against ghosts that
morning. Perhaps we had — especially at the small Beth David Cemetery
on the largely forgotten corner of Van Dyke and St. Cyril on the city’s
near east side.
But he is grinning now as he talks to Tyree Guyton, who began the Heidelberg Project
on the East Side in the 1980s as a way to draw attention to the decline
of Detroit’s neighborhoods. Piluk, who is only 30 but has been doing
documentary photography for over 16 years in his native Poland, tells
the Detroit artist that he is “drawn to the atmosphere … (and to the)
strangeness and the beauty.”
is all about hope and faith,” says Guyton, looking across a once vacant
lot now strewn with televisions, suitcases, mannequins and large sheets
of lumber depicting his recent faces of God series. He asks the Polish
visitor to sign his name in a book next to names of visitors from all
over the world.
“Thank you for creating this place,” Piluk tells
Guyton as we leave. In the car he turns to me and says that the Detroit
experience is working on him in ways he did not expect.
people actually warned me about coming here. They said there was
nothing for me to see,” Piluk says. “But this is exactly the kind of
place that I want to see. There are secrets and mysteries everywhere.
There are things that you know are here, but cannot be obviously seen.
The essence remains, which is very powerful. I can feel it.”Sentimental journey
Heidelberg experience that day in late March appeared to restore energy
to Piluk, who had been on a hectic schedule for the few weeks he was
spending in the area. The photographer was here doing a brief residency
with the University of Michigan’s Center for Russian and East European Studies
He exhibited work in a solo show called “Traces of a Jewish Presence in
Poland” at Ann Arbor’s International Institute in March and early
April, and also presented a lecture there called “There Once was a
Shtetl.” He said all the work he was doing left him exhausted, but
touring Detroit got his creative juices flowing again.
Piluk is a specialist in looking for things that are no longer there.
Or they are there, but perhaps only someone possessed of perfectly
aligned sensitivities can find them. Sometimes he finds them, most
times he doesn’t, but he keeps looking, hoping to find traces of a
cultural life that has all but disappeared from his native country.
uses his camera to document Jewish heritage in Poland. His family is
from Lodz, which once had the country’s second-largest Jewish
population after Warsaw. Just prior to the German occupation of Poland
in 1939, over a third of the city’s residents were Jews, many of whom
were leaders in the textile industry.
But of the over 230,000
Jews who once lived in Piluk’s home city, less than 1,000 remained by
1944. Up to 3.4 million Jews lived in Poland at the start of World War
II; by the end of the war — after millions died in concentration camps
and others fled the country — only about 300,000 remained.
who is Jewish, was born 30 years after the German occupation ended, and
in a time when Poland was under communist rule. In his lifetime, he has
seen the Jewish population of the country dwindle, with remnants of
life found mostly in empty synagogues, mezuzahs on rusting door frames,
and in the streets and alleys of old Jewish ghettos and cemeteries.
work has been done in isolation. Piluk uses a 35mm camera to document
what he calls “a sentimental journey into a world that no longer
exists.” It is ambient visual art that Piluk practices, with an intense
humanity present in every shot, absent of any people. Just buildings,
gates, pavement, snow falling on gravestones … and, if you look
closely, ghosts. Downtown and beyond
he was in Michigan, Piluk asked to visit Detroit, a city he knew little
about. I volunteered to take him touring. A graduate student from U of
M dropped him off in Hamtramck at the Pope John Paul II Park, and then
we traveled to the Beth David
cemeteries on Detroit’s eastside. After Heidelberg, we drove downtown
and spent a few hours walking. The day began overcast with a little
drizzle. It was a mild early spring day, with a temperature in the 50s.
While we were in the cemeteries and on Heidelberg the skies were dark
and brooding; as if on cue, they began to open up with sunshine as we
navigated the downtown streets on foot.
We parked on the eastern
edge of Bricktown and meandered through the city center, lured there by
the magnificent interplay of shadow and light on the Guardian Building
Piluk kept staring up at the skyscraper as we circled Campus Martius.
He said: “These are the skyscrapers created before the Great
Depression, yes? Many people in Europe don’t know about this. But this
is some of the most beautiful urban architecture every created.”
went inside the lobby, where Piluk’s camera came out to study the
stepped arches and ceramic details made from tiles at Pewabic Pottery.
We window-shopped at Pure Detroit, where I pointed out T-Shirts
emblazoned with “Detroit Funk,” “Detroit Soul” and “313” logos.
seen wearing one of those in Europe, and you’ll be noticed by the
coolest kids,” I said. Later, I thought about what I said. Piluk
appears to be someone who works better unnoticed, as close to
invisibility as can be attained. He said nothing and smiled.
on the street, Piluk looked up and saw rail cars on the People Mover
track and asked to go for a spin. We looped around and got off at the
Grand Circus platform, then walked to the Downtown Synagogue, the only
remaining Jewish temple in the neighborhood. We moved on to the
reconditioned Washington Boulevard, and stopped at an old statue of
Alexander Macomb, who was a commander in the War of 1812 and, of
course, the namesake of the county northeast of Detroit. But Piluk’s
attention was fixed across the street on the old Book-Cadillac Hotel,
now in the process of major rehabilitation. He asked to wait a few
moments for the light to change. It did. The wind pushed clouds along
and sunlight draped the façade exposed to the south. He crouched and
began shooting up, ignoring the traffic zipping by on Michigan Ave. Detroit hospitality
had Greek pizza — with lamb, feta, olives and tomatoes — at the Buzz
bar on Larned St. Folksinger Audra Kubat, a friend of mine who works
there, gave Piluk a copy of her CD. He lit a cigarette and began to
reach into his wallet to pay her. “It’s a gift,” I said. “Detroit
hospitality comes along when you least expect it.”
finished touring on the western edge of downtown at the abandoned
Michigan Central Train Station. Piluk said: “This is like nothing I’ve
ever seen before. Never in my life would I believe I would see such an
impressive structure.” As evening fell, we also did quick turns around
New Center and Brush Park, where we got out to look at the Bonstelle Theatre
— designed by Albert Kahn in 1903 as a temple for the Beth El
Congregation — and to explore future construction sites for new
residential developments on John R near Edmund St. Piluk seemed more
drawn to the empty spaces and to old, degraded manses that were built
at the start of the last century.
The tour ended with a drive on the edges of the Ford Rouge plant
in Dearborn. I asked him if he would like to hear some music as we
drove past what is, arguably, the greatest factory city ever built,
where 100,000 workers were employed at its peak time of production in
On came a mix of minimal techno beats provided by Detroiter Matthew Dear
and Piluk’s reaction was immediate. “It is just the right
post-industrial soundtrack for these landscapes,” he said. Through the
corner of my eye, I saw him smiling and bobbing his head slightly as he
gazed out the window.
But there was one final experience that
serves as a perfect coda for this tour. On the road to Ann Arbor, we
saw storm clouds gathering in the distance. As evening fell, the sky
began turning color: from bright blue to muted blue to purple with
flecks of burnt orange and pale yellow. “Look how beautiful it is,”
Piluk said. Then the clouds blackened, and lightning flashed and
sizzled in the direction we were heading. Soon, my car was being pelted
with rain and hail, and traffic on the highway had slowed to a crawl.
“What an adventure in Detroit!” Piluk said.
“Hang on,” I said. “I’m going to turn the music up and it’ll get a little bit better.”
Piotr Piluk’s Ann Arbor residency was part of series of programs put on by the University of Michigan’s Center for Russian and East European Studies. Piluk’s exhibition at the International Institute was presented by U of M’s Center for Judaic Studies.
Walter Wasacz is a writer and photographer who also contributes stories on arts and culture to Detroit’s Polish Weekly. Click here and here for his previous takes on Detroit's Global Vibe.
Piotr Piluk at Buzz Bar
Piluk and Tyree Guyton at the Heidelberg Project
At Beth David Cemetery
At the Downtown Synagogue
All photos copyright Walter Wasacz