Detroit's Global Vibe 3: Reporter's Notebook

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.

We get 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.”

“It 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.

“Some 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

The 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.

Piotr 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.

Piluk 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.

Piluk, 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.

His 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

While 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 and Elmwood 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.”

We 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.

“Be 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.

Back 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

We 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.”   
We 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 the 1930s.

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

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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