Once it was once a thriving community filled with restaurants, bars and cafés. Hungarians first settled in the area and opened arms to other immigrants, including Poles, Germans and Armenians. Blues musician John Lee Hooker used to traipse around the local haunts of what became a truly multicultural hub.
But today, the Delray neighborhood — bounded by Jefferson, Fort, Clark and the Rouge River — is a sad shadow of its former glory. The factories and industrial businesses that litter the area are either abandoned or just clinging on to life. Along the neglected, pothole-pitted streets, the air is thick with the foul, industrial fumes that belch forth from Zug Island, which looms darkly across the river.
Delray was in need of an angel: To be precise, 114 of them.
Artist and Wayne County Community College instructor Carl Kamulski orchestrated a public art installation that brought 114 painted plywood angels to Delray. They hang on businesses and abandoned buildings along Jefferson, little splotches of bright color dotting the gray landscape.
“I really felt Delray could use some angels,” says Kamulski, who grew up in the area, “to remember and mourn what once was. Delray is really a symbol of what happened to all of Detroit.”
Kamulski cut 114 angels (4 feet tall, 3 feet wide) from plywood, and participants — who found out about the project mostly by word of mouth — came to WCCC’s Downriver campus to paint them, or took them home to work on. The painters included artists from the tri-county area, community leaders, Delray residents and schoolchildren. The angels begin at the south end of Jefferson at the Delray Café, and run north about a mile to Kovac’s bar. Ironically, they end just before Angeles Tire Repair on West Jefferson.
Kamulski asked for a donation of $7.50 from those who could afford it (schoolchildren and Delray residents were exempted), and paid for the rest of the project out of his own pocket. He estimates the entire project cost about $1,100.
On Saturday, April 3, about 150 people descended on Delray to hang their angelic creations.
The installation is still growing, and Kamulski continues to solicit angels.
“We’ve invited anybody else that wants to add their own angel to Delray,” he says. “It’s really a remarkably thing.”
Kamulski says the reaction was extraordinarily positive.
“Residents loved it,” he says. “I went down there three weeks before and talked with every business, took the angels along with me, and they were all 100 percent behind it.”
Delores Evans owns Kovac’s bar along with husband Bob. She’s thrilled with the project.
“It was so exciting, because there was so much activity here,” she says. “We hope it brings some positive attention to the Delray area because it needed some excitement.”
Evans says the angels have even spawned foot traffic in the neighborhood.
“Right now, I have some patrons who just started walking down the street to look at the different angels,” she says over the phone, the hum of bar chatter crackling in the background.
Evans was a bit taken aback when Kamulski first approached her with the angels installation.
“I was a little stunned, because I thought, ‘Who else cares about Delray other than us?’” she says. “Then I got really excited about it.” She describes the angels as “just too cool.”
On a Friday afternoon, Jerry and Mark Groves, father and son Delray residents, are perched on barstools at Kovac’s, their large, calloused hands wrapped around cold beers. The two own a business in Delray, and have lived in the area for more than 14 years.
“I think it’s fantastic, the efforts they put in and the dedication is astronomical,” says Jerry Groves of the angel artists. “They should do it all over the city. Maybe it will wake some people up.”
Kelly Baldwin is an art student at WCCC, where Kamulski teaches. She was excited to participate in the project for very personal reasons.
Baldwin’s angel wears a blue and pink robe, and bears the name of her father, mother, uncle and grandmother, all of whom are deceased. Her father and uncle drove trucks and worked near Zug Island, so Baldwin thought the placement of her angel quite symbolic. Also, the date of the installation would have marked her grandmother’s 91st birthday.
“I think it’s a shame that [the area] has come to look like that, but it’s not just Delray, it’s the whole city,” says Baldwin, who was born in Detroit.
Furthermore, Baldwin thinks this sort of small, grassroots, community-driven project is far more profound and important than the multimillion-dollar developments popping up downtown, as the city frantically prepares for the Super Bowl.
“I think the city could put a lot more into revitalizing the neighborhoods and not just downtown,” says Baldwin. “Where tourists go isn’t the most important part; I think the people who actually live here are more important.”