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Touched by an Angel: How one Latino reclaimed a West Side Detroit Polish-American neighborhood

Part four of a series of four, Special to La Prensa

By Laurie A. Gomulka Palazzolo

Eddie Niezgoda’s name means “troublemaker” (literally, “no good”), although one cannot imagine anyone in this gentle man’s lineage ever having done anything even remotely resembling anything bad. 

He still lives in the house on St. John Street , across from Gabriel and Elizabeth, in which he was born in 1919.  Eddie never married; he was far too busy for the clubs and dance hall scene.  The Great Depression made it necessary for him to drop out of high school and go to work. 

After serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then the U.S. Army during World War II, he went to work for the Cadillac Motor Car Company, where he was employed for thirty years.

There were his tropical fish, including angel fish, which, throughout the years, consumed hours of his and his best friend Ted’s time.  Not only did he love and tend to his fish, but Eddie also built aquariums to house the fish. He indulged his love of history and devoured every historical book he could get his hands on, a pleasure in which he still delights. 

Oh, yes, and then there were the 800 gravesites at Holy Cross Cemetery that he tended voluntarily for decades, simply because cutting grass is one of his greatest joys in life.  His own is the exotic Korean variety known as Zoysia, which he burns off each winter so that it returns thick and lush again in the spring. 

Did I mention his roses?  Above all others in the neighborhood, they are prized, and he has the rare gift of being able to graft roses.  Each rose he has tended has been his child, and among them were all the blossoms throughout the decades that bloomed on the grounds of Logan Elementary School .  While he tended the roses there, Ted, now deceased, took care of the dahlias.  Ted’s dahlias were as prized as Eddie’s roses, hence his nickname the Dahlia Man.

It is difficult to say which Eddie loves more, church or his basement workshop.  This is not meant sacrilegiously—after all, Jesus was a carpenter.  Eddie is most proud of his 1928 vintage furnace, which in many ways symbolizes Eddie himself.  There in the center of his workshop, with a portrait of Pope John Paul II smiling a blessing down upon it from a nearby cabinet, the burgundy and gray unit still chugs away as heartily as it did the day it was installed. 

Two utilitarian pipes reach up from the base like arms and extend about waist high.  Upon them Eddie has conveniently and ingeniously placed a flat, oblong, brick-like object covered with aluminum foil, on which he can heat up just about anything.

Eddie’s workroom is as organized as his heart and mind are tuned to leave for 4:00 P.M. mass at exactly 3:30 P.M. every Saturday afternoon, even though he drives and even though the church is less than a block away. Attending mass weekly, and arriving early, has been a part of his regimen for his entire life; it is intertwined with who he is. 

The one thing he misses these days is the frequency of the Polish mass schedule at St. Stephen’s.  When asked to imagine what his life would be like without the church, he cannot.  He simply responds, “When I pray, I’m Polish.”  To that he adds, “I have one wish.  When I die, I would like the mass to be in Polish,” as if he cannot separate church and his faith from his Polishness.  And he can’t.

He can make anything.  And he has worked in every trade except the electrical trade, never caring to be involved in that particular line of work.  He became furious when, back in the 1940s, after returning from the service, he wanted to become a plumber’s apprentice but was told that he was too old. 

As was the case back then for everyone in his situation, he had no recourse, even though he could have taught a master plumber a thing or two.  He’s an inventor and can create anything for you.  Just name your product and Eddie will make it.  He’s most content down in his workshop, surrounded by his tools and machinery, listening to classical music, creating.  He says if the day ever comes when he is forced to leave these surroundings that he would rather die.

Then he lets me in on one of his greatest creations.  We go upstairs and he goes into his room and comes out with two plastic prescription medicine bottles.  Uncapping one, he tips the bottle upside down and pours into his palm three transparent, acrylic-like hearts, each the size of my thumbnail. Two are the palest blue and one is clear.  They are like crystallized tears, each with two tiny holes drilled into the top through which a chain or cord can be threaded. 

Smiling and looking into my eyes, he tells me, “Wait, here’s the other half,” and he opens the other bottle and tips it over.  Into his palm he pours out a bunch of the tiniest little gold crosses I’ve ever seen.  Upon closer inspection of the hearts, I see that each holds in its core one of the tiny, flat gold crosses. 

“They’re all over the world,” he proclaims proudly.  “They’re even in Poland.  I send them everywhere, to my niece, everyone.  I’m the only one who knows the secret of how to make them.”

Eddie is but one of the remarkable Polish-Americans whose lives are embedded in this west side Detroit neighborhood.  He is both grounded here and suspended in time, like the crosses he sets into the hearts that he molds and then bakes into shape for eternity.  He is part of a generation that was great because of its unremitting faith and love of God, country, and beauty. 

The immigrants and their children built monuments to God in their daily, humble lives, in the baking of their bread and the nurturing of their gardens.  They lived on streets named after saints and never missed mass, a chance to thank God for all the goodness in their lives.  They didn’t celebrate Ground Hog Day, but rather Candlemas; not Pączki Day, but Shrove Tuesday.  Their lives were different, their values and morals were different, and although they had far less than we are accustomed to, it was a wonderful world they created.

Now, I realize what a gossamer world it has become and I thank God that Eddie and his equally remarkable and beautiful Polish-American neighbors have as their protector, the angel Gabriel Solano, who by birth just happens to be Mexican-American.  It is for Eddie and his counterparts and all for which they stand that Gabriel fights and lives and breathes, and I think sometimes that this angel Gabriel must be part Polish. 

Whether or not he is, I know that what he is made of is good and that what he sees in the creators of this once Polish community is what he wants to foster and preserve for his children and grandchildren and for generations to come. 

What the second-generation Polish-Americans have shown him through the simple gestures of their beautiful existence must surely have been God’s will.  For when the last of them leaves this earth, it will be a much colder, less beautiful place for all of us.  In my own case, on that day, how many heart-shaped tears will fall from my eyes onto their graves I cannot even begin to imagine.

Editor’s Note:  This is part four of a four-part series concerning the rehabilitation of the southwest section of Detroit, with the help of hermanos Gabriel and Francisco Solano, who are on the board of directors of the West Side Detroit Dom Polski Historical Society. The grandparents of Gabriel and Francisco are from Jalisco and San Luis Potosí, México, and moved to the United States in the early 1900s. Their parents, Juan and Rose Solano, moved from Texas to Detroit in the 1930s. One of the many themes of this series is how a predominately Polish section of Detroit became Latino-ized, with the help of the Solanos and others. Parts one through three were published in the March 16, 23 , and 30 of La Prensa and can be viewed on line at laprensatoledo.com. As this story went to press, author Laurie Palazzolo notified La Prensa of the death of Gabriel on April 1 as set forth in her letter on page 2 of this week’s La Prensa.  Read letter   

Part one of a series of four


Part two of a series of four


Part three of a series of four


Gabriel Solano dies April 1, 2005

 About the Author of this Story          






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