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

Part two of a series of four

By Laurie A. Gomulka Palazzolo

But all was not glorious in Gabriel Solano’s world.  One Polish man, who had been observing him in action for a few months, one day called him on the carpet.  1

“I want to make something clear to you,” he stated adamantly, his fury having had a chance to build for a while.  “I’m the mayor of this neighborhood and have been for eighty years.  So don’t go getting any ideas.” 

“I’m cool with that,” replied Gabriel, shrugging it off.  And he was.

But then he got really angry—not because he had been chastised, but because of what he saw going on around him, what was being committed by the newcomers in the neighborhood. 

He recalls vividly two distinct incidents that sent the warrior in him on a rampage.

“It was a hot summer night, and we were up in the apartment.  We heard all this gunfire, and then the helicopter comes over with this big spotlight.  It turned my stomach to see that this neighborhood was turning into a war zone—like something out of a movie.”

The second incident was equally as riveting, but the action was far too close for comfort.  It was time to declare his own war.

“I was driving home from work, and I was right around the corner from home, and this car stops in front of me.  There’s this young man walking down the street, and these four guys jump out of the car in front of me, and they attack him brutally. 

I was right behind them; I couldn’t move.  I was coming home from work off a twelve-hour shift.  He runs between the cars and takes off running—between their car and my car.  I’m hot and sweaty and tired.  And it was so revolting to see that. 

Then they started shooting.  I’m looking at the guns come out, and all these bullets start flying, and I duck down.  After it stopped, and I heard their car take off, I got up and looked around, and nobody came out on their porches.  I was furious. 

I said, ‘This will never happen again in this neighborhood, as long as I live here.’”

More infuriating was that the police would take no action because when Gabriel called 9-1-1 to make the report, he was unable to describe any of the perpetrators since he had been down on the floor of his car during the hail of bullets.

“It was a shoot-out in the middle of the day.  And from that day forward, I said, ‘I’m going to do something.  We’re going to take this neighborhood back.  We as a community—black, white, brown, renters, owners—we as a community.’”

When asked to elaborate on the gangs and their activity, he says, “They were confronting people, partying all night, stolen cars, burned out cars, chop shops—it looked like Bosnia around here.  They were just trashing this neighborhood.”

And so he began his own round of confrontations. 

“I went to them and said, ‘Look, you’re killing this community, this neighborhood.  And this is a neighborhood that your children are going to have to live in, your moms and sisters still live in.’ 

“I went to them singly and as groups and said, ‘Look, we’re going to have to change this community.’  I built a rapport with these guys and there was a lot of trust.  I got a lot of the young people, the renters.’”

But there were skeptics in this paradise.

“The older people said, ‘Is he crazy?’  They said to me, ‘You can’t do it.’  I said, ‘You got to believe.’”

Nothing shook his belief.  And, miraculously, over time, the neighbors came to believe, too.  Now he’s the linchpin.  Anyone in the neighborhood who sees trouble immediately reports it to Gabriel, who takes action.

“The Polish people, when I see them out there supporting me, it’s wonderful.  A lot of independent people were a part of it.  They say, ‘You’re crazy as hell, but you believe.’  I say, ‘I’m just the middle man.’”

Gabriel and his community have formed an organization called the Fick and Harvey Homeowners and Renters Association, after the original landowners of the area, which is the plat of Springwells. 

They prefer to operate under a loose structure, outside the confines of formal city bureaucracy.  Without question, what they are doing is working.  Although he admits they still have a ways to go, under Gabriel’s guiding hand, they have cleaned up the broad expanse between John Kronk and Lonyo and from Michigan Avenue to Livernois, driving out the drug lords, prostitution rings, and chop shops.

“When we did our cleanup, all the neighbors were out there helping.  The older people were skeptical, but once they saw the improvements, and the gunfire died down, they knew they didn’t have to be afraid any more.”

“Last summer we had our first block sale.  Everyone was out there.  We had popcorn and the whole works.  I said, ‘This is only the beginning.  Let’s go back to the old values.  We need to regain them.  I don’t want you to know just the Padre at the church.  I want you to know fifty or sixty people in the congregation.’”

The seal of approval came from the self-proclaimed mayor himself.  One day, several years after they had had their “talk” and the turf line had been drawn, Gabriel was out cutting his lawn.  His Honor humbly approached him and was silent for a while, moving a section of grass around with the toe of his shoe. 

Finally, he said, “I need to have a talk with you.”  “What’s up?”  Gabriel asked.  “I’m getting up in age, you know.  I’m not going to be around forever.  It’s time I turn over the mayorship of this neighborhood.  I’m officially declaring you mayor.”

Next week: Gabriel guts graffito and graffiti.

Editor’s Note:  Gabriel and Francisco Solano are directors on the board of the newly formed West Side Detroit Dom Polski Historical Society. Other directors are: Dr. Alina Klin, Adam Lis, Mike Poterala, Dr. Thaddeus C. Radzilowski, Don Samull, Virginia Skrzyniarz, and Richard Sokolowski. 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 grandmother’s name was Nicasia Castillo. Their parents, Juan and Rose Solano, moved from Texas to Detroit in the 1930s.   



Part one of a series of four

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