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

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

By Laurie A. Gomulka Palazzolo

The Fourth Precinct (which has since been closed) gave Detroit ’s angel, Gabriel Solano, its imprimatur as well.  “We made them accountable,” he says.  “I said to them, ‘You’re going to do something, and if you don’t, we’re going to.’  They became very happy with us because we were identifying these stolen vehicles, these stripped vehicles.”

Alas, all this success and glory has not been without cost.

“He [a vehicle chopper] ended up throwing a brick through my car window.  So I went back and threw it through his window in broad daylight.  I said, ‘You burn my car, I’ll burn your car.  All I’m asking is for you to respect this neighborhood.  We call it home.’”  The chopper backed off and ended up moving his business out to John Kronk.

A brick through his car window is a minor setback in Gabriel’s world.  He believes so deeply and is so driven that even prostate cancer has not stopped him.  And now the excruciating pain of a fractured hip and injured leg, the result of a recent accidental fall, will not keep him down.  He simply doesn’t have time for these obstacles.

In fact, they have only fueled his fire.  No wonder the Polish people love him so much, and no wonder he relates so well to them.  Anyone with Polish blood in his veins surely can and does relate to his indomitable spirit.

Ironically, life has landed Gabriel’s younger brother, musician/songwriter and leader of the GNS Band, Francisco Solano, in the same neighborhood, on the very same street—St. John Street—after years of living in a west side suburb fifty-five miles away. 

Francisco is a retired Detroit police officer and had lived on Clark and Faust Streets while working for the force.  After retiring with a head injury in 1994, although he lived in Howell at the time, he was still active in community work in the old neighborhood and had retained his affiliation with St. Anne’s church. 

A year ago, he purchased and moved into a house on St. John Street that had been occupied by Polish-Americans since the 1920s.  Strangely, the owner’s name was Francis John, and his is Francisco Juan.  He is just as awed by the Polish spirit as his brother.  If Gabriel is a force with which to be reckoned, one can just imagine the intensity created by the two brothers together.

Because many of the newcomers to the neighborhood are from Third World countries and in need of education, the brothers help them adjust to U.S. American urban life by teaching them, for example, how to properly dispose of their trash. 

Francisco is a firm believer of positive intervention.  “Gang graffiti is most visible to the children of the community.  Working with the children is a never-ending job, but through positive intervention, such as teaching them to believe in themselves, teaching them to stay away from drugs, to believe in the power of prayer, and letting them know that because we come from the city does not mean we are failures in life, we can make a tremendous impact.” 

The brothers have initiated a project whereby they collaborate with a local paint store owner who donates paint that the brothers use to paint over graffiti on the neighborhood buildings.  They don’t stop there, however.  Gabriel actually challenges the punks who are responsible for the malicious destruction.

“This is not our neighborhood,” he lectures.  On this point, he makes himself crystal clear.  With fire in his voice, he proclaims, “This neighborhood was entrusted to us by the Polish people.  This is their legacy to us.  It is up to us to respect it and to maintain it.”

When defied, Gabriel is quick to respond.  “All right, I’ll make a deal with you.  If you can come back to me by next Saturday with a 500-word essay, correctly punctuated and written in perfect, grammatically-correct English, I’ll let you have this wall.  If not, and until then, this wall is mine.”  

Gabriel’s calling has deeply affected his brother Francisco, a spiritual man whose sensitivity is reflected in his voice.  As Francisco puts it, “My brother Gabriel has helped me find a part of my soul that I had lost.  Coming back home has been a testament to the will of doing good for all people, no matter how small or large or how rich or poor.  We hope we will guarantee that the homes in this community that once housed your ancestors will live on through the vision of the Hispanic culture that now lives and breathes in these very structures.”

Some may call him a renegade.  Some may call him a vigilante.  Some may question his motives.  Some may simply call him crazy.  To the Polish-Americans in the community, Gabriel Solano is a hero. 

All I need to do is look at the sweet old Polish people in the neighborhood, many now in their eighties and nineties, still shoveling their snow, tending their roses, and cutting the lawns of the homes they have lovingly cared for and have lived in, some since birth. 

For a while, they had shut themselves off from the outside world, covering their windows, withdrawing into the shadows, afraid to look out and see what was happening to their community. 

It is the very neighborhood that my own family at one time had called home.  I look at these people and I know in my heart that this man Gabriel is an angel.  The remaining Polish-Americans are few, but they are treasures, and it is a comfort to know that they are in good hands now.

Next Week: All about Eddie.

Editor’s Note:  This is part three 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. 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 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 and two were published in the March 16 and March 23 of La Prensa and can be viewed on line at laprensatoledo.com.     


Part one of a series of four


Part two of a series of four

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