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Detroit iron workers craft gates to another world

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Anyone who is anyone in Latino-centered southwest Detroit seems to have a black iron fence protecting their home. The home could be a humble bungalow, the street could have dilapidated, abandoned homes and graffiti. But the homeowner, often a Latino immigrant, has declared his or her home a castle, with a beautiful black iron fence.

"Our mother and father were so proud when they got their fence," said Jennifer Campbell, 46, who grew up in southwest Detroit in the 1980s.

Her parents were from Mexico. They saved for years to raise the hundreds of dollars to buy their black fence and gate, with flower designs between the rails. That fence and gate was created by Diseños Ornamental Iron, a small local firm that's made so many of the black iron fences and gates in the neighborhood.

"Me and my brothers would have to polish (the fence and gate). It reminded them of Mexico; plus, to them, it told everyone they made something of themselves here," she said. When Campbell's parents died and the children sold their family home, one of her brothers had the gate shipped to his suburban McMansion in Arizona.

Diseños Ornamental has been around for 40 years. It was started by a Colombian immigrant and now the small southwest Detroit firm is run by his Mexican immigrant stepdaughter. Diseños means "designs" in Spanish

"Everywhere you go in Mexico and Colombia, you see all kinds of iron work," said Nieves Arzola, 31, the current president of Diseños. "A lot of people in those countries, you know, have security concerns. And if you need security, you may as well have some style."

That idea apparently translates well in Detroit; the business is still going strong. Depending on the size and complexity of the design, a gated fence could cost several thousand dollars.

Diseños has won national awards in the world of precision metal fabrication. It has great ratings by customers on Google Review and Angie's List. On Thursday, the firm will be honored for its community involvement by the Southwest Detroit Business Association at a luncheon at the Motor City Casino Hotel's Soundboard. It's the latest in a long list of awards the business has won through the decades for solid work and civic commitment.

Diseños Ornamental has kept alive the Old World tradition of custom-made iron gates, fences, balconies, staircases, gazebos, chandeliers and anything else that can be made of iron. Most of it is black iron, but sometimes it is white or some other color.

Most of the welders and other blue-collar craftsmen who produce the works are Latino immigrants.

"Maybe because they grew up seeing so many creative iron works, a lot of our workers seem to have an instinct for it," Arzola said.

Truth is, though, Diseños would not have survived so long without forging success throughout Metro Detroit. It has had to weather the decline of Detroit and the Great Recession like everyone else.

"It's really about paying attention to detail," Arzola said, explaining the firm's longevity. "The details of what your customers want; what you need to do to keep your business going and keep your worker. And paying attention to the details in our products so the designs are solid and functional."

Their creations can be seen in lakefront mansions in Grosse Pointe Shores; trendy interior designer shops in Royal Oak; cultural gems like the Detroit Opera House, the Belle Isle Conservatory, the Gem & Century Theatre; and businesses, big and small.

Some of the best examples are in the blocks surrounding Bagley and St. Anne in southwest Detroit. There you can see the huge iron calla lilies, designed by company founder Antonio "Tony" Martinez, at 2701 Bagley. The building is the former headquarters of the business and Diseños clearly wants to leave its mark on the block. There is the nearby white gazebo, and the huge parking lot gate with the rails designed to show the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit River.

And ornamental bike racks on the corner of Bagley and St. Anne. There are the quaint lights in front of Matrix Theatre and down each street are numerous homes with black fences or gates. And all of those gates and fences look shiny, as if someone always cleans them — just as Jennifer Campbell and her brothers did as children.

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN