Hamtramck, Michigan

A small city grapples with diversity and change
by Camille Colatosti
My husband, Phillip Kwik, grew up in Hamtramck, Mich., where we now live. He lived with his parents, four sisters and one brother in a wood-framed house crowded on a standard 100 x 30 lot. He played with the neighborhood kids, attended mass on Sundays at the Catholic church down the street, and walked to school during the week. His parents owned a candy and beer store — Kwik’s Beer and Wine. This store, with barely enough room for a counter, beer cooler and ice cream freezer, supported the family for 30 years and put all six children through college.

When we first started dating, about 10 years ago, I realized that my husband’s connection to his hometown differed from any feeling that I had ever had for a place. Hamtramck, to him, was home. As he puts it, “Hamtramck is people-centered. It’s real. We have neighborhoods and neighbors. You can walk around Hamtramck and interact with people.” It didn’t take me long to see that I love Hamtramck for the same reason that he does: This is a place that defines community.

Hamtramck is a 2.2-square-mile-city surrounded by, but politically independent from, Detroit. In the1950s, it was home to about 50,000 predominantly Polish-American working-class immigrants. It was best known for its rowdy bars, fresh kielbasa, crowded blocks, meticulously maintained lawns and Polish bakeries.

The Dodge Main auto manufacturing plant, located in Hamtramck from 1910 until it was demolished in 1981, employed, at its height, over 25,000 people. It was the place of one of the first sitdown strikes of the United Auto Workers. In the spring of 1937, Dodge Main workers forced Chrysler to recognize the union. This strike revealed the power of the people of Hamtramck, their ability to join together to fight for a common cause. My 83-year-old father-in-law, who participated in the strike, remembers this struggle with pride. “Hamtramck people have always known how to get something done,” he says.

New immigrants

The Hamtramck of today, with almost 18,000 people, differs from the Hamtramck of 30 or 40 years ago, when my husband was growing up. The Polish Catholic dominance is decreasing. While there remain three Catholic parishes, they have lost population. The schools at one parish closed all together; the other Catholic schools are shrinking. The Polish fraternal organizations — the Alliance of Poles and the Polish Falcons — left the city and moved to the suburbs.

Hamtramck does remain an immigrant community, however. Some immigrants still come from Poland, but many more come to Hamtramck from other parts of the world. A large population of Arab-Americans, mostly from Yemen, arrived in the 1970s, and continues to bring family and friends to Hamtramck. At around that same time, Albanians arrived from Yugoslavia. More recently, beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing to the present, immigrants arrived from west Asia — Pakistan and Bangladesh, especially. Bosnian refugees have also settled in Hamtramck. According to Walter Wasacz, a reporter with the weekly community paper, The Hamtramck Citizen, Hamtramck is “the most multicultural city in the state of Michigan.” Over 65 percent of the children who attend Hamtramck public schools speak English as a second language. Nearly 20 percent of the students speak Arabic at home; 15 percent speak Bengali; 14 percent speak Serbo-Croatian; 7 percent speak Polish and another 7 percent speak Albanian.

This diversity is intoxicating. When I walk down the street, I hear different languages spoken. The rich spicy scents of Middle Eastern food and curry compete with the smells of cabbage and kielbasa. I hear the call from the mosque as well as the bells from the parish church. The girls who live across the street wear traditional Indian dress as they strap on inline skates and race each other down the cracked sidewalks. Small boys play cricket in the parking lot of the neighborhood school. The women who push baby carriages down the block sing lullabies in Bosnian.

Suburban refugees and artists

In Hamtramck, there is also another group of newcomers — refugees, not from war-torn countries, but from the suburbs. Most are young. Many attend college at nearby Wayne State University, a huge public school located five minutes from Hamtramck, or at the Center for Creative Studies, a nationally renowned arts school.

Ellen Phillips moved to Hamtramck six years ago. “I grew up in the suburbs, but I was looking for a real community,” she explains. “I had a sense of something missing in my life but I wasn’t able to put my finger on it. I came to a festival in Hamtramck and found something here. I said to my husband, I think this is it.

“Not a day goes by,” continues Phillips, “whether I’m walking or riding a bike, without something happening that makes me feel profoundly connected to life. Yesterday, I saw a little old lady stop to wave at a cat in a store window. When I walk out my front door, I wave to my neighbors and the kid riding by and I know that I am part of something larger than my own life.”

Hamtramck is also home to many artists. Autumn Dunbar is one of them. Now 31 years old, Dunbar moved to Hamtramck 11 years ago when she was a student at the Center for Creative Studies. It was the bustle of Hamtramck’s main shopping street, Joseph Campau, on a warm afternoon that attracted her.

“I prefer to live in a community where I can walk to shopping,” she explains. “And I like the little front lawns. They’re unique. The streets remind me of New York.” Dunbar also likes the diversity of her neighborhood. “At dawn and dusk I can hear an Arab neighbor saying his prayers,” she says.

As Greg Kowalski, chair of Hamtramck’s Historical Commission and author of Our Town: The Story of Hamtramck, explains, “Artists and other creative people are attracted to the city for its grittiness.” In fact, Hamtramck’s current mayor, Gary Zych, is a sculptor who was born in Hamtramck and raised in the suburbs. He moved back to the city when he began teaching at Lawrence Technical University.

According to Wasacz: “We can compare Hamtramck to areas like New York, Brooklyn and Queens. People left the city for the greener pastures of the suburbs and now many of them, or their children, are moving back to the city where they see fabulous opportunities and a kind of energy that they long for.”

Preserve our parks

This energy, and the potential of all Hamtramckans to work together to create the kind of community we want, became clear in 1996. That year, then Mayor Robert Kozaren joined with the city’s director of public housing to devise a scheme to use Housing and Urban Development funds to replace the city’s major park — Veterans Memorial — with a police station.

Veterans Memorial Park had been neglected for almost 20 years. Its six tennis courts had grown cracks and were almost completely covered with weeds. The city did not mow the park at all. Litter was strewn everywhere. Rotting boards and a rusting fence surrounded the skating rink. Swings were taken down and never replaced.

The threat of the bulldozer spurred the community to recognize the park’s importance. A group called Preserve Our Parks formed in 1996. My husband was president and I served as secretary. Approximately 20 people, of mixed ages and ethnicities, met weekly to discuss ways to save the park.

We took a three-pronged approach: First, we questioned the legality of building a city police station with HUD funding. Second, we put a referendum on the ballot in November 1996. The referendum created the Ordinance to Preserve Park Land, prohibiting the city from putting a building on a park without first winning a two-thirds vote of the people. The ordinance won 65 percent of the electorate. Days before the election, HUD ruled that the Hamtramck Housing Authority would be misappropriating funds if it were to build a police station on the park.

The third prong of the campaign involved not only saving the park but also repairing it.

Volunteers chopped down weeds and mowed the lawn. We installed tennis nets, new swings, trash cans and benches. We replaced the old boards around the skating rink. This past summer, we ran an inline hockey program for over 100 children. In the fall, we will hold our fifth annual Childrens’ Day, a free festival for children. The event features arts and crafts, sports, games and prizes and draws over 1,000 children.

Preserve Our Parks was successful because it involved the community — young and old, children and adults, all nationalities. The campaign also led the community to remember its history: Once parks and recreation were important to the city. Veterans Park was home to Hamtramck’s championship Little League team in 1959, the only team in Michigan ever to win the Little League World Series. Hamtramck also produced tennis champions, including Jane Peaches Bartkowicz.

Reviewing our history led us to discuss the future: What kind of community could Hamtramck become? Shouldn’t we have well-tended parks and green spaces? And just as important, the Preserve Our Parks campaign showed that united, we can improve our lives. Sharon Buttry, an American Baptist minister and the executive director of the Friendship House — a Hamtramck community service agency — describes a feeling that many of us share. “Hamtramck is a place that you can get your arms around. It’s not just statistics here. You can have hope that something can be done, that we can change people’s lives.”

Community nightmares

Unfortunately, for every success like Preserve Our Parks, there are dozens of other stories in which former Hamtramck officials’ poor decisions resulted in economic or environmental nightmares.

In 1980, Hamtramck and Detroit officials conspired to allow General Motors to build the Poletown Assembly plant on the border of the two cities. Together, both governments razed 465 acres of land, knocking down hundreds of homes, 16 churches, two schools, a hospital, and the closed Dodge Main plant. In addition, the cities gave GM generous tax abatements of 50 percent over 12 years. Despite this corporate welfare, the workforce at Poletown never reached more than half the proposed size, and the surrounding industrial park, promised to revitalize Hamtramck, never materialized.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, this trend continued. The funky two-story bowling alley was replaced with a Rallys, while the city’s last movie theater was torn down for a Wendys. A strip mall, complete with chain grocery, as well as drug and auto parts stores, was built at one of the city’s main intersections, the site of the former high school. Across the street, a McDonalds was erected.

In an attempt to become a player in the real estate game, Hamtramck purchased the site of the former Sherwin-Williams lead paint factory. When the city later sold the land to Freezer-Services, the new owner discovered, not surprisingly, lead-contaminated soil. Freezer-Services sued the city and the taxpayers were forced to pay $6 million for the clean-up.

And in 1991, former city officials allowed a medical waste incinerator to open in a poor, predominately Arab-American and African-American neighborhood. This facility, the only commercial one in the state of Michigan, pumps mercury into the air at 30 to 60 times acceptable rates.

These policy disasters led many into the public realm. Some, like my husband Phillip Kwik, Ellen Phillips and Gary Zych, ran for and won public office.

Zych and Phillips are proponents of “new urbanism” — the idea that Hamtramck needs to maintain and expand its sense of neighborhoods and community. Kwik and Rob Cedar, the founder of the Hamtramck Environmental Action Team (HEAT), have developed an inside-outside “green strategy”: Kwik on the inside as president of the City Council, writing and passing tough environmental ordinances, and Cedar on the outside, applying the much-needed community pressure.

“People in Hamtramck are victimized by corporate pollution,” Cedar says. “We have to adopt a new way of thinking so that we don’t bend over backwards for industry. We deserve clean air. We want our community to be a green place to live.”


In order for Hamtramck to grow, people will need to redefine not only their relationship with development and the environment, but also their relationships with each other. A number of conflicts plague Hamtramck. These are related mostly to diversity and to differences in political expectation.

As Kwik sees it, “Divisions among people are largely racial, sometimes phrased as the ‘new’ versus the ‘old’ people. The security that existed in this community when I was growing up — when the large majority of the population was Polish Catholic — is no longer there. To me, this makes Hamtramck exciting, but to some this makes Hamtramck scary. So many encounters that I have with others make some mention of race or nationality.”

A recent encounter with an acquaintance, a Polish Catholic woman who is selling her house and moving to the suburbs, is representative. She told me not to worry because she sold her house to a young Catholic couple. In City Council chambers, one member — a Polish Catholic man — complains repeatedly about “those new stores.” While he speaks in code, all know that he is referring to a strip of new restaurants and clothing shops owned largely by Bangladeshi-Americans.

“The comments about race keep us divided,” says Kwik. “They make it clear that there is not an acceptance of diversity and difference.” Hamtramck’s young people note this obsession with race as well. Sixteen-year old Sammy has lived in the U. S. most of his life. He came to New York from Bangladesh when he was a year old and he has been in Hamtramck two years. He likes the “different colors in Hamtramck,” he says. “But everyone is classified; everyone is in one category or another and people don’t mix so much.”

The reluctance to mix is especially clear in city politics. In Hamtramck’s 78-year history, all but a handful of elected officials have been Polish-American Catholics. A few were of Ukrainian descent. Only one African-American has ever been elected to public office. No people of Arabic, Bangladeshi or Albanian descent have been elected.

About 30 percent of the city’s workforce is African-American. But until Mayor Zych began his term in 1997, there were no African-American department heads. Recently, the city hired its first Bangladeshi-American — Shahab Ahmed — to fill the new position of multicultural director.

Ahmed tries to welcome newcomers to Hamtramck. “A lot of people are coming here from other countries,” he explains. “If they find someone in the mayor’s office with an accent, they feel they are talking to someone who understands.”

Since taking the job in 1998, Ahmed has made a concerted effort to include newcomers in the political process; he also helps people earn their citizenship and register to vote. In 1997, there were only 67 Indian voters in Hamtramck, Ahmed says. Last year, there were 450 and now there are close to 800. People are motivated to get involved in politics.

Despite his achievements, Ahmed admits that working in City Hall can be difficult. “Some of the longtime workers and some Hamtramck citizens come directly up to my face and say racist things, like ‘we have a boat to ship you back home.'”

This anti-immigrant feeling became clearest during the 1999 mayoral and city council election, when Ahmed ran on a slate with Zych and Kwik. The opposing mayoral candidate — a Polish-American Catholic who has lived in Hamtramck his whole life and whose father served as mayor 20 years ago — was supported by a group called Concerned Citizens for a Better Hamtramck. CCBH claimed that non-citizens would be voting in the election.

The group registered as challengers to the November 1999 election, in order, as they put it in their literature, to make sure that the election remained “pure.” On election day, CCBH challenged more than 40 voters for “citizenship,” violating those voters’ civil rights. According to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, whom Zych and Kwik called to investigate the discrimination, “Some voters were challenged before they signed their application to vote. Other voters were challenged after they had signed their applications and their names had been announced. The challenged voters had dark skin and distinctly Arabic names, such as Mohamed, Ahmed, and Ali.”

Worse, the City Clerk’s office, which runs the elections, clearly allowed these violations to continue. City Clerk Ethel Fiddler has made it known that she does not support Mayor Zych or the new direction of the city.

Justice Department officials said that they had not seen such blatant violations of the Voting Rights Act since the 1960s. Because of this, a number of important changes will be put in place: All election officials, including the Clerk, must undergo a training program; all election materials must appear in English, Arabic and Bengali. Each polling place must hire at least one bilingual Arabic-American and one bilingual Bangladeshi-American. In addition, a federal examiner will oversee all elections until December 31, 2003.

Ahmed is hopeful about the changes that will be put in place. He is also optimistic that he, or another immigrant, will be elected to public office in the near future. While he did not win a city council seat in 1999, he lost by only 100 votes (out of 3500 cast). “If there were an Arab-American or a Bangladeshi on Council, things would be different,” he states.

Ahmed’s optimism is shared by others in Hamtramck. As Buttry explains, “There is, in Hamtramck, an underlying sense of hopefulness. This is why people stay here. We can envision what our actions can do. We all focus on community: What will the future look like? How can we define ourselves? How can we reach our potential and use Hamtramck’s conflicts constructively, to create the kind of world that we want to be remembered for 100 years from now?”

Camille Colatosti is The Witness’ staff writer, .