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Published: Sunday, 1/5/2003

Hamtramck no longer master of its destiny

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. - Detroit may be the world's only major city with two separate tiny cities embedded within it, each with its own rich and storied history. One of them, Highland Park, is the place where the modern age began, in a now-abandoned brick building where Henry Ford produced the Model T.

Hamtramck, right next to it, has a world-famous reputation as the symbol of Polish America. John F. Kennedy campaigned here. Pope John Paul II famously went out of his way to visit Hamtramck in 1987, an occasion marked by a park and a huge statue.

The town should be thriving. After years of decline, new immigrants in the 1990s pushed its population up almost 25 percent, to 22,976. In the last few years, Hamtramck has become trendy. Young artists who liked the European look and feel of the place moved in; cosmopolitan coffee shops and cultural events flourished. Many of the new immigrants were Arabs, or Bosnians and Bangladeshis.

But if Hamtramck is culturally richer than ever, it is no longer master of its own destiny. Two years ago, peeved at the city's continuing inability to manage its money, Gov. John Engler appointed an emergency financial manager named Louis Schimmel and gave him dictatorial powers.

“It's been a wild ride - but then, in Hamtramck, it's always been a wild ride,” said Greg Kowalski, whose entertaining new book, Hamtramck: The Driven City, (Arcadia: $24.99) is the closest thing there is to a complete history.

Hamtramck residents (some call themselves Hamtramckans) mainly seem to intensely despise Mr. Schimmel, but also to admit, grudgingly, he has done some good, such as getting the garbage picked up again. Culturally, he is an alien presence. A no-nonsense 64-year-old Republican from the Oakland County suburb of Waterford, he likes making neat, tidy, and orderly decisions.

Hamtramck politicians like to argue. Endlessly. Mr. Kowalski, a 52-year-old former editor of the local paper, the Hamtramck Citizen, thinks the city's political class bears a lot of the blame. Hamtramck pols have long been notorious.

One mayor was sent to jail for corruption, released, and promptly re-elected by his joyous constituents. In recent years, however, civic incompetence seems to have been a greater problem than criminality.

The city has a unique history. (Hamtramck, incidentally, wasn't Polish, but a French-Canadian who fought in the American Revolution.) Until the automobile age dawned, it was a sleepy farming village. Then Hamtramck exploded, growing around the huge Dodge Main plant. Thousands of Polish immigrants flocked to the tiny, two-square-mile city, pushing the population from 500 to 56,000 in less than 30 years.

They built houses on tiny, 30-foot-lots, slept sometimes in shifts, several to a bed, learned English, and built a magnificent church, St. Florian's, that rivals some European cathedrals. The city was nothing if not colorful. Hamtramck largely ignored Prohibition and tolerated, if not actively encouraged, brothels.

But there was a long, slow decline and depopulation. When Dodge Main closed in 1980, the city briefly became a national symbol of rust-belt, blue-collar, ethnic America in despair. That story seemed to have a happy ending, however, when General Motors announced plans to replace Dodge Main with the huge Poletown plant.

Yet in some ways Hamtramck seemed to be groping for identity, with the cultures of the new immigrants and new money clashing with the old. Privacy fences began to jar neighborhoods. Despite protests, garish McDonald's and Wendy's were built on picturesque streets, as was an eatery called “Cafe India and Coney Island.”

What isn't clear is how long it will be before Hamtramck runs itself again. Though it has essentially no power, the city still has a city council and a mayor, Gary Zych.

“Yes, there were problems, and some of what was done was necessary,“ said Mr. Zych, 47, who teaches at Lawrence Technological Institute in suburban Southfield. “But it should have been turned [back] over some time ago.“

Ironically, he is part of a new breed of younger, better-educated Hamtramck politicians and was first elected as a reformer. Yet Mr. Kowalski is dubious as to what might happen if Hamtramck is turned back to faction-ridded local politicians.

And while some Hamtramckans hope that new Gov. Jennifer Granholm will dismiss Mr. Schimmel, or replace him with a more acceptable manager, they acknowledge that is unlikely to be a top priority, given the state's own huge deficit.

Still, Mr. Kowalski says, “There is plenty of life and resiliency in the town, and Hamtramck always survives in spite of itself. It just seems that every 30 years or so, the state has to take us over for awhile. That's Hamtramck.”

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