Hamtramck celebrates its history — good and bad

Jack Lessenberry.
Jack Lessenberry.

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Everyone has at least heard of Hamtramck, the tiny city with the funny name that has had a cultural impact way bigger than its two square miles. For years, you were more likely to hear Polish spoken there than English.

During the Great Depression — and for many years after — Hamtramck — surrounded by Detroit and Highland Park — was a wide-open town where residents kept stills in their basement, interracial gangs flourished, and anyone who was anyone went to a nightclub called the Bowery. There, Jimmy Durante or Jack Dempsey might be next to United Auto Workers leaders Walter Reuther and Louie Frankensteen, who once shared a table with Sophie Tucker.

Less exciting folks trudged off to jobs at Dodge Main; went to mass on Sunday at St. Florian’s, and kept their wood-frame houses and their tiny patches of lawn immaculately neat.

They thrilled to the tennis exploits of Peaches Bartkowicz, and never forgot the year — 1959 — Hamtramck won the Little League World Series.

The town was so identified with Polish-Americans that reporters used to rush there to get quotes whenever there was a crisis in Poland. For some devout Roman Catholics — and virtually all of Hamtramck was once Catholic — the highlight of modern history came in September, 1987, when Pope John Paul II came back to Hamtramck, a city he had first visited many years before.

Greg Kowalski knows all this history and more, perhaps better than anyone else. Though he’s been a suburban newspaper editor most of his life, he was born in Hamtramck in 1950. And never left.

“There’s no place like it in the world,” he said, last week, standing in the middle of what is his dream at last coming true.

Hamtramck now has its own historical museum, in a large building on Joseph Campau Street. The building once housed everything from a furniture store to a barber college.

The museum opened barely in time for Labor Day weekend. There aren't many exhibits yet, and much of the ground floor is a chaotic storage facility for everything from century-old wedding dresses to street signs commemorating a long-ago visit by 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale. He lost 49 states — winning his native Minnesota. But he swept to victory in Hamtramck.

“We’re a work in progress,” Mr. Kowalski said. “But at least we have a building,” he said, which makes it easier to raise grants and get money to continue restoration and displaying exhibits.

Mr. Kowalski probably knows more about Hamtramck than anybody ever has. Over the years, he has written six books on it, most notably Hamtramck: The Driven City, and Hamtramck: Then and Now. And for at least 15 years, he has crusaded for a museum, in the process filling his house with memorabilia.

The Hamtramck Historical Commission, which he heads, finally got a businessman to donate a suitable building.

They got the permits and moved in late this summer. Exhibits include an early sausage maker that looks like an artillery shell, and a wall of portraits of Hamtramck mayors.

The name “Hamtramck” may sound Polish, but it isn‘t.

Jean-Francois Hamtramck was a French-Canadian who fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War, and ended up commanding Fort Detroit. The museum’s earliest possession is a 1793 newspaper clipping mentioning the founder.

“This isn’t going to be a Polish-American museum, but one that celebrates Hamtramck’s diversity,” Mr. Kowalski said. Estimates vary, but his guess is that today, Poles are no more than the third-largest group, behind African-Americans and Bangladeshis.

So many other minorities live here — Yemenis, Albanians, various Yugoslavs — that the city may well be the country’s most ethnically diverse. After losing almost two-thirds of the 43,000 people Hamtramck had when Mr. Kowalski was born, the city gradually grew back to more than 22,000, as hip young artists and professionals seeking affordable and reasonably safe housing began to move in.

Politically, the city has done less well. Though Hamtramck is anything but rich, most observers agree that misbehaving politicians unnecessarily saddled it with an emergency manager in 2000.

That lasted seven years. But after only three years of regained independence, the city attempted to declare bankruptcy in 2010. The courts said no, and now Hamtramck has an emergency manager again.

Mr. Kowalski noted the talk of selling off treasures from Detroit’s museums, “and we made sure we were totally independent of the city.” Instead, the nonprofit Friends of Historical Hamtramck own the museum.

Someday, when the last of the lead paint is gone and enough money comes in, Mr. Kowalski sees an airy café on the museum’s second floor. He knows he has more than enough fascinating history to fill the place. Volunteers are eager to pitch in.

Now, all he and his supporters need is what everyone needs: money. Anyone wanting to help Hamtramck’s heritage can send tax-deductible contributions to the Friends, at 11638 Moran, Hamtramck, Mich., 48212. Tell them Greg sent you.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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