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Hamtramck: The Whole World in a Small City

By Jennifer Eberbach

History

Hamtramck was originally settled by German farmers, but Polish immigrants flooded into the area when the Dodge Brothers plant opened in 1914. Poles still make up a large proportion of the population (sometimes confused with Poletown, a traditional Polish neighborhood, which lies mostly in Detroit and includes a small part of Hamtramck). According to the 2000 census, over 22 percent of Hamtramck's population is of Polish origin; in 1970, it was 90 percent Polish.

Over the past 30 years, a large number of immigrants from the Middle East (especially Yemen) and South Asia (especially Bangladesh) have moved to the city. As of the 2000 census, the city's foreign born population stood at 41.1 percent, making it Michigan's most internationally diverse city. Source: www.hamtramck.us

Mayor Karen Majewski works to accommodate multiculturalism, by championing civil rights legislation and public policies, facilitating public debate when disagreements arise, and recognizing the needs and contributions of minority populations.

The city of Hamtramck reported that a recent survey showed 26 languages were being spoken by resident schoolchildren, which is impressive for a town with less than 25,000 residents. Hamtramck was settled by European immigrants, predominantly Polish and Germans. Throughout the years, the city has sustained its large Polish community, who make up more than a fifth of residents, and it continues to be a destination for families emigrating from central and eastern European nations, especially Yugoslavian-Albanians, Albanians, Ukrainians, and Germans. Hamtramck is home to a large African-American population, who make up about 15 percent of residents, a large Arab population, who make up about 8 percent of residents, and people from many Asian and African nations have made an impact on Hamtramck’s character, including the city’s strong Bengali community.

Mayor Karen Majewski Talks Hamtramck

Mayor Karen Majewski works to accommodate multiculturalism by championing civil rights legislation and public policies, facilitating public debate when disagreements arise, and recognizing the needs and contributions of minority populations. She spoke of the challenges and rewards of managing a multicultural city, her impressions of Hamtramck’s community spirit, and why she enjoys her city. She admits that Hamtramck “is not a Disneyland. It’s a work in progress,” however, she explained, “In some ways, I think Hamtramck is emblematic of what America is supposed to be. In all of its messiness, really.”

Nobody Does Fat Tuesday Like Hamtramck

People from all over the world know about Paczki Day, Hamtramck’s annual Polish festival celebrating the beginning of Christian Lent. The festival evidences the impact that the Polish community has had on Hamtramck life, however, it also tributes the impact immigrants and diverse groups have had on the city.

Majewski is most impressed by the way the festival brings diverse groups from all over the nation and the world together to celebrate city life. “What I think is so cool about it is that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you still come to Hamtramck on Paczki Day. It’s like being Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone’s Polish on Paczki Day,” she laughed. The mayor pleasantly recounted her own memories of attending the festival and seeing all different colors, creeds, and personalities standing in line for a sweet treat.

Mayor Karen Majewski, in traditional dress, at the opening of Paczki Day, 2009. Photo by Carrie Acosta


As an author and scholar of Polish studies, history, and immigration, Majewski sees value in considering why Hamtramck is an inviting place for immigrants. According to the mayor, the first amenity people establish in a community is a place of worship, which “often functions as a community center and a kind of clearing house for information.” She added that, simultaneously, people look for places to buy the foods they prefer. After worship and food are covered, populations generally establish businesses that serve the cultural and daily needs of their community.

Mayor Majewski pointed out “there are some kinds of businesses that immigrants are simply not going to patronize in another language,” adding that “it’s also a matter of psychological comfort.” It is safe to assume that people are most comfortable going to a doctor or a barber who speaks their native language and understands their cultural habits.
Entrepreneurs who focus on the needs of their own ethnic community provide psychological comfort to Hamtramck’s multicultural population.

Many of these businesses also become points of contact for diverse groups. Majewski cited restaurants as a prime example of places where neighbors form relationships face-to-face. Personally, she is inspired by moments when she is out in public, listening to people speaking different languages, and hearing international music blaring out of a passing car. These are the moments when the Mayor says, “Wow, oh man, I love this town!”

The Islamic Call to Prayer Called Hamtramck to Her Feet

In 2004, the national media had its proverbial spotlight pointed square on escalating debates in Hamtramck regarding the Islamic Call to Prayer. Many residents were concerned by the city council’s decision to honor a request to allow mosques to broadcast the Call on loudspeakers five times a day, in accordance with Islamic practices.

Residents were vocal about their concerns, and city council meetings began to boom in attendance. The Islamic community contended the Call helps Muslims fulfill their spiritual obligations. Opponents feared that the frequent broadcasts would become an annoyance to neighboring residents and accused Hamtramck Muslims of proselytizing.

In July, residents voted on the issue and upheld the city’s decision to allow the Call, although it was widely understood that their vote was highly symbolic. Following the conclusion of the matter, the city established regulations that limited the volume and time of day at which all religious sounds could be broadcast.

“However the specifics of the law were drawn up,” Majewski explained, it was most important that “people’s fears got addressed,” and “then what we felt was a constitutional issue was upheld.” She concluded, “We have to have an avenue that allows for discussion, and that allows us to yell at each other, and then break bread together the next day.”

Sometimes groups clash and tempers flair. Majewski explained that disagreements within the Hamtramck community are not limited to inter-group bickering. She claimed, “One of the hardest things for the outside community to deal with, to realize, is that the issues creating the most tension within the city are often the product of stuff that is going on internally within that group,” and no group is “monolithic.” By facilitating community dialogue, the mayor attempts to quell fears and encourage neighbors to live with one another’s differences.

Writing a Chapter in Civil Rights History

More than 40 years ago, four plaintiffs sued the city of Hamtramck on account that they were unfairly displaced from their homes during one of the city’s mid 20th-century urban renewal projects. Although a diverse group of low and middle income residents were affected, the plaintiffs contended that the project had disproportionately affected African-American residents.

Mayor Majewski is proud of the nearing resolution of the R-31 lawsuit and the scattered home site building that is happening, as required under the final consent agreement. She sees it not only as a victory for civil rights in the city, but as a pivotal moment in American history. “I think [R-31] is a real tribute to Hamtramck’s commitment to diversity and principals of inclusiveness,” she beamed.

A Tricky Thing About Diversity

In the summer of 2008, Hamtramck faced a challenging decision regarding its Human Right Ordinance, which expanded resident protections to include sexual preference or gender identity. Strong objection came from certain sectors of the Christian and Muslim communities, and through petitioning opponents were able to gather enough support from the community to get the issue on the November ballot. Residents had their day, and the ordinance was defeated.

As a general sociological critique, Majewski noted that the ordinance’s defeat “really underscored the fact that we may come together as different ethnic communities on some issues, and on other issues those lines change.” The mayor’s point underscores that the complexities of difference reach far beyond our ethnic origins. The mayor, who mourns the defeat of the ordinance, lamented, “It just goes to show that inclusiveness and tolerance are still a work in progress.”

 

Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or jen@jenthewriter.info. Visit her online at www.jenthewriter.info.

 

 

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