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Cover Story

Civic Engagement Fuels New League President

By Matt Bachmajewski1

Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski stands on the roof of the city hall and points out things she loves about her compact, highly diverse community. On one side are densely packed homes of people of a vast array of backgrounds—Albanian, Asian, Polish, Bangladeshi, Hispanic, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and Macedonian. The homes are so close together in the two-square mile city of about 23,000 people, it’s not unusual to smell what your neighbor is having for dinner. On another side is the business district. Residents can easily walk from their home and get everything they need—from freshly made hummus at the Al-Haramain Grocery to paczkis at the New Martha Washington Bakery to dining and having fun at a wide variety of restaurants and entertainment venues.

 “This is just a fantastic city. I know people everywhere love and feel attached to the places they live. I’ve lived in a lot of places myself. But I haven’t seen the kind of passionate, gut-level attachment that people feel for this place. Folks come to Hamtramck from all over the world and make a home they love here, whether they’ve come from Mississippi or Macedonia. And that’s a compelling and moving story to be part of.”

Political Start

On this day, Majewski is wearing a traditional Polish folk dress from the Polish mountains that she sometimes wears for dances and celebrations in and around Hamtramck. Community engagement is the theme of this issue of The Review, and Majewski exemplifies what community engagement is about. For Majewski, being engaged in her community as mayor began with her love of folk dancing, immigration studies, and her involvement with Hamtramck’s Historical Commission. Admittedly, she never intended to enter politics, but did so at the urging of fellow residents.

 Majewski—an educator, researcher, and award-winning, frequently published author—tells the story best:
“I never had any political ambitions to begin with. It’s no secret that I was drafted to run for office. Local politics can be bruising, and at the time the political atmosphere here was especially volatile. Frankly, I thought that anybody who would run for office in Hamtramck would have to be crazy. I was probably right. But a lot of things in my personal and professional life converged at that time.” Majewski was elected to city council in 2003, and as mayor (the city's first woman in that position) in 2005, and again in 2009. It hasn’t been an easy nine years, especially as the city worked through difficult financial issues. But her love for her community fuels her and opened doors she never previously imagined. One such door was serving on the League Board and a second door opened last month when she was unanimously selected as the 2011-12 president. She’s the first League president from Hamtramck since the League’s inception in 1899.

 “I really can’t tell you what an honor it is,” Majewski said of being named as League president. “It’s not something I take lightly.”

majewski2
“Hamtramck Disneyland” was built over multiple decades by Dmytro Szylak, a Ukranian immigrant. Majewski loves the shrine because it represents something that’s so close to her heart—the journey of immigrants to America. It has icons of America, like Mickey Mouse, intermingled with sculptures of reindeer, dolls, tri-lingual press clippings and banners, wind-powered oddities, repurposed lawn ornaments, a plethora of toys and painted bits of wood and steel—all gloriously wired with lights and sound.

Moving to Hamtramck

Majewski’s journey to Detroit in the late 1980s and eventually Hamtramck in 1998, started in graduate school while studying ethnic groups and immigration. She eventually earned a doctorate degree in American Culture from the University of Michigan. She now works for the Institute for Research on Labor Employment and the Economy at UM. She previously worked for Orchard Lake schools in charge of Polish and rare books. In addition, she is a former executive director of the international Polish American Historical Association.

 “I wanted to live in an ethnic enclave. I wanted to live in a place with immigrants. And I wanted to live in an urban environment. The specific group I was studying was Poles, and Hamtramck was the logical place,” said Majewski, who resides in Hamtramck with her husband, cartoonist Matt Feazell.

Diversity

With the diversity comes great benefits and difficult challenges.

 “We like to brag that we have 26 different languages spoken. While in the past we were predominantly Polish—and the Polish presence here is still very strong—in truth, we attract people from all over the world. I've read reports of more than 50 languages spoken here in the 1920s. So, diversity is not something new to us. And as America’s demographic changes, in some ways we’re a bell weather—a test case for how this stuff works on the ground, in day-to-day life. We celebrate our diversity, but we’re not an ethnic Disneyland. There are all kinds of tough issues. But because we're so small and so dense—you can reach out your kitchen window and pass a plate to the house next door—there’s no avoiding those issues, or our neighbors of other cultures. We have to learn about each other, and work out ways to get along, however difficult that may be sometimes.

And that opportunity to become familiar with and develop respect for other cultures is a tremendous asset, especially for the kids in Hamtramck.” During her nine years in Hamtramck city government, Majewski is most proud of the challenges the city has overcome, such as emerging from financial receivership in 2007. She’s also actively involved in creating the Hamtramck Historical Museum, due to open sometime in the next year, featuring artifacts, exhibits, and materials about Hamtramck’s diverse and colorful history.

We walk out of Hamtramck City Hall and maneuver along Hamtramck’s many one-way streets to an alley between Sobieski and Klinger Streets to the famous “Hamtramck Disneyland” built over multiple decades by retired General Motors worker Dmytro Szylak, a Ukranian immigrant. Majewski loves the shrine built in Szylak’s yard because it in essence represents something that’s so close to her heart—the journey of immigrants to America.

 “What’s so fantastic about this Disneyland is that a Ukranian immigrant came here and created this little whimsical world out of his experience. What it says to me is that we humans have an innate, irrepressible creativity. It doesn’t matter if you got materials or if you consider yourself an artist. We’re all artists. We all try to create some kind of beauty around us. And we try to create a home—a place that somehow encompasses all these incongruent elements into something that, together, feels comfortable to us and tells our story.”

In Majewski’s view, Hamtramck’s Disneyland is Szylak’s way to be engaged in his community.

 “To me, community engagement means that you are part of something bigger than yourself—whether you belong to organizations or just pick the trash off your yard,” Majewski said. “What it comes down to is creating that place that you call home.”

Matt Bach is communications director for the League. You may reach him at 734-669-6317 or mbach@mml.org.

 

 

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