When it comes to immigration, Hamtramck is a port in the storm. So it has been for nearly a century, and so it is today as the small town that feels like a neighborhood keeps attracting American Dreamers from around the world.
A Polish grandmother in her babushka strolls down Trowbridge past a Bangladeshi mom sitting on a stoop with her son. A young Bosnian dude, tall and muscular, attacks a hedge with an electric trimmer as his little brown retriever has a barking fit at the buzzing machine. Things are changing (again) in this working-class-but-proud, multicultural enclave in the heart of the Motor City.
In the early days of the auto industry, Hamtramck’s population swelled with Poles, so much so that you were more likely to hear Polish spoken on Joseph Campau than any other tongue. Later came the Ukranians, the Macedonians, the Albanians, the Yemenis and the Bosnians. Today, all up and down Conant on Hamtramck’s eastern border, old-time establishments such as Kosinski’s Hardware and Wally’s Party Store find themselves sharing the avenue with an array of Bangladeshi businesses, from the Gandhi restaurant to a half-dozen sari shops to various food markets.
Among the most recent arrivals, beginning in the ’80s and growing to serious proportions in the ’90s, the Bangladeshis have transformed Conant with dozens of new enterprises, turning it into what some residents call “Little Bengal.” Public school attendance reflects the influx, with 900 young speakers of Bengali and Urdu (the languages of Bangladesh and Pakistan) registered in the Hamtramck system last year. Estimates of the total of new inhabitants from the Indian subcontinent on both sides of the town’s Conant and Carpenter borders are in the 7,000-10,000 range.
While foot traffic alone — women in flowing saris and scores of dark-eyed kids on the streets — should tell you that a new phase of Hamtramck history is in the works, there are three mosques, two restaurants, a cultural union (the Bangladesh Association of Michigan) and numerous soccer games in the parks as evidence of a serious transformation going on.
One of the key destinations on any tour of Hamtramck is Asian Mart (10224 Conant; call 313-871-2345). Started in 1996 by two young men who met while attending classes at Macomb Community College, it’s a place where culinary imports from Bangladesh, cultural information and a generosity of spirit are offered to customers seven days a week. The proprietors, both from Bangladesh, live in the neighborhood and reflect a multiculture of another kind: Debashish Das is a Hindu from Dhaka, the capital, and Kamil Jaigirdar is a Muslim from the mountainous Sylhet district. As Jaigirdar says, though the main religion of Bangladesh is Islam, the country also is home to sizable communities of Hindus, Christians and Buddhists. And though the common bond that these two men share involves an openness that may come from thousands of miles away, it feels just right in the place they now call home.
On an evening when storm clouds pass over the Cleveland School field (on Charles just east of Conant), dropping a huge chaser on the burning shots of a Bangladeshi soccer game, the young players are in a camera-conscious mood. Though this group is practicing for a tournament in the New York City area, the field is the site of countless pick-up games involving kids of all ages.
Over on Sobieski, Jaigirdar is home from work, laughing with his wife, Nasrin, about his young son Nafis’ pair of speckled yellow sunglasses: “He loves yellow,” says this gentle man who went from driving a cab while studying for a degree in business to running his own store.
Meanwhile, Das, who sees Hamtramck’s diversity as a wonderful sign of the American Dream in action, is thinking about poetry and hooking up with a literary club as soon as he can. But the poem is all around him in the streets. It includes his wife and 5-month-old son.
And we’re in it too.Visit the Hamtramck Festival Aug. 30-Sept. 2 downtown; call 313-875-7877.