Spunky, punky Hamtramck Labor Day Festival has always been about resilience

The return of the full festival also happens to be the city’s centennial

click to enlarge The Hamtramck Yacht Club Canoe Race sees onlookers pelt wheel-driven “canoes” with water balloons. - Konrad Maziarz
Konrad Maziarz
The Hamtramck Yacht Club Canoe Race sees onlookers pelt wheel-driven “canoes” with water balloons.

According to the event’s official website, the idea for the Hamtramck Labor Day Festival arose during a dark time in 1980 as the city faced an economic crisis.

“At the time, then-Mayor Robert Kozaren, with the help of a group of dedicated citizens, conceived having a huge city festival that would not only boost the spirits of the residents, but also show everyone else that Hamtramck was a tough town that could smile in the face of a crisis,” festival organizers write.

The festival has continued to evolve over the decades, but it remains a staple of the city that describes itself as “the world in 2.2 square miles.” It was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic but returned in 2021 at a smaller scale with just one music stage.

“Our city government is as excited and supportive as they always have been,” says festival organizer Mickey Lyons. “The whole festival is really for the community. In fact, last year when we were debating whether to do it or not, we knew we needed to do at the very least a pared down version of it. But it really came down to the fact that the kids love that carnival so much that we just had to do it. So the community has just really gotten behind it. The mayor and city council have all been really supportive of keeping it as a tradition.”

Lyons says that this year, the fest will return as a full-sized version, with two music stages and the return of Big Time Wrestling. That’s in addition to the tradition of the cheekily named Hamtramck Yacht Club Canoe Race, in which onlookers pelt decorated wooden pushcarts with water balloons.

The return of the full Hamtramck Labor Day Festival also happens to be the city’s centennial.

“We'll even have some 10- year-old cars rolling down Joseph Campau and hopefully some Dodge Brothers cars from the Dodge Brothers factory,” Lyons says. “And we are really using the parade to highlight the 100 years of diversity and inclusion in the city of Hamtramck.”

This year the festival will feature a ton of music artists, including headliner ESG, the influential dance-punk band formed in the Bronx, New York in 1978 whose music has been sampled by scores of hip-hop artists, including TLC, Wu-Tang Clan, Kool Moe Dee, the Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane, Gang Starr, Junior Mafia, Tricky, Jay-Dee, and MF DOOM, among others. (The band performs at 9 p.m. on Monday.) Other musical highlights include rock ’n’ roll band Shadow Show (9 p.m. on Saturday), spooky electroclash duo ADULT. (8 p.m. on Monday), and alt-country band the Volebeats, which released its first new record in more than 12 years, Lonesome Galaxy, earlier this summer (5 p.m. on Monday).

“Hamtramck has always been pretty punk rock, and the vibrant community that we have here, the diversity,” Lyons says. “The plethora of great music venues that we’ve got here in Hamtramck really lends itself well to this kind of coming together of all sorts of different musicians. So I would say that Hamtramck has a solid place in metro Detroit's music scene and will for a long time.”

Lyons adds, “As this is a return to community gathering after a pretty rough couple of years, and as this is a celebration of the city’s 100th anniversary, I'm really looking forward to folks just being able to get out, have a good time — whether that's families at the carnival, whether that's watching the international Big Time Wrestling shows that we have, or hanging out, playing on rides, listening to bands. I'm just looking forward to this as a celebration of the community that makes Hamtramck the strange and wonderful place that it is.”

From Saturday, Sept. 3-Monday, Sept. 5, Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck; see hamtownfest.com for the full schedule. Admission is free.

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About The Author

Biba Adams

Biba Adams is a Detroit-based national freelance writer. Her work has been featured in Visit Detroit, Model D, VIBE, and more. She is currently working on her debut book, Scenes From a Renaissance: Detroit Hip-Hop 1996-2006.
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