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A brush with history 

With dusty, blanched streets, faded awnings and the sweet and spicy aroma of your neighbor's dinner breezing down the block, Hamtramck feels timeless. Artist Dennis Orlowski walks around the town like he's living in an earlier era. On a sunny afternoon, he drops in on the mayor then strolls across the park to say hi to his barber.

Orlowski's a man about town. He has 50 murals across the metro area, and more than a few in Hamtramck, in Pope Park and on the Holbrook Café. For three years, he's slaved with students to finish the 168-foot "History of Hamtramck." Located inside the neighborhood's Mayson Center, on Joseph Campau, it was commissioned by director Tom Cervenak.

The montage of honorable moments begins with a map of the ice age and Chippewa Indians playing lacrosse, flowing through the centuries, including scenes from 1901, when the Village of Hamtramck formed, on through 1997, when a tornado shredded the city one July afternoon. Citizens share space with celebrities in panels that build on historian Greg Kowalski's books, Hamtramck: Soul of a City and Hamtramck: The Driven City.

"Mural painting is one foot in architecture and the other in dreams," Orlowski's son Andrès, also an artist, once told him. History repeats itself. Now, along with the kids playing and learning at the center, it runs around the room.


1. In 1938, the Star regularly showed Polish films and the Farnum Theatre was popular for playing Mickey Rooney and Laurel and Hardy flicks. In the ’40s, the Bowery on Jos. Campau was the place to see live headliners such as Danny Thomas and Jimmy Durante. For transitions from scene to scene, Orlowski uses action — a raised arm of bended figure — to keep the eye moving.

2. Movie star John Hodiak (in the boat) was a 1932 Hamtramck High School graduate who worked for a while at WXYZ radio. In 1944, he starred in Hitchcock’s classic Lifeboat. Hamtramck autoworker Tom Tyler became famous as well, playing in The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford’s Stage Coach.

3. Basketball Hall of Famer Rudy Tomjanovich, who went to Hamtramck High School and the University of Michigan, played for the Houston Rockets, but was unfortunately known for becoming a victim when he tried to break up a fight on the court in 1977. A vicious punch to the jaw and face caused life-threatening injuries, but he went on to a comeback as a coach.

4. In 1964, at age 15, Hamtramck’s Jane "Peaches" Bartkowicz won the Junior Girls World Championship in tennis. She’s seen here with world-renowned coach Jean Hoxie, who ran clinics that transformed Hamtramck players into champions.

5. Beginning in the 1970s up through today, Ukranians, Macedonians, Albanians, Yemenis, Bangladeshis and Bosnians moved from bigger American cities and the Middle East to become a part of Hamtramck’s community. Waheeba Al-Sharabi, who works at the Yemeni restaurant Al-Fanous on Conant Avenue, is also a writer whose novel Wings Don’t Fly was recently published in Arabic in Jordan. The background shows off Kowalski Sausage Company, founded in Detroit in the 1950s but relocated to Hamtramck, where it still operates.

6. Mayor Robert Kozaren, a charismatic 6-foot-5-inch guy who spent nearly 20 years in office, stands next to a Hamtramckan whose image was taken from a 1940s photo, given to Orlowski by her daughter.

7. Chrysler Corp.’s Dodge Main plant was founded in 1910, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs. The factory closed in the 1970s and the 100-acre site cost millions to tear down. Months later, GM announced plans to build the Poletown auto plant.

8. A young boy who helped Orlowski with the project also models eating a sausage (it was actually a rolled up piece of paper). Behind him, the Hamtramck festival, which was revived by Mayor Kozaren, livens up the scene. Rebecca Mazzei is arts editor of Metro Times. Send comments to

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