Hamtramck Disneyland

When you think of Detroit, what pops into your head? The skyline from Windsor? Tiger Stadium? The giant, limp-wristed fist? I’m not sure of the best postcard image, but I think I’ve found the one most appropriate for our times.

The creator calls it Hamtramck Disneyland. Suburban pseudo-liberals like myself can take I-75 south, get off at Caniff, take Joseph Campau north, then duck through the alley between Sobieski and Klinger Streets.

And there it is, rising to the sky, filling wires and rooftops, suspended above Dmytro Szylak’s back yard. Wheels and propellers and flags; merry-go-round figures and Disneyland characters, and lights and music when the proprietor turns them on.

Sort of a gentler, kitschier and cheerier version of Tyree Guyton. And I can’t think of a better place to contemplate the coming war we intend to launch against Iraq and the nuclear madness with North Korea. Or to remember that precisely four years ago, we thought the nation’s biggest issue was our media-manufactured outrage that the president had engaged in high-schoolish sexual fumblings with a plump young woman.

Let nobody say old Dmytro’s reality is out of whack. Hamtramck itself, however, is a bubble or two off plumb. World-famous for decades as a little Poland in exile, Hamtramck drew politicians such as John F. Kennedy and even merited a visit in 1987 from the world’s first Polish pope. It was famous for Dodge Main, artery-killing paczki doughnuts at Lent, quaint shops and, in recent years, trendy clubs and bars.

Politics were always entertaining, and more than one local statesman went from City Hall to the slam and back again. But now Hamtramck is, like Poland for much of its history, a captive, under a dictatorship the locals are powerless to do anything about. And the dictator is about as culturally alien as you could imagine; he’s a no-nonsense Republican from Waterford, a man of German (!) heritage named Louis Schimmel.

Free speech still exists, and there is an elected mayor, Gary Zych, and a city council, but when it comes to how money is spent and city services are run, Schimmel is Der Law. Fourteen months ago, Metro Times’ Lisa M. Collins wrote what is still the deepest and best portrait of Hamtramck under the Schimmel regime (“Czar wars,” Metro Times, Nov. 21-27, 2001).

Now, the man who really is the historical memory of Hamtramck, Greg Kowalski, has written a new book, Hamtramck: The Driven City (Arcadia, $24.99), a captivating journey through the saga of this incredible town. Kowalski, a former editor of the Hamtramck Citizen, tends to agree with those who find Schimmel high-handed and sometimes pig-headed. But he has to admit the city is better than before.

“I have to say that I am a little afraid of what will happen” if and when the governor decides to turn the city back over to its residents, he admits. To put it gently, the politicians who ran Hamtramck made drunken sailors look like financial planners.

It’s important to note that it doesn’t have to be this way. Hamtramck isn’t Bloomfield Hills. But it would be a grave mistake to lump it with Detroit’s other enclave city, Highland Park. Both cities are in economic receivership. But Highland Park simply no longer has the resources to be a city. The best thing would be for the admittedly cash-strapped state to offer incentives for Detroit to absorb Highland Park.

Hamtramck, however, has a pulse. In fact, waves of new immigrants, most from places other than Poland, swelled the population by nearly a quarter in the 1990s. Driving around the streets, one sees people working on their modest, densely packed houses. Motor is gone, but Planet Ant is still going strong, and there are young artists moving in; plenty of coffeehouse life and poetry slams.

What Hamtramck needs to do, frankly, is to get its gowno together. There are few more fascinating towns. Like Detroit, it was a wide spot in the road that suddenly boomed with the coming of the assembly line. What was unique was that throngs of Polish immigrants flocked here and stayed here. Except for ruins, like the disgracefully neglected Model T plant, Detroit and Highland Park today bear no resemblance to the cities they were. Hamtramck is still recognizably the same place.

Poles are no longer a majority, but they outnumber every other nationality, and there are still people living in houses their grandfathers built in 1920.

Kowalski has dedicated himself to preserving Hamtramck history, which he does from an office at City Hall, 3402 Evaline, Hamtramck 48212. Incredibly, few of the old-timers seem to have cared very much about their times; their sights were set on the future.

Records and artifacts are scanty. Kowalski does his best, collecting as he can, assembling a portrait of a now-vanished city still tantalizingly there. “If you have anything that relates to Hamtramck, we want it,” he says. He’s now working on a book of pictures from Hamtramck’s past, glorious and otherwise.

Even if their leaders have trouble with their checkbooks, there may be a lesson in Hamtramck for all of us. Somehow, this place has endured, though things are seldom entirely as they seem. The original Hamtramck, for example, didn’t have a drop of Polish blood in his veins. He was a French-Canadian who fought in the American Revolution.

The Polish-Americans who put his hamlet on the map didn’t care. Nor did they try to change their city’s name to Pilsudski. Instead, they went and found ol’ Jean-François Hamtramck‘s bones, dug him up, and planted him in town.

Which makes him as Polish as apple pierogi. That’s a lesson for everyone in greater Detroit. But will his namesake town make it in the end? Kowalski is sure it will, even though he gets as mad at local idiocy as anyone.

“Hamtramck always survives in spite of itself. It just seems that every so often, the state has to take us over for a while,” he tells me.

There’s probably a lesson in that too.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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