Ethnic Enclave

Hamtramck Historical Museum reaches beyond town's Polish roots to include current population mix


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Every Paczki Day (it’s March 4 this year) scores of people line up at some of Hamtramck’s popular bakeries to buy a dozen or so of the pre-Lenten gutbusters.

Now folks have a good reason to return to the 2.1-square-mile city for something more nourishing: a visit to the Hamtramck Historical Museum.

The museum, owned by the nonprofit Friends of Historical Hamtramck, the fundraising arm of the Hamtramck Historical Commission, opened in September. A former furniture store and barber college, the building is a repository of town lore, covering everything from politics to movie theaters (there were once eight in the city).

And if Greg Kowalski — he’s not related to the famous sausage-making family — is on the premises, you’ll be treated to colorful stories behind the artifacts. The chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission likely knows more about Hamtramck history than anyone. He’s written a half dozen books on the subject, was born at St. Francis Hospital (now City Hall), attended St. Florian school for 12 years, and was editor of the Hamtramck Citizen.

What’s more, Kowalski still lives in Hamtown. “The only other place I would consider living would be Manhattan,” he says. “Hamtramck is an extremely vibrant, diverse town, and I love being here.”

Nothing else but affection for his hometown could explain why Kowalski would spend a recent blizzardy Saturday afternoon at the museum, greeting visitors and carving out time for an interview.

“Here’s the movie projector from the old Martha Washington Theatre, and over there is a still from Prohibition days,” he says. Then Kowalski points out a passel of old metal ballot boxes, followed by a wall of photos and paintings of Hamtramck mayors.

“This we just unearthed from City Hall,” Kowalski says, opening a large envelope containing an 1888 street map. “And this you’ve got to see,” he says, making his way over to a 1924 phonograph donated by descendants of the Kopytko family, who owned a meat market in town. Kowalski cranks it up and drops the needle on a polka record recorded on the “Hamtramck” label.

The museum is in a bit of disarray while the second floor is being renovated. That freshly painted space, which is awaiting new windows, will be used to store archival material. For now, many objects are cordoned off at the rear of the first floor. Eventually, Kowalski says there will be a gift store.

His mission is to have the 9,000-square-foot museum also function as a community center, with classes, guest speakers, and programs.

Although many still think of Hamtramck as a Polish enclave, Poles are a minority today. “I like to stress that we’re not a Polish museum; we’re a museum for all Hamtramckans,” Kowalski says.

The town’s 2010 census put the population at just north of 22,000, but Kowalski surmises the “unofficial number” is closer to 27,000-28,000. He rattles off the ethnic breakdown: “There’s 20 percent Bangladeshi, 20 percent Yemeni, 20 percent African-American, 12 percent Polish, and the rest a mix of Ukrainian, Albanian, Croatian, Korean — you name it.”

Because of that diversity, a University of Michigan team worked with the museum to establish lines of communication with various ethnic groups. “They did a marvelous job, and their work will be implemented as we go ahead with programming,” Kowalski says. “If the museum is to survive, it must be embraced by all the ethnic groups in town.”

Hamtramck saw a 25 percent uptick in population between 1990 and 2000 as new immigrants and young people surged into town, known for its reasonable rents and lively nightlife. In 1997, Utne Reader named Hamtramck one of the 15 hippest neighborhoods in the United States and Canada.

The city has experienced wild swings in population through the years. There were only about 3,500 residents in 1910, many of whom were German farmers. But 1910 was also the year the Dodge Brothers began building their massive Dodge Main plant. The resulting jobs lured swarms of Polish immigrants, and by 1920, the population ballooned to 48,000. By 1930, the growth hit its zenith, and 56,000 called Hamtramck home.

Completely surrounded by Detroit and a sliver of Highland Park, the city was originally much larger, back when it was known as Hamtramck Township.

“It went from the Detroit River all the way to Base Line [Eight Mile], and from Woodward to the Grosse Pointes,” Kowalski says. “I tell Grosse Pointers that they’re really Hamtramckans, whether they like it or not.” Detroit annexed the majority of Hamtramck Township, which was founded in 1798. Hamtramck became a village in 1901 and a city in 1922.

Kowalski’s belief in the museum’s success is unwavering. “Everywhere else, historical museums are either closing or being cut back,” he says. “Even though Hamtramck is under a financial manager, we actually opened a museum. That’s an indication of the kind of inner strength this city has. It goes way beyond financial issues.”

The museum, at 9525 Joseph Campau Ave., is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and by appointment. Donations are accepted. There are plans to expand to Fridays and Thursday evenings. 313-893-5027; hamtramckhistory.org.

HAMTOWN TRIVIA

>> Hamtramck isn’t a Polish name. It’s named after Col. Jean-François Hamtramck, a French-Canadian who fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War.

>> Rocker Mitch Ryder was born in Hamtramck. So was Wally Palmar, lead singer of The Romantics (“What I Like About You”).

>> In 2005, Hamtown voters elected (and twice re-elected) its first female mayor, Karen Majewski.

>> Hamtramck once had more bars per capita than any other U.S. city.

>> In 1959, Hamtramck won the Little League World Championship.

>> Years ago, there was a fairly sizable Jewish population. A vestige is Beth Olem Cemetery.

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