If you want to know who we are in metro Detroit — where we come from, what we look like, what we sound like when we talk — you might start by visiting some of our food markets. Not the emporiums with so much aisle space that shoppers need never make contact with one another, but the small ethnic markets scattered by the dozen from Clinton Township to Canton and throughout Detroit, Dearborn, and Hamtramck.
To get a sense of our sheer variety, you could try samosas and admire Indian women in their saris in Troy and Farmington Hills, hunt fresh litchi in the Chinese markets along John R and in Macomb County, challenge your fading Spanish studies while grabbing fresh chicken tacos with cilantro and lime in Mexicantown, or appreciate the simplicity of dress worn by Orthodox Jews buying kosher dairy in Oak Park.
It would be hard to point to a corner of the world that hasn’t sent some of its people to Detroit.
More than half a million metro Detroiters claim some Polish heritage. About half of the residents of southwest Detroit are Latino, primarily Mexican. Macomb County has the heaviest concentration of Albanians in the world outside of Albania. And no American city except San Diego has more Chaldeans. Dearborn is, of course, internationally known for its significant Middle Eastern population. Sterling Heights and Canton have sizable ethnic communities, primarily Indian and East Asian, many of whom live in the northeast upon arrival and, as they prosper, begin migrating southwest. Latinos are concentrated not just in southwest Detroit but also in northern Macomb County.
And those are just the broad strokes. In Hamtramck alone, there are at least 27 languages spoken, says Thaddeus Radzilowski, president of the Piast Institute, a Hamtramck think tank dedicated to Polish-American issues and a designated U.S. Census information center. Those languages include Polish, of course, but also Ewe, Urdu, Kirundi, and Russian. The city is home to Bosnians, Serbs, Yemenis, and Bengalis. Interesting clusters exist all across the metro Detroit map: Hmong in Pontiac, Koreans in Warren, Chaldeans in Birmingham, Filipinos in Sterling Heights. Indeed, at a time when the economy is prompting so many Michiganians to seek a way out, people from all around the globe want in. Many here think welcoming them is key to our city’s future.
“When Detroit was at its prime, it wasn’t just because the U.S. automakers were doing well, it’s because the U.S. automakers were bringing the world here,” says Frank Wu, dean of the Wayne State University Law School. Wu, whose parents, originally from China, emigrated to the United States from Taiwan, says, “That’s the other part of the story. Within the U.S. today, there aren’t a whole lot of people clamoring to come to Detroit. Where are you going to get more people? Well, overseas.”
But different cultures living elbow to elbow can make for some difficult moments, as we saw, for example, during recent disputes over a proposed mosque in Warren, or the conflict, largely between older Polish residents and Bengali immigrants, over a Muslim call to prayer in Hamtramck.
Food, on the other hand, offers a kind of common ground.
“For any kind of ethnic community, food is what brings you back home,” says Kurt Metzger, a demographer who is research director at United Way for Southeastern Michigan in Detroit. “You may have had to give up your language and any number of other things, but there are certain foods that you and your small group can share together. It’s how we identify ourselves, our culture.”
In other words, we are what we eat. And since food is so often the gateway into another culture, our ethnic markets are a great place to start the journey.