City Guide 2021: Exploring Polish Culture in Metro Detroit

Our next stop on our trip around the world is Poland. Here’s where to get authentic pierogi and paczki, view Polish arts and crafts, and enjoy Polish music locally.

If you want a taste of Poland without booking a flight, you don’t have to venture beyond metro Detroit, where pierogi and paczki are as ubiquitous as Faygo.

Polish culture has been steadily influencing life here since the first major wave of Polish immigrants arrived in the late 1800s, drawn by opportunities to secure jobs building railroads and roadways. By the 1900s, the growth of Detroit’s booming auto industry — particularly the 1910 opening of a Dodge Brothers automobile plant in Hamtramck — drew even more Poles to the region. By the 1920s, about 66 percent of Hamtramck residents were Polish-born. A second heavily populated Polish neighborhood, Poletown East, bordered Hamtramck.

As of 2000, Michigan had the third-largest population of people of Polish descent in America, according to U.S. Census data, with most of that population concentrated in the tricounty area of Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland, particularly in Hamtramck, Sterling Heights, and Troy. NPR reported in a 2017 segment that at its peak, Hamtramck was nearly 75 percent Polish, though the city has grown increasingly diverse.

“Hamtramck is a multicultural community, and that includes Polish culture,” says      Melody Malosh, co-owner of Small’s Bar in Hamtramck. “You really see it during events like the [Hamtramck] Labor Day Festival’s Polish Day parade in September and St. Florian’s Strawberry Festival in May with the food, dancing, and traditional costumes and music.”

Here are some of the best places to check out to experience Poland right here in metro Detroit. 

Don’t Miss

Paczki - polish culture
Paczki are ubiquitous in Hamtramck and beyond. // Photograph by Gerard + Belevender

Arguably metro Detroit’s top Polish event is the annual Paczki Day celebration, which occurs in mid-February on Fat Tuesday. Polish bakeries across the region see lines out the door for delicious paczki — those delicious don’t-call-them-donuts filled with jam, cream, or custard. Detroit-based Detroit City Distillery takes the paczki to new dimensions in the lead-up to Fat Tuesday, releasing a limited annual supply of paczki-infused vodka. The day of indulgence is also marked by live music throughout Hamtramck and at the city’s annual Paczki Run, which includes a 5K route. “Hamtramck is the heart of celebrating Fat Tuesday in metro Detroit,” Malosh says. “It’s like our
St. Patrick’s Day.”

Downriver’s Wyandotte, meanwhile, hosts the annual Our Lady of the Scapular Polish Festival, featuring traditional Polish foods, dancing, and vendors. The popular late-August event, which got its start in 1972, was canceled due to COVID last year. As of early March, it was unclear if it would return this summer. Still, a visit to Wyandotte offers other ways to experience Polish culture, including a visit to Pulaski Park, which is home to a monument to Count Casimir Pulaski, who fought for both Polish and American freedom in the 1700s. An impressive monument to General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, another Polish patriot who joined the American Revolution, can be found on Michigan Avenue in Detroit. This monument to the “freedom fighter for two continents” is an exact replica of the one at Krakow’s famous Wawel Castle.

Ann Arbor is home to the annual Polish Film Festival, which takes place each November and includes feature films, documentaries, and a children’s Polish book fair. Recently featured films include the Polish historical war drama Europa Europa and the short comedy adventure Marcel.

There is also West Bloomfield’s annual St. Mary’s Polish Country Fair, which takes place during Memorial Day weekend. The event is filled with carnival rides, games, Polish entertainment, and of course, plenty of pierogi, or Polish dumplings. Sterling Heights, meanwhile, hosts the American Polish Festival & Craft Show each June. This year’s event will run from June 25 to 27 and will include the ninth-annual Srodek’s Pierogi Eating Challenge. If you’re thinking of participating, you’d better come hungry; last year’s winner downed 49 pierogi in 10 minutes.

The Real Deal

Luckily, when it comes to finding authentic local Polish culture, there are plenty of places to turn. One great specialty store for traditional Polish foods is Polish Market on Maple Road in Troy. Its sprawling aisles include Polish baked goods, cheeses, smoked meats, and hot foods to go. Another option is Srodek’s Campau Quality Sausage Co. in Hamtramck and Sterling Heights, renowned for its meat selection and deli.

To get a feel for the past, visit the Hamtramck Historical Museum to learn about local Polish history and influence. Or, to experience Polish life in present times, head on over to the American Polish Cultural Center in Troy. There, you’ll find an array of Polish cultural events, such as live jazz performances and bridal shows.

For Polish arts and crafts, pop into Hamtramck’s Polish Art Center. “The Polish Art Center on Joseph Campau is a good year-round example of Polish pride in Hamtramck,” Malosh says. “They sell imported Polish artwork, jewelry, books, and other gifts and have been around for many decades.”

Tastes

Polonia Restaurant - polish culture
Visit Polonia Restaurant for authentic fare, including, of course, pierogi. // Photograph by Gerard+ Belevender

For traditional Polish eats, Polish Village Cafe in Hamtramck is a must for unique flavors of pierogi, such as cheeseburger and pepperoni pizza. Yet it’s not the only Polish restaurant in the area — Polonia Restaurant is another great Hamtramck joint for Polish and Eastern European fare in an Old World-style atmosphere. Krakus Restaurant is also hailed for its fried pierogi. And for classic Polish drinks, be sure to visit the lively Polish Sea League bar for a shot of Malört, a liquor popular in Polish bars.

Further Downriver, Sabina’s Restaurant in Melvindale is known for serving tasty dill pickle soup. Wawel Royal Castle Polish Bar & Restaurant in Troy, meanwhile, is excellent for a home-cooked Polish meal of stuffed cabbage. In Detroit’s Gratiot Central Meat Market, you’ll find Pietrzyk Pierogi, which curates Polish street foods for sit-down or on-the-go dining. You can pick up all of the classic flavors of pierogi, such as mushroom, cheddar cheese, or sauerkraut. Those with more adventurous taste buds should be sure to check out People’s Pierogi each Saturday at Eastern Market for pierogi in “funkified” flavors including “Detroit Coney Dog” and “Corned Beef and Swiss.”

Did You Know?

Metro Detroit is home to the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, which can be found in Troy. It chronicles the legacies of baseball great Stan Musial and college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, among others. Plus: The museum houses a football signed by Bob Skoronski, Vince Lombardi, and other players from the 1967 Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.

Side Trip to Russia

Like the Polish community, Russian culture has also developed a significant presence in metro Detroit. With waves of immigrants fleeing the Soviet Union post-World War II, many of whom were Jewish, a large Russian population grew in the area.

Hop over the Polish border and take a quick side trip to nearby Russia right here. One of the top places to visit to experience Russian culture is West Bloomfield’s Allegro. At this vibrant restaurant and entertainment center, there’s plenty of live music and traditional Russian meals. It doubles as an event space, often hosting large birthday parties and other celebrations.

Right around the corner from Allegro stands New York International, one of metro Detroit’s best Russian grocery stores. From Russian sweets, from cakes and candies to smoked fish and caviar, it’s where many Russian-born locals and their families shop for ingredients to prepare traditional Russian meals.

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