On brisk winter mornings, the people on my corner of Hamtramck wake up to the sounds of the sunrise call to prayer. The loudspeaker sends the sounds of the adhan â€” the Muslim summons to worship â€” drifting through the air from the mosque just across Holbrook Street. Itâ€™s the deep-throated song of the muezzin, and itâ€™s soon joined by the clamor of the bells at St. Florian Catholic Church. Our day begins and ends with these mingled sounds of worship, and both the adhan and the church bells punctuate the day for Hamtramckâ€™s 21,000 residents.
Nestled entirely within the city limits of Detroit but with its own city charter and government, Hamtramckâ€™s 2.1 square miles is home to many different micro-communities. Fourth-generation Polish-American families whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers came here to work at the new Dodge plant a hundred years ago live alongside more recently arrived families from Bangladesh, Yemen and Bosnia. Since the erection of the Dodge Main plant in 1910 turned the sleepy farm town of 3,500 to a bustling city of nearly 60,000 by 1920, Hamtramck has always been densely packed. It was designed that way, as duplexes and multi-family housing units were filled as quickly as they could be thrown up.
Hamtramckâ€™s small scale lends to a sense of intimacy. There are no big box stores in Hamtramck â€” everyone shops at their local market. The kids chase each other through the alleys on bikes. When the neighbor across the street has surgery, we pitch in to mow his lawn and get his mail. Itâ€™s the kind of neighborhood that my grandparents lived in when they came to Detroit: small, family-owned businesses catering to folks who carry their groceries in a battered old tote as they walk home from market, stopping to chat over chain-link fences along the way.
Karen Majewski, Hamtramckâ€™s mayor, found something here she didnâ€™t realize sheâ€™d been looking for all her life.
â€śHamtramck, really, is one of the last vestiges of working-class ethnic neighborhoods that combines an intact old-fashioned business district on a human scale with residential within walking distance,â€ť she says. â€śThis is what much of Detroit looked like at one time.â€ť
One of Hamtramckâ€™s nicknames is â€śThe World in Two Square Miles.â€ť Bringing these diverse communities to a consensus, or at the very least, bridging communication gaps, can be a challenge. For many years, Hamtramck was a Polish-American enclave. Srodekâ€™s Deli, the Kowalski Sausage Company and the Polish Art Center all attest to a still-vibrant Polish pride. But as aging Polish-Americans moved to the suburbs, new groups of immigrant families settled here. New arrivals can face the same cultural dissonance as the first wave of immigrants to land here.
Muhit Abdul is working to change that. Abdul came to metro Detroit a couple of years ago from his native Bangladesh, with a four-year stop in London for school. A community engagement specialist for Global Detroit, a nonprofit founded to further the positive economic impact of immigrants in Detroit, Abdul connects residents with city and social services. One program that Abdul works with is the Detroit Land Bank. The Land Bank is a Detroit city initiative designed to remove vacant and blighted houses by offering low-cost auctions and homeownership programs for residents who might not otherwise afford them. Abdul also directs new families to seminars on tax preparation, home energy consultations, and safety workshops. The nonprofit hosts community picnics and neighborhood cleanups where neighbors meet and share food.
â€śItâ€™s a thing to cherish for our community,â€ť Abdul says. â€śI feel privileged that Iâ€™m taking part of such a diverse group of people that want to work together.â€ť
The northeast side of Hamtramck and several blocks of Detroit are communally known as â€śBanglatownâ€ť for the abundance of stores, restaurants and residents of Bangladeshi origin. Much like the generation of Polish immigrants to Hamtramck a hundred years before, the Bangladeshi community in Hamtramck faces cultural and financial challenges. Navigating the new environment is much easier if neighbors are willing to step in and help out. Abdul and a few others from Global Detroit and other nonprofits spent over six months knocking on doors and interviewing business owners and residents to find out what they needed to succeed in Hamtramck, and Detroit.
â€śIt was the communityâ€™s voice that we wanted to collect,â€ť he says.
Although that community voice is by no means singular, like the merging of the adhan and the Christian church bells, the sounds create a voice unique to Hamtramck, one that was common a hundred years ago but is less prevalent now. No matter where they started or how long itâ€™s been since they landed in Hamtramck, the people here see a unique value in the crowding of cultures, the ebb and flow of sights, sounds and smells that typify Hamtramck.
As Majewski says, â€śHamtramck is like everybodyâ€™s old country,â€ť no matter what part of the world that old country is. â€śThis is the kind of place that our grandparents came from, and thatâ€™s part of the emotional pull. A neighborhood like this is recognizable even if this isnâ€™t where you come from.â€ť
Zlatan Sadikovic understands the pull too. Hamtramckâ€™s condensed layout and bustling streets made it the ideal place for him to open Oloman CafĂ©, a coffee house and art space, in 2016.
After fleeing the war in Bosnia in 1994, Sadikovic and his family settled first in Germany, then in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2000, the family moved to Farmington Hills, then Huntington Woods. Once the children went off to college, though, the big suburban house seemed too empty. Sadikovic, a photographer, yearned for something more intimate. Hamtramck was perfect. He bought two side-by-side buildings on Joseph Campau, the cityâ€™s main business thoroughfare. Oloman was designed, he said, to be a community hub in the tradition of a European cafĂ©. His carefully curated art exhibits are changed every four weeks and draw from international and local artists.
Sadikovicâ€™s goal in opening an arts-centered cafĂ©, he insists, is to bring people together in an approachable setting.
â€śI go to other cities and I see empty art galleries. People are intimidated by all the white walls and theyâ€™re afraid to talk, to connect,â€ť he says.
Instead, Sadikovic fosters conversation between his visitors. He wants people to connect over a shared discovery. And, unlike many coffee shops in Midtown or downtown, laptops and headphones are rare at Oloman. More often, patrons gather together to catch up on the couches or at larger tables.
â€śArt is something that makes people feel welcome,â€ť Sadikovic says, and he strives to make his cafĂ© a gathering spot for all of Hamtramckâ€™s residents.
One Saturday morning, I spotted city council members chatting with a group from the Detroit Zen Buddhist Center while a French tourist stopped in to browse the images and grab a latte.
At Oloman and other art spaces in Hamtramck such as Hatch Art, Planet Ant, and Public Pool, participants take an active role in the creation and sharing of art.
The convergence of cultures that makes Hamtramckâ€™s streets so vibrant also creates a dynamic food and art culture. A restaurant tour of the city would take days, span continentsâ€™ worth of spices, and generations of cuisine, from Boostan CafĂ©â€™s baladi dakkah to Polish Villageâ€™s dill pickle soup to the chef-run popup feasts at (revolver).
Hamtramck boasts a thriving music scene, too.
For such a compact city, Hamtramckâ€™s high ratio of bars-to-people is a testament to its working-class origins. Century-old corner bars host improv nights, karaoke, and local bands Timmyâ€™s Organism, Caveman Woodman, and Prude Boys, all of which are raucous crowd favorites that tour nationally and internationally.
Down on the south side of town, Hamtown Farmsâ€™ Michael Davis and Andy Rice grow food and herbs indigenous to Michigan. After years of effort and community-based fundraising, the pair was able to buy seven lots from the city. There the farm cultivates paw paw, cherries, hazelnuts, raspberries and a host of leafy greens and herbs. The farmâ€™s 3/4 acre beds are a mix between private beds tended by individuals, and public beds â€” in which the produce is free to anyone who comes by.
Davis and Rice have become informal adoptive uncles to dozens of neighborhood kids; they teach the kids about where food comes from and how to sustainably raise it.
The kids pitch in whenever thereâ€™s a need, toting wheelbarrows full of gravel and weeding beds. The land has always served as a makeshift soccer field, so a few years back, Davis and Rice planted a few tomato cages to mark the goal zones. Soon, the kids were tending to the field, too, and defending the plants from potential vandals.
â€śPeople have forgotten food and where it comes from,â€ť Davis says. â€śBut after a while, these kids just owned that field â€” they had a sense of place. Big things can happen in small places.â€ť
Hamtramckâ€™s business owners, residents and festival organizers are masters of efficiency, packing a host of experiences into the pocket-sized city. The Labor Day Festival, Hamtramck Music Festival, Hamtramck Neighborhood Arts Festival, summerâ€™s Strawberry Festival, the North American Bangladeshi Festival, the Polish Festival, Paczki Day. Hamtramckans of every stripe love their festivals, and the streets fill with music and laughter every few weeks in the spring and summer. Itâ€™s a small-town vibe in a pocket of the bigger city, an echo of my great-grandparentsâ€™ close neighborhood ties when they first moved to Detroit.
As a micro-city, Hamtramck also serves as a microcosm for the rest of the country. City issues like overcrowding, underfunded road and improvement plans, and confusion between different cultures are at the forefront of many national conversations. In Hamtramck, those issues are concentrated by the cityâ€™s small size and its diversity of population.
â€śThatâ€™s our lesson,â€ť Majewski says. â€śBecause we do it on such a small scale on our 30-foot lots and our front porches, thatâ€™s the challenge and the beauty of Hamtramck.â€ť
Whether in the coffee shops or markets, or strolling through a festival, Hamtramckâ€™s residents have created a unique space that is reminiscent of city life 100 years ago, yet simultaneously a waymarker for a new kind of American city.
At dayâ€™s end, the mosquesâ€™ call to prayer summons the kids home from the alleys and fields, and the bells of St. Florian ring out for the evening rosary. As night gathers in, so do the cityâ€™s residents, in homes and coffee shops and churches and bars.
For Hamtramck, says Majewski, â€śThe breath outward that took us to the suburbs is contracting now. People are looking for a way to come closer together.â€ť