Blue-collar town is so down it's hip Hamtramck: The Polish-American working- class city within Detroit's municipal limits now has a sculptor for mayor and is considered one of the 15 hippest places in America.

Sun Journal

January 06, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. -- In the smoky darkness of the old Polish Falcons Club, the mayor leans against a pool table and catches up on the latest gossip. He can hardly hide his disappointment. He has missed a surprise stop by the Cure.

Here, newlyweds once danced the polka while middle-aged auto workers relaxed over steins of Stroh's. But the Dodge Main plant that employed generations of immigrants closed long ago, leaving the blue-collar city mired in a deep recession.

Tonight, the mayor isn't fretting about its economic revival, but the lost opportunity to see one of his favorite alternative rock bands. The polka club reopened 18 months ago as the Motor Lounge, the hottest nightspot around Detroit. Mobs of the young and trendy now drink martinis and snake across the polished dance floor to techno music.

In a way, Hamtramck (pronounced ham-tram-ick) has found its own cure.

Bedeviled since the late 1970s by Detroit's bad name, the auto industry's painful restructuring and the migration to the suburbs, the 2-square-mile city within Detroit is bustling anew. Long the domain of Polish Catholics, as no-frills a working-class community as Dundalk, Hamtramck today is reinventing itself as an arty, multiethnic hangout.

Once known mainly for its bakeries and sausage shops, Hamtramck (pop. 18,372) now boasts Thai and Indian eateries, coffee shops, lofts and funky bars. Utne Reader, a counterculture magazine, even declared it one of the 15 hippest places in the nation.

"We've had a big influx," says Gary Zych, the newly elected mayor. He epitomizes the change: A bearded, 43-year-old sculptor who favors turtlenecks and teaches design, he just unseated the mayor of 18 years.

But Zych quickly warns: "We're not creating an Alpine village. There aren't any pretensions. It's changing, but it's the same in the sense that this really embodies the American Dream: You can still come here, make a living and find a sense of belonging."

New immigrants continue to arrive, some from Poland but increasingly also from Arab countries, Albania and the Ukraine.

Though the local Chrysler assembly plant is better known by its nickname "Poletown," less than half of Hamtramck's population today is Polish. A survey of schoolchildren found that just 8 percent spoke Polish at home, while 19 percent spoke Arabic.

Across town from the butcher shops selling kielbasa, Saleh al Masmari, who moved from Yemen, advertises Halal foods at his new Mecca market.

"Our friends were here and they told us this was a good place to live," says his daughter, Nawal, who teaches at a fast-growing Arabic school. "When one person hears about it, they tell their friends and neighbors."

The word on Hamtramck -- cheap rents, safe streets and old-fashioned charm -- spread equally quickly in the past few years among graduate students, painters, dancers and graphic designers.

They discovered large, sunny apartments renting for under $350 a month and houses selling for $40,000 -- just a 15-minute commute from downtown Detroit. Local developers noticed the resurgence and constructed lofts above the awning-covered shops on Joseph Campau, the crowded, half-mile main street that still offers all kinds of Polish goods.

Filmmakers Charles Cirgenski and Janine Menlove, who just wrapped up "Stardust," a movie they hope to release nationally, moved in at the beginning of the wave of artists 10 years ago. They had lost out bidding on an old firehouse in Detroit, and in a funk, decided to cheer themselves up with a hearty Polish dinner.

On Joseph Campau, they stumbled across a vacant flower shop. Today, behind the grimy, indistinct storefront stretches their sleek studio and apartment. Banana plants shelter a hot tub in the old greenhouse; upstairs, the rooms display antiques.

"It's like old Hollywood here; it's in a time warp," Cirgenski says. "This is one of the few places where you can live and walk around and there's not a highway in the middle of it."

He likes to watch the "70-year-old blue rinses" do their marketing next to twentysomething couples in matching black leather jackets. Scattered among the discount clothiers, bakeries and produce markets are newer shops selling beads, coffees and used books.

But it's the bars and nightclubs that draw most of the young


Lili's 21, known for its Iggy Pop memorabilia, led the way with alternative bands during Detroit's punk days in the late 1970s.

Now, crowds line up every Friday and Saturday night there and at the Attic, which features blues. Motor Lounge, where DJs spin techno, the electronic dance music invented in Detroit, is so vogue that members of the Cure, the Verve and Marilyn Manson drop by after performances.

Despite its growing popularity, however, Hamtramck still has a long way to go to recapture the prosperity of its heyday.

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