City Life … 8/28/15
By Walter Wasacz
Hello Hamtramck, please allow me to reintroduce myself.
I’m the guy who walks your streets and alleys, eats in your restaurants, drinks in your bars, finds art and music in your galleries and alternative creative spaces, and pops into your pop ups.
When I walk I hear tunes in my head that I first heard, transistor radio to ear, as I walked from my house on Edwin St. to Jos. Campau. I do remember the exact spot — crossing Charest at Evaline in 1965 — that I first heard the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud” on WKNR Keener 13.
A bit of an odd thing to remember, I admit, but music has played an important role in my life as those who stick with me in the weeks ahead will see. Every stroll around the city holds a memory — sometimes related to sound, other times vision, or both — some going back half a century or more.
My first recollection of Hamtramck city life is from 1960, when I saw JFK’s motorcade roll into Keyworth Stadium. I was 5 and with my mother. A few years later, putting my uniform on, carrying my spikes and baseball glove, I walked to Veterans Park to play for the Giants, then the Cubs and the National League All-Stars, in what was still one of the best Little League Baseball programs in the country.
In 1966, I discovered the bus lines that rolled through Hamtramck. Off I went with my neighborhood friends downtown (to see the Pistons and the Tigers), to Edgewater Park (to ride the Wild Mouse) and to malls that were opening up on Detroit’s suburban periphery.
I remember, around that same time, how a small subset of Hamtramck youth began to reject the traditional greaser vs. frat social framework of the day and began to grow their hair longer, wear their skirts shorter, hanging out at places like the House of Rau (a “beatnik” coffeehouse), Ableman’s Books and Old Town records.
It was at Old Town where I first saw teen boys and girls who dressed like Brian Jones and Keith Richards of the Stones in plush red or (no doubt fake) snake-skin pants.
How cool, I thought then (and still do). I bought my first 45s by bands called the Blues Magoos, Electric Prunes and the Bubble Puppy. I was 11, hadn’t a clue what “cool” meant. In retrospect, it was all around me like a cloud, all I had to do was step into it and walk through.
I punk-rocked through the 1970s and early 1980s at bars like the Misty Inn and Crest Lounge (the building that housed those places, on Jos. Campau south of Commor, was later destroyed by fire) and, of course, the godmother of all them all, Lili’s 21.
I started writing about music for Detroit-based publications like Creem and the Metro Times, and some out-of-town magazines and newspapers in New York and London. But my base was my desk in Hamtramck, in the house my dad bought in 1947, the same house I live in today.
I was here in the 1990s, when another burst of cultural energy brought more changes to city life in Hamtramck.
Coffeehouses like Shadowbox and Planet Ant (now a venue for live theater) opened, artists moved in, people began to pay attention to an evolving neighborhood project called Hamtramck Disneyland, the underused Polish Falcons Hall became first the Falcon Club (punk, new wave and ska) then Motor (a “super” club with three rooms of techno, house and related electronic music styles), Whizzbang bookstore opened, held poetry readings and other literary events.
Cafe Zuppa, a lunch spot that replaced Shadowbox, served one-of-a-kind soups that attracted diners from near and far.
Meanwhile, the Conant and Caniff commercial strip and the city’s southend were being transformed by South Asian and Middle Eastern entrepreneurs. Hamtramck was no longer seen as just an enclave for Eastern European-Americans. It had a global vibe with destination cachet. Its ceiling for growth expanded, more people wanted to come here for food and fun.
National media paid attention, the UTNE Reader declaring Hamtramck one of the hippest neighborhoods in North America in 1997. Blender, a music magazine, said Hamtramck was number 2 on its list of rock ‘n’ roll towns (second only to Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
Sure, that’s hype, but there is truth there on a granular level. I know it’s there: I’ve lived this truth my entire life, and I’m happy to share it with you.
I bring all this up as a way to introduce what I will be writing about in this column. Real experience in a real place is the subject for City Life. This is not reporting in the conventional sense. It is more intimate than that. If love for Hamtramck does not come through in my words and pictures, then I am not doing my job.
There will be no shortage of experiences to write about.
In the past year I’ve participated in art, music and literary events at Public Pool, collaborated on a performance piece at last fall’s Neighborhood Arts Festival, led a mobile workshop at the Porous Borders Festival, and put a lineup of techno DJs together at Detroit Threads during the Hamtramck Music Festival.
But that pales next to the awesome work done by pros and volunteers who dedicate their time to making Hamtramck a better place. I will find you guys and expose your good deeds as best I can.
Fall is coming, cool stuff is happening and I plan to be there, hanging out and writing about it every two weeks. Memories are made of this. Let’s live it up.
Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer, a consultant for the Detroit-Berlin Connection and a former managing editor for Model D. He worked for the Hamtramck Citizen from 1993 to 2004. Like Mitch Ryder, he was born at Hamtramck City Hall when it was St. Francis Hospital.