By Alan Madlane
“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” – Marlon Brando as boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.
Cut to the early 1910s. It is Hamtramck, and the Dodge Brothers are just opening their new car manufacturing plant.
This would usher in an economic boom for the city that would last (discounting the Great Depression decade), arguably, into the 1970s, perhaps even the 1980s.
Then, quick as you could say “Dodge Dart,” the plant shuttered up, and the apparent decline began.
Down through the abandonment of the American Axle plant.
Ending with a city in receivership for a good part of the middle of this current decade, until March of last year.
There is even scuttlebutt of another potential receivership situation if the city cannot manage to navigate the next looming budget crisis. Again, due to an auto plant closure – this time, the GM plant on the city’s south edge.
None of this is the fault of the current administration.
It’s “just business” — the sad way things often work in today’s business world, when people and the cities they inhabit are shunted aside, in favor of profits for rich stockholders.
And it overlooks a lot of the positives that are happening (or have already happened, or will soon happen) in this town.
Still, perceptions can be difficult to combat. Witness an Msn.com “Money” online piece (www.msn.com/en-us/money/markets/american-towns-that-used-to-be-rich-but-are-now-poor) that lists Hamtramck — alongside nine other towns — among their “used-to-be” rich, that are now, well, not so much.
Most other places that went from rags to riches in the article are southern, perhaps surprisingly – three (Ville Platte, Springhill and Bogalusa) in Louisiana, and one each in Florida (Brownsville), Georgia (Brunswick), North Carolina (Laurinberg) and Arkansas (Camden).
The other two are Rust Belt cousins: Johnstown, Pennsylvania and East Cleveland, Ohio.
It’s easy for outsiders to read certain economic statistical indicators and jump to conclusions.
One of the formulas used was Average Family Income, which at roughly $24,000 per year in Hamtramck, is considered to be around poverty level.
On the business side of it, Hamtramck’s commercial building vacancy rate would appear to be relatively low to the casual observer (who actually bothers to come to the city and check).
And that’s in spite of a certain persnickety commercial property owner here, a dozen or so storefronts on Jos. Campau remain persistently vacant, perhaps almost on purpose?
Nevertheless, new businesses of all stripes continue to pop up. Hamtramck may not have full-flowered into the hipster mecca that the Utne Reader predicted a decade or so ago, but neither did it curl up and die like many doomsayers thought it would.
Mayor Karen Majewski naturally felt compelled to weigh in.
“That (article) really stung, but there is no stigma to being poor,” she said. Hamtramck may be low-income, she acknowledged, but “I think of us as a vibrant, interesting place.”
She questioned the methodology as well.
“Damn, we’re doing pretty good — for being poor,” she added, with more than a bit of sarcasm.
Well, they can hurl all the sticks and stones they want at Hamtramck, but it won’t hurt a town built out of brick and sweat so much.
“Used to be.”
July 26, 2019