By Charles Sercombe
With the year 2013 about to bow out, it’s time to take a stroll through the past 12 months.
And what a busy year it turned out to be, and definitely another one for the Hamtramck history book (yes, we’re talking to you Greg Kowalski). Here is a look back on the first six months of the year. Come back next week for the second half of our Year in Review.
Call it a clash between commerce and religion. The talk of January was a decision by the Zoning Board of Appeals to allow a mosque to open up in the heart of the city’s business district at Jos. Campau and Caniff.
It wasn’t so much that a religious institution was going to operate there, but the fact that it was yet another tax-exempt enterprise setting up on Jos. Campau. There are two other mosques operating in the same block as the new one.
“In most successful communities you don’t have religious institutions as part of your downtown,” said then Acting City Manager Kyle Tertzag about the issue.
It appeared the city’s ZBA based their decision on the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), but according to one law firm the reading of that law is ripe for misinterpretation.
Regardless, the decision had been made. However, since that time, mosque organizers have yet to open their doors at the site.
Federal authorities raided one of the worst kept secrets in Hamtramck: The Qandi Family Medical & Urgent Care Center on Jos. Campau in the southend. It had been obvious for months that the clinic was issuing illegal prescriptions.
A tip-off that something wasn’t right at the clinic was the all-day line of “patients” waiting to get inside.
Mayor Karen Majewski was pleased about the bust and wrote in her Facebook page: “I’ve been waiting for this!!! Made my day!”
Investigators made several arrests, including the doctor writing the prescriptions. Investigators said the doctor was writing 40-50 prescriptions every 30 minutes.
An ongoing street robbery crime wave appeared early in the year and would climax during the summer when there were two to three robberies occurring each week. Police would bust one crime crew only to see another take their place.
Police Chief Max Garbarino was looking for a few good men and women. Well, actually a lot of them. The chief was seeking to beef up the dwindling Police Reserve force in a special recruitment drive.
After months of complaints about the subject matter of a mural that was painted on the side of a city-owned building at Jos. Campau and Goodson, a new mural went up.
The offending mural depicted several underground cartoon characters carrying a coffin, a statement apparently about the commercialization and subsequent death of street art.
It didn’t sit right with a few folks who said the main message seemed to be about the death of Hamtramck. In its place was painted an eagle, yeah, an eagle. While we’re no experts on art, the new mural looks like a bunch of chicken scratch.
Sometimes a seemingly simple request can turn into a complex debate.
That’s exactly what happened when City Councilmember Robert Zwolak appeared before the School Board. He was there to ask the School Board to select two people who might make good candidates for the soon-to-be-resurrected Parks Advisory Board.
However, speaking on his own behalf, Hamtramck Public Schools Superintendent Tom Niczay didn’t welcome the request.
“I feel there was no communication about this,” said Niczay. “For the city to move forward we have to work together, but I can’t ask the board to support this.”
The issue eventually faded away.
State Treasurer Andy Dillon rejected Hamtramck’s budget deficit plan and refused to loan the city $3 million. In an ongoing attempt to fix the city’s budget, city officials had to retreat and start all over again.
Acting City Manager Kyle Tertzag said one of the key objections the state had is the city’s “Cadillac” labor contracts and that the state was not going to “fund the status quo.”
Drivers could take their foot off the brake while cruising on the I-75 service drive, thanks to an investigative report by WXYZ’s Scott Lewis.
Lewis did an expose on the speed trap along the service drive, which had a 25 miles per hour speed limit, which for a three lane service drive was ridiculously low and tailor made to nail drivers with speeding tickets.
Police Chief Garbarino agreed to raise the speed limit to 40 miles per hour for the stretch between Holbrook and Caniff.
Add another specialty market to Hamtramck’s growing commerce development. The Al-Amryah International Foods opened up on Caniff and Edwin to serve the growing Bangladeshi community and lovers of international foods.
Before Obamacare got off the ground, Wayne County opened a new health clinic on Jos. Campau to serve the low-income. Considering that 40 percent of Hamtramck’s population lives in poverty, this was welcomed news.
Pazcki Day came early this year, but as usual pazcki lovers came out in droves to celebrate the day. One thing that a number of folks weren’t pleased about was a Pazcki Day parody that hit the Internet.
Parody-maker John Kerfoot was well known for his snarky parodies of the “Pure Michigan” promos and zeroed in on a number of cities and their quirky offerings.
Apparently Hamtramck’s Pazcki Day was ripe for his picking, which made everyone in Hamtramck look like fat slobs. And just to make sure Poles would get super upset, he used the word “Polack” in his spoof.
Dr. Thaddeus Radzilowski, President of the Piast Institute, said the language and image of Poles in the film was not unlike Nazi propaganda from the 1930s that was used to degrade Poles.
“It is hard to believe that in the early 21st Century one would hear such open expression of virulent and vicious racism,” Radzilowski said in a press release.
He noted that Nazi propaganda depicted Poles as “less educated, less cultured, slovenly and utterly deficient in habits of personal hygienic.”
“Compare those descriptions with Kerfoot’s statements that Poles are ‘fat and stupid.’ They are people who ‘look like zombies.’ Their city is ‘ugly and gray.’”
The Polish Consulate also weighed in on the issue, demanding YouTube remove the film because it violates YouTube’s rules against hate speech. The Consulate said the use of the word “Polack” is considered “a derogatory reference to a person of Polish descent.”
Hamtramck Public Schools are not getting a fair shake, according to a report by The Center for Michigan, a non-partisan think tank that did a major study of education in the state.
According to the Center, if you factor in the effects of Hamtramck’s nearly 50 percent poverty rate, the public school district here is performing fairly well.
The Center conducted 250 community meetings throughout the state, including one in Hamtramck.
Using a number of factors, including the fact that 90 percent of Hamtramck’s public school students qualify to receive a free lunch or a lunch at a reduced price, the Center ranked Hamtramck Public Schools’ academic performance at 200 out of 560 districts.
That’s an uptick compared to the grade given to Hamtramck schools by the Michigan Department of Education. The MDE ranks the district in the bottom 10 percent based on student academic performance.
Hamtramck Superintendent Tom Niczay pointed out that the conservative think tank The Mackinac Center for Public Policy also gave Hamtramck schools a far better ranking than the MDE.
The Mackinac Center ranked Hamtramck schools 120th out of 585 districts.
In an email to district employees, Niczay criticized the MDE.
“Tell everyone that will listen how grossly unfair the MDE rankings are by not factoring the poverty rate,” Niczay said in his email.
Since the 1980s, the Hamtramck Fire Department had been the city’s main ambulance service.
That tradition became a thing of the past.
The city hired Detroit Medical Center to take over that service after one of the Fire Department’s ambulances could not be started when it was about to transport a child who had stopped breathing.
The city’s two ambulances had been experiencing mechanical failures, said Acting City Manager Kyle Tertzag.
Firefighters were not happy with the city’s decision to take the department’s ambulances out of service. The president of the firefighters’ union, Matt Wyszczelski, said it appeared the city took that action as a way to get contract concessions.
“If they are using the ambulance as a bargaining chip, they are holding the residents hostage,” he said.
But behind the scenes, pressure has been mounting on the city to get its financial house in order.
State Treasurer Andy Dillon warned the city to get major concessions from its employees in the next two months, or warned the state would step in. That’s what Acting City Manager Tertzag told the city council.
City officials have been focusing on gutting the Fire Department since that appeared to be the most expendable.
About 80 to 90 percent of the runs made by the Hamtramck Fire Department are for ambulance service, said Fire Chief Paul Wilk.
With ambulance service contracted out, city officials were thinking how many firefighters are truly needed.
As it turned out, an emergency manager was appointed, but as this issue of The Review went to press, no new firefighter contract has been officially released. Will the Fire Department’s structure remain as it is?
While city officials worked out labor contracts, the city’s financial crisis continued to the point where the city temporarily suspended payments to contractors to avoid payless paydays.
Scratch those retirement plans.
Hamtramck Public Schools Superintendent Tom Niczay reversed his decision to retire, saying it was simply not the time.
“The District is going through a very challenging period. A change in leadership during the next several months is not in the best interest of the District,” Niczay said in a letter to the School Board.
“I want to continue to lead HPS and work with the dedicated individuals of this District to overcome the challenges we face, uphold the positive steps we have taken and create the strongest and most vibrant educational community we can.”
And that was welcomed news to the Hamtramck School Board, which unanimously voted to keep Niczay in his role as superintendent.
Hamtramck’s housing stock took a hit in March. According to the Wayne County Assessor’s Office, house values here decreased by 10.5 percent.
But just because house values dropped, that didn’t mean a reduction in property tax bills, at least according to Hamtramck’s own Assessor Tony Fuoco. He said that 1994’s Proposal A puts a halt to steep changes in property values and their affect on property taxes.
Trust us, it’s complicated.
Hamtramck teacher Therese Comor was probably a class clown when she was student. But her natural comic ability paid off. She was a contender in ABC’s “The View” comedy talent search.
Although ultimately she didn’t make the final cut, she did get to appear on the show. We asked her what the benefits were in being both a comedian and a teacher.
“I think one benefit of being a comedian and teacher is that there are some times when I should be crying but I can laugh because I see the humor in the situation,” Comor said.
“Another reason middle school and comedy works is because there is not a tougher audience than a group of pre-teens and teenagers — sometimes I can test out material without them even knowing about it. I also do that with friends and family, too.”
City Councilmember Cathie Gordon entered into the mayoral election early by submitting her resignation from council to take on Mayor Majewski in the August Primary Election.
According to the City Charter, a councilmember in mid-term must resign to run for mayor. Gordon didn’t have to actually leave office until the end of December.
It was no surprise Gordon decided to challenge the mayor. She had been a thorn in Majewski’s side ever since she took office.
“I don’t think this administration has considered what the people want,” Gordon said.
As it turned out, Gordon finished last in the primary election, and Mayor Majewski won her third term.
Hamtramck teachers missed a deadline to nail down a new labor contract and now face having the state’s new Right to Work Law go into effect when their current contract expired in August.
Long story made short, this meant that any new hires could opt out of having to join the teachers’ union.
Hamtramck is often compared to the United Nations. And if Human Relations Commission (HRC) Chairman Russ Gordon had his way, it would have the flags of the world on display to back that statement up.
Gordon, along with HRC Activity Chairwoman Ismira Lokmic, took on the ambitious project of refurbishing 18 flagpoles that line Jos. Campau between Caniff and Carpenter. The flagpoles were first installed during the administration of former Mayor Robert Kozaren at a cost of about $50,000.
Since then, the flagpoles have deteriorated — as have the relationships among community members, according to Gordon — but not to the point where they could not be repaired.
“Right now there’s a divide in Hamtramck. Our goal is to try and bring people together,” says Gordon. “We want people to feel that when they come to this community, they are part of it.”
Flash forward a couple of months, and Gordon met that challenge, and in a special ceremony the flags of the world adorned the flagpoles.
Although firefighters no longer provide ambulance service, their union demanded that firefighters still get paid for the duty.
How does that work?
In a labor grievance filed by the firefighters, which The Review acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, the union said that a fire truck should be reserved for EMT crews who would arrive at a medical run first and then assess whether an ambulance should be called.
In that way, each EMT crew member would receive their contract-mandated extra pay.
As you can imagine, the demand didn’t go over well in city hall.
Acting City Manager Kyle Tertzag said the firefighters’ demand is “beyond belief.”
“The firefighters are asking for a three-to-four minute delay on every ambulance run so they can get $100 extra per shift,” Tertzag said. “It’s pretty clear to me that they are not looking out for the best interests of the residents.”
A major citywide sidewalk repair project took a stumble before it could even start.
Acting City Manager Kyle Tertzag rejected the only two bids received for the project because they looked suspicious. Tertzag said the two bids were handed in at the same time by one person to the City Clerk’s Office.
The two bids were in identical envelopes with identical address labels and had identical fonts, font size and font color.
Another red flag was raised, Tertzag said, when both bids were notarized by the same person on the same day.
Tertzag said it appeared to him the two supposed competitors had colluded in some fashion.
“I felt there were too many similarities between the two bids,” Tertzag said.
The city had a “lot” for Hamtramck residents to do in the summer.
Not as in activities, but as in a parcel of land that you could adopt.
In an effort to trim the amount of properties the city needs to mow and help cut costs for the city, the city offered lots to residents to use as gardens.
“Are we going to be the recycling center of the state?”
That was a question City Councilmember Robert Zwolak posed about the sudden rush of industrial recycling facilities either about to start up or planning to in Hamtramck. By the way things were going, you could say “yes” to his question.
And we’re not talking about getting households to drop off recyclable items. These recycling operations deal with business and industrial waste and haul their waste materials in by the truckloads.
The first to come into town was Hamtramck Recycling & Transfer, which built a new 32,000 square-foot facility on Denton St. and handled paper, cardboard and plastic waste.
Also operating was a company called Styrecycle, which recycles industrial Styrofoam, also known as polystyrene foam. The facility is located at 3901 Christopher, off of Conant.
It’s in this area that may become a hub for two other recycling centers, said city officials. We’re still waiting for that development.
As the city continued to wallow in financial crisis, state intervention seemed more likely. In fact, an official state review of the city’s financial situation began in March.
A review team was given 60 days to come up with its findings. As you can imagine, it didn’t take that long.
The annual Hamtramck Metro Time Blowout occurred in April for the first time in 16 years instead of March, and it also expanded into Ferndale.
Some thought the inclusion of Ferndale might mean ultimately moving it there permanently. The decision to include Ferndale appeared to water down the Hamtramck celebration, with attendance way, way down this year.
And now that the Metro Times is being sold, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen this year to the music festival.
It was time to make way for orange barrels. DTE Energy began the second phase of a citywide replacement of gas lines, which also lead to the replacement of hundreds of sidewalk slabs.
Although homeowners enjoyed getting a free upgrade and new sidewalks, it took a toll on residents who had to park blocks away while the work was done.
As the state inched closer and closer to appointing an emergency manager to take over the city, a state financial review team invited the public to comment on the city’s financial woes.
Except there was one problem. There was no public notice of the event, which perhaps explained why only four people showed up.
One recommendation made by a resident to fix the city’s finances was to hold a special lottery. The review team was not amused.
Later in the month, the review team submitted its findings. The team didn’t mince words when it came how city officials handled the crisis.
“… It appears that the city’s worsening financial condition was obvious to city officials, but that they were either unwilling or incapable of taking resolute action to address the matter,” the report said.
The review team lashed out at the council – and mayor – for being “dysfunctional.”
“While several City Councilmembers we interviewed seemed individually knowledgeable regarding the city’s financial condition, the members of that body seemed unable to function collectively in a coherent manner,” the report said.
The team further said:
“The Review Team was informed that City Council meetings are chaotic, protracted, and produce little in the way of tangible results. In such an environment, rational financial management is not likely to be forthcoming.”
As for the mayor, the team said:
“While the mayor is separately elected, the office is so inextricably linked to the City Council as to be part of the local governing body. For example, the mayor attends City Council meetings and is responsible for presiding at them.”
With that in mind, the team said that even if the financial crisis is turned around, there needs to be protracted supervision of the city — especially since this is the second time the city has turned to the state for help.
What do you get when you cross a dozen firefighters and a handful of volunteers with an unkempt historical landmark?
A big difference — as long as some power tools are involved.
That’s just what happened when the Hamtramck Firefighters Association teamed up with local community members for a clean-up of the baseball grandstand in Veterans Park. After several intense hours the site was transformed from an overgrown, trash-filled mess to at least a shade of its former glory.
Hamtramck’s election season was officially off and running, with 19 candidates signing up for the Primary Election.
Mayor Majewski faced three challengers: City Councilmembers Abdul Algazali and Cathie Gordon and Review Publisher John Ulaj.
To the surprise of no one, Gov. Rick Snyder agreed that Hamtramck is in a financial crisis, and he appointed Cathy Square as the city’s emergency manager. Square came on board July 1.
This was the second time in 13 years that the state has intervened. Square is no stranger to Hamtramck. She was part of Lou Schimmel’s administration when he was the emergency financial manager in Hamtramck back in 2000.
Mayor Karen Majewski welcomed Square, and on her Facebook page she wrote:
“We will work with her and try to do what is best for the residents of Hamtramck. The goal is a healthy, viable city with a firm foundation on which to prosper. As we all come together and work through this, I hope everyone remembers that we have much to be proud of, and many assets on which to build a strong and stable future.”
As for what Square saw as the source of the city’s problems, she said told Mlive.com that she “assumes” it’s because local officials have been “overspending.”
Forget about American Axle starting back up its Detroit-Hamtramck plants.
The company announced it will demolish all but two of the plants in the coming months. According to media reports, the plants are coming down to make the property more attractive to developers.
The Hamtramck portion of one of the plants is going to be razed, city officials said.
That will mean a loss of $80,000 worth of property taxes a year, said Acting City Manager Kyle Tertzag.
The announcement came as a surprise to city officials.
“That’s not being a good corporate citizen,” said Mayor Karen Majewski. “The fact that they didn’t have the courtesy to notify us, I think that’s disrespectful. It’s indicative of the relationship we’ve had in the last few years.”
Veterans Memorial Park has a good friend indeed.
Following the recent clean-up of the area around the grandstands by firefighters and volunteers, General Motors stepped up to the plate.
GM sponsored a huge fix-up of the park by donating the time of three adult mentors and hiring a dozen Hamtramck High School students.
Their teen spirit focused on repairing the fence at the tennis court, moving and improving the little-used playscape, removing graffiti from the grandstand area and picking up litter.
GM also offered a donation for further park improvements and ongoing maintenance.
On the plus side, dozens of households got new sidewalks for absolutely free. On the negative side, that meant dozens of big trees had to be cut down, leaving a number of residents complaining about the loss of shade the trees provided.
Ron Dawson echoed Joyce Kilmer’s famous ode to trees when he said:
“It’s a shame to cut down something so beautiful,” Dawson said.
Or as Kilmer said: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”
It was baseball fever in Hamtramck.
No we weren’t talking about the Detroit Tigers. Instead, we all got excited about the Hamtramck High School Cosmos winning another District Championship.
Let’s go Cosmos!
If you’ve ever imagined a gathering place that celebrates the rich diverse history of Hamtramck — a meeting place that would also evolve to include the present day cultural fabric of the town — then you didn’t have to wish any longer.
The city’s first-ever Historical Museum moved into a storefront on Jos. Campau that was donated by a longtime property owner and lover of Hamtramck.
A main focus of the museum will be to act as a tour anchor for the growing heritage tourism industry.
The Historical Commission plans on capitalizing on this effort by linking activities and tours with other local historical preservation groups.
“Hamtramck is a hot-spot among tourists,” said Greg Kowalski, the Chairman of the city’s Historical Commission. “Word has gotten out that Hamtramck is unlike any other town in Michigan. We offer a world of sights in two square miles and the Hamtramck Historical Museum will be an anchor for cultural heritage tours.”
Well, that wraps up the first half of our review of 2013. For a small city, Hamtramck sure packs in a lot, eh?
Come back next week for our conclusion of our Year in Review.