By Charles Sercombe
The year 2009 is just about coming to an end and so it’s appropriate we take a look back at the past 12 months. We couldn’t have done this without The Citizen newspaper, which went out of business in mid-April. Here’s an overview of the first half of the year:
One story that continued to play out from 2008 to 2009 was the case of missing 3-year-old Tangena Hussain. She went missing in October of 2008 and investigators were still nowhere close to solving the case, although they had a few theories.
As of now, the case has still not been solved despite a $20,000 reward the FBI is still offering.
The story of her disappearance, as told by the boyfriend of the girl’s mother, goes like this: The boyfriend said he and Tangena were driving to pick up the girl’s mother at Northland Shopping Mall, where the mother worked. On the way there, the boyfriend pulled into a gasoline station, parked the car and locked the doors with Tangena waiting inside.
After purchasing some gum and fruit juice, he came back to the car and discovered the girl was gone without any signs of a break-in to the car. The boyfriend has never been charged with the girl’s disappearance but is awaiting a charge of statutory rape in an unrelated case. That rape case, incidentally, may have fallen apart, according to sources familiar with the case.
Investigators searched several properties and backyards to see if the girl’s body, on an assumption she was dead, was buried somewhere.
A new wave of break-ins started popping up in Hamtramck and nearby Detroit neighborhoods. The break-ins were being performed by teenage crews who would go up to random houses and knock on the front door. If no one answered, they would return a little later and sneak around to the rear door and kick it in.
Remodeling of City Hall and the 31st District Court has long been over but a little noticed court fee remained in place. The court’s $10 “building fee” is still being charged to traffic violators and criminals.
The rationale for keeping the collection going, said City Manager Bill Cooper, is that City Hall still needs maintenance work, namely $3 million worth of roof repairs.
New Year’s Eve turned tragic for the family of Randy Cammon, an employee with the Hamtramck Public Schools. Cammon, 22 years old, was apparently walking home on the I-75 service drive around 4 a.m. when a suspected drunk driver struck and killed him.
The story took another tragic turn when the suspected drunk driver, on the verge of being arrested, suffered an apparent heart attack and died.
The clock was ticking down for any chance to remodel the former Shopper’s World building into a senior apartment complex with an Aldi market serving as an anchor on the ground floor.
The project had been delayed for so long the Aldi company was on the verge of pulling out.
“Both feet are in the grave,” said City Manager Bill Cooper about the project. “We ran out of time.”
The building, located in the heart of the Jos. Campau business district, still remains empty although there has been some talk that the Meijer chain might – and it’s a big might – be interested in remodeling the building into a Meijer store.
And all of the above is just the first week of January.
The federal stimulus money continued to trickle into Hamtramck, albeit through the state Department of Transportation. In 2008, the city received millions to upgrade its crumbling overpasses along I-75, and in 2009 it was announced that the city would receive about $1 million worth of landscaping along I-75 to help “soften” the noise and just make it look better.
That work is still ongoing.
The subject of money and housing values continued to be the talk – and concern – of city officials as the economy continued to be in a free-fall. Back in January city officials fretted over the expected loss of revenue from state aid and falling tax collections from people losing their houses.
That concern will be the story of 2010 as city officials will have to grapple over how to plug a projected $4.3 million budget deficit in the coming years.
But there was one bright ray of hope. The former Woody Pontiac dealership, it was announced, would become the site of a new state Department of Human Services building. The dealership was eventually demolished and a brand new two-story structure is almost ready to open for business.
The new building will mean hundreds of folks working and being served there. It’s hoped there will be spillover to the local businesses and restaurants.
Anyone want to open up a sandwich shop in the northend of Jos. Campau? Heck, economic recession or not, people still gotta eat.
But, apparently, people don’t feel the need to spend money on getting a new hat. Henry the Hatter, a 24-year Hamtramck landmark, was an early victim of the tough economic times and abruptly announced it was closing. That meant there would be no more sightings of rocker Jack White, who used to shop at the store.
The store’s main branch in downtown Detroit is still in business. The former Hamtramck store remains empty.
For some, the defeat in 2008 of what was called a “gay rights” law was still hurting. But the issue, which has been controversial in just about every community that considered it, was resurrected by the Human Relations Commission.
Or so some said.
The commission’s chairman, Bill Meyer, said he wanted to help heal wounds and come back with a version that maybe a majority in the community could accept. As it turned out, city officials and others criticized how the commission handled the issue and Meyer was eventually kicked off the commission.
Boy, the people at Forbes magazine sure like to keep kicking a wounded dog down, down, down. For the second time within a year, the magazine dumped on Hamtramck, ranking it the seventh worse American small town to own a home.
Well, foreclosures were at an all time high and property values did take a steep plunge that many say will never go back to what they once were.
Previously, the magazine said Hamtramck is one of 10 cities in the country that is “dying.”
Hamtramck dying? Listen, this town has seen worse times and the people here have proven they know a thing or two on how to survive. It’s called helping your neighbors out, which this city has a long and proud history of doing.
So there, take that Forbes.
The top story of 2009 was officially underway. And no one saw what was about to come. It was in January that nominating petitions for the mayor’s seat and three seats on City Council became available.
By the time the August Primary Election rolled around, the city’s political make-up was forever changed. But more on that later.
While many businesses were concentrating, and crossing their fingers, on how to survive what many called an economic “tsunami,” other businesses were celebrating. For 100 years Peoples State Bank had battled the ups and downs in the economy and survived to celebrate its centennial.
The secret to their success?
“Don’t treat customers as a number,” said one bank executive.
As they say in Hamtramck, “Sto Lat”!
File this one under: “If only we knew then what we know now.”
The start of a several-month drama unfolded early in the month. For some, the residency question for City Councilmember Cathie Gordon was, let’s say, a nagging one. There were some doubts that when she ran for office whether she would truly move from her Sterling Heights home, where she lived with her husband, and make her mother’s house her new permanent dwelling.
Well, that issue came back to haunt Gordon and delved Hamtramck into an ugly political war. A complaint about her official residency was filed with the city after Gordon was seen in a television news interview saying if the economy gets much worse, she would be forced to sell her Sterling Heights home and move into the bar she owns, the New Dodge.
The City Attorney, James Allen, hired an outside attorney to investigate the matter.
The Bangladeshi community was shocked and outraged by the shooting death of one its community members, Rafiqul Islam, a 46-year-old father of two. Shocked over the random brutality of the crime and outraged over what they said was insensitive treatment by the Hamtramck Police Department.
A group of over 100 men and boys massed in front of City Hall, chanting “We want justice.”
At one point the rally took a bizarre turn when a hearse pulled up in front of City Hall and someone opened the back door, revealing a casket. The body of Islam was reportedly in it. The door was quickly closed and the hearse drove off, leaving some spectators wondering: What just happened there?
Police officials tried to explain why officers who responded to the scene acted the way they did. Some in the crowd were not satisfied with the explanation and demanded an investigation. The motive for the shooting is not known. Islam was shot in his car after just arriving home at night to his Prescott St. house.
A suspect was seen running away from the scene and hopping into a waiting van. While police say they can’t discuss details about the case because it’s an ongoing investigation, one source said it’s possible the shooting was a gang initiation ritual and the suspect might be in custody for an unrelated charge. Work is ongoing in discovering whether there is a link with the suspect but it could take months before an answer is known.
Hamtramck and Detroit know how to support those in need. The who’s who of Detroit’s music scene came out to help Hamtramck resident Jim Shaw in his battle with cancer. Shaw has had a long connection with musicians and has been an inspirational source for many.
Over 1,000 friends and supporters of Shaw packed into one of Detroit’s largest venues, the Magic Stick, to so show their love as well as raise some much needed money to defray the staggering medical costs. We’re glad to report that Jim is still kicking out the jams and is on his way to better health.
And speaking of musicians, Hamtramck resident Melody Baetens, by day a writer for the Detroit News and by night a rocker, became a part of Hamtramck’s next generation of business owners. The 29-year-old became part owner of Small’s Bar, one of several rock and roll bars that has helped reinvigorate the night scene in Hamtramck.
If it’s February, it’s time for Hamtramck’s favorite winter party: Paczki Day. Oh man, was it a sweet day indeed. Hamtramck bakeries and bars enjoyed one of the most well-attended and media frenzied Paczki Days in years, thanks to the city’s hiring of a professional events coordinator to help promote it.
The battle over whether City Councilmember Cathie Gordon was a legitimate resident intensified. The attorney hired to investigate Gordon’s residency submitted a report on the evidence gathered against Gordon.
The report concluded there was enough evidence to warrant \the City Council to hold a hearing on Gordon.
Gordon, in turn, hired her own attorney and vowed to fight the accusation.
“This is nothing more than a mere witch hunt,” said Gordon’s attorney.
That sound you heard blowing in the wind was the annual Metro Times Hamtramck Blowout. And Hamtramck was indeed blown away this year. The turnout was amazing as thousands and thousands of music lovers descended on the town for a weekend of fun.
Why was this year so much better attended? Considering the almost weekly drumbeat of harsh economic news, Hamtramck’s Special Events Coordinator, Eve Doster-Knepp, said people simply needed to “blow off steam.”
Speaking of blowing off steam, embattled City Councilmember Cathie Gordon unloaded on City Attorney James Allen and those behind an investigation of whether she was truly a resident of Hamtramck.
In a 12-page letter submitted by her attorney, Gordon’s response was that the city attorney overstepped his authority in hiring another attorney to undertake the investigation.
Gordon’s attorney, Patrick McQueeny, also said the City Charter fails to lay out a procedure to remove a councilmember from office.
City Attorney James Allen said McQueeny’s response was “ludicrous.”
At this point in the year, things looked hopeful for American Axle & Manufacturing. President Obama’s $5 billion bailout to auto suppliers included helping out American Axle. News of the American Axle bailout spiked up the company’s stock from 26 cents a share to $1.66.
A representative for the company insisted American Axle would survive. But in the months to come, the company’s future here took a drastic turn.
Here’s a sign of the times.
Housing in the metro area became so dismal that it drew national attention. Media outlets reported that some houses were being purchased for as little as $100 by artists from around the country. The good news was that some hoped that artists would move here and form an artists’ colony.
Gina Reichert, who spearheaded the housing project with her husband, Mitch, said all the media attention was “positive” for Detroit.
“We’ve gotten hundreds of e-mails from people saying they would like to move here,” she said.
Public school officials hired an outside agency to help turnaround bad behavior in the middle school and high school. In the coming months, students were taught “Restorative Practices” – a technique that helps students learn how to resolve disputes instead of resorting to fighting.
Just when The Citizen newspaper was about to pop champagne corks to celebrate its 75th anniversary – dang! – the paper abruptly closed in mid-April. The paper began in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression but it couldn’t survive the Second Great Depression.
The paper didn’t even get a chance to publish a farewell issue. The Citizen was hardly alone in going out of business. The newspaper industry has been reeling in the last several years as advertising revenue declined and readership also dropped off.
But in May, something new came along. Stay tuned.
Things were looking pretty gloomy for the automobile companies and their suppliers but American Axle CEO Richard Dauch preached nothing but optimism in a meeting with Hamtramck merchants.
Dauch predicted his company would be profitable before the end of the year. He said American automobile manufacturers had only themselves to blame for the economic downturn, saying American companies had failed to embrace globalization.
He also lashed out at American workers for their “entitlement mentality.” Months before, Dauch succeeded in getting union workers to slash their wages and benefits in half.
Despite all that optimism, American Axle later announced it was closing down its Detroit-Hamtramck plant and shipping all the work to a plant in Mexico. The company is the second largest taxpayer in Hamtramck and its closing meant a loss of $500,000 in property and income taxes.
Hamtramck City Hall hopped on the “green” bandwagon and started a recycling program in which employees could drop off paper, plastic cups, cardboard and electronic items, just to name a few.
The city’s program later expanded to a drop-off site for the public on the last Saturday of each month. You can drop off recyclables at a dumpster located in the city parking lot on Caniff at McDougall.
City Hall wasn’t the only local government agency to embrace going green. Over at the Hamtramck Housing Commission, going green actually paid off. The commission spent $3 million on energy upgrades and expects to save $300,000 a year because of it.
The agency replaced old furnaces and swapped them with new ones that were rated 90 percent efficient.
“This is really the responsible thing to do,” said Executive Director Kevin Kondrat.
A would-be carjacker picked on the wrong guy. A man in his 70s had just exited Maine Street restaurant and gotten into his car when a 17-year-old boy pointed a gun at him and ordered him out of his car.
The senior citizen whipped out his gun and shot the youth three times. Police arrived at the scene and arrested the teen, who survived the shooting.
The U.S. Census Bureau didn’t waste time to begin its campaign to get everyone counted. Although the official count was about a year away, census officials already fanned out in the community to make folks aware of what was to come.
The Bureau is armed with extra money for the 2010 count thanks to the Obama stimulus package. The count actually begins in mid-January of 2010.
With the economy worsening, Hamtramck’s streets turned meaner. In one week, eight street robberies were reported on top of an increasing number of home break-ins and auto thefts.
“With the economy bad, crime is going up everywhere – not just Hamtramck,” said Street Crimes Investigator Richard Betleja.
As the months went by, doubts continued to grow over the likelihood that missing 3-year-old Tangena Hussain would ever be found.
The suspect in the case, Jamrul Hussain, who shares the same last name with the girl but is not related to her, agreed to take a lie detector but the results were inconclusive because he broke down during the interview.
He has never been charged with the girl’s disappearance. Privately, investigators said they doubt the girl is still alive.
Hamtramck’s Community Initiative, a group dedicated to making the city more secure thanks to a Department of Justice grant, asked school and city officials to pitch in and hire a youth cop.
This officer, however, would not be an old-school cop who roughs up kids, but instead be a buddy to the students. Well, it seemed like a good idea but school and city officials never followed up on the request, most likely because of continued shrinking finances.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm took to the road to spread the news to communities across the state that the federal stimulus package has a range of things to offer unemployed people – namely education grants.
She spoke to a packed crowd at the Hamtramck Public Library. Granholm predicted that when the economic recession – or depression as some would say – is over, the state will emerge as a state that “leads the nation.”
“We are going to be all right,” she said.
Really. She said that. With a straight face.
Remember when she last ran for office and said optimistically we were all going to be “blown away”?
Ah, the month of May, when all things seem possible. A former publisher of The Citizen saw a void in Hamtramck — newspaper-wise — and decided to open a new newspaper. And thus, the newspaper you are now reading, The Review, was born, thanks to Mike Wilcox.
But almost two months later, Wilcox sold the paper to local real estate broker John Ulaj who remains the current publisher of the paper. So far, so good.
The saga of Councilmember Cathie Gordon came to an end. The city and Gordon kissed and made up. Sort of.
A deal was struck in which the Council agreed to stop proceedings to remove her from office and Gordon in turn submitted a letter of apology.
It was a good try even though it appeared futile. Mayor Karen Majewski appealed to state officials to step in and prevent American Axle from closing down and shipping 500 jobs to a plant in Mexico.
And in the same vein, a caravan of labor activists held a rally in Zussman Park, featuring some powerful speakers, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson. A group called “Keep It Made In America” sponsored the event, which attracted over 200 union members and others.
As expected Jackson electrified the crowd, starting with a chant, “Save the workers, save the families.”
The caravan visited 36 cities in 11 states that were hit hard by the closing of auto plants and related manufacturers. Just like in the case of American Axle, those lost jobs all went overseas or to Mexico.
Over the last 10 years, Michigan has lost one million manufacturing jobs.
Hamtramck’s election season was now set to go. This year the Bangladeshi community was well represented with four Bengali candidates signed up. The Review predicted a “sleepy” election year, but yow, did that ever change.
The growing influence of the Bengali community was on full display at the high school community center where hundreds came together to celebrate the Bangladesh New Year.
The Polish community also gathered at Pope Park to pay homage to Irene Sendler, known as the female “Oscar Schindler.” Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children during World War II and managed to survive being tortured by the Gestapo.
She died recently at age 98.
A fired Hamtramck police officer who was once assigned to a federal drug task force was indicted along with 74 other people for allegedly dealing drugs. Randell Hutchinson was charged with tipping off a biker gang about a federal investigation into its operations.
Hamtramck’s new $18.1 million budget became official, despite opposition from two councilmembers. New in the budget were two traffic patrol officers who were expected to write enough traffic tickets to produce over $200,000 in new revenue for the city.
Public School officials braced after hearing plans for renovating the former Greater Detroit Hospital and the Carpenter Medical Center on the Hamtramck side of Carpenter St. Developers announced they would spend $18 million to turn the buildings into a combination charter school, senior-assisted living center and medical offices.
Hamtramck school officials feared the new school would drain away more students and consequently more state financial aid for public schools.
As of this date, no work has taken place at the site other than the installation of some new windows.
In her annual “State of the City Address,” Mayor Karen Majewski said although the city is facing harsh economic times, the city is surviving.
“Step by step … we are moderately and incrementally providing more and more services for the community,” she said.
She credited state officials for coming to Hamtramck’s aid through a variety of programs and grants.
City officials were angered to find out that the decision to close down American Axle and move its operations to Mexico was announced at an industry gathering in January. CEO Richard Dauch told a group of auto analysts then that he was reducing U.S. production by 70 percent, expanding plants to Mexico, Brazil, China, Poland, India and Thailand and entered into a 50-50 joint venture with a Chinese company.
Hamtramck City Manager Bill Cooper said that when Dauch met with local merchants in April, he made no mention of closing down plants here. He said Dauch left out some “key information.”
UAW officials had no kind words for Dauch for moving jobs to Mexico at the expense of American workers. The workers held a rally in downtown Detroit at a site where Dauch was speaking.
A rumor started spreading about the possible closing of Hamtramck’s Post Office. Postal officials denied they planned to close the office, but later they backtracked on that statement and said the office was on a list of possible closings.
Well, a lot of talk went on all summer and by fall, it was officially announced that the Hamtramck office would be spared … that is, unless the postal service continues to bleed billions of dollars.
The Census count got another boost with the creation of the Hamtramck Complete Count Committee. The committee will work with ethnic community leaders in town as well as students in the schools to make sure Hamtramck residents fill out a questionnaire the Census will be mailing this year.
According to a sampling from the Census Bureau, Hamtramck will have its work cut out. The latest census estimate shows that the city’s population fell by 3,000. What’s at stake for the city is that the more people we have, the more federal money and programs we get.
The public schools did a U-turn by reinstating the district’s alternative high school for those students who fall through the cracks. The school had been closed five years earlier in an effort to save money.
The new school will not only return, it will also expand to offer vocational classes in culinary arts, heating and cooling, carpentry, dry wall installation and pharmaceutical training.
One school official called the new program a “one-stop shop” for students.
It took a year, but Hamtramck finally got their man – a 23-year-old man suspected of shooting to death a friend. The reason for the shooting was typically pointless: the result of an argument that suspect Damian Butler probably can’t even remember any more.
(Next week, the conclusion of our Year in Review.)