By Alan Madlane
The Hamtramck Historical Museum is preparing for a huge birthday bash.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Hamtramck being incorporated as a city.
Greg Kowalski is the museum’s executive director, and revealed some of the plans for the celebration. Here’s what he had to share.
The Review: First of all, let’s get a little background on the city, just a quick couple of paragraphs for those who, maybe, just moved in, or are visiting from out of town, or dropped in from another galaxy?
Greg Kowalski: Hamtramck was formed, in 1798, as a township. It was huge back then. It stretched from Base Line (8 Mile Road) to the Detroit River, and from Woodward Avenue to Lake St. Clair. It was named after Jean Francois (later John Francis) Hamtramck, a French-Canadian who came to the new United States to fight against the British in the Revolutionary War.
Through the 19th century, Hamtramck shrank as Detroit grew, the latter annexing the former bit by bit. At the time, it was mainly settled by German farmers.
In 1901, a group of Hamtramckans living in this area formed the village of Hamtramck. There wasn’t much here, but that all changed, in 1910, when the Dodge Brothers came to the village and started building what would become the Dodge Main factory, which opened in November, 1910.
The need for workers prompted a vast influx of immigrants, mainly from Poland, to flood into the village. Nearly two dozen other factories also opened in the town. In 1910, there were 3,500 people in Hamtramck. By 1920 there were 48,000.
In 1915, Hamtramck was listed as the fastest-growing town in the nation. And, within the space of that decade, Hamtramck went from being a small farming village to a major industrial town.
That set the pattern for decades to come. While Hamtramck’s population declined after 1930, its history of immigration only strengthened as people from a host of different nations came to town. They made Hamtramck one of the most diverse cities in America, and the city attracted attention around the world for its living demonstration of diversity, tempered by tolerance.
That is an image that is stronger now than it has ever been.
The Review: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the city becoming incorporated, after having been previously designated as a township, then a village, and so forth.
Why become a city? What are the advantages of doing so?
Kowalski: Under Michigan law, it is extremely difficult for a city to annex another city. But it is easier for a city to annex a village or township. Detroit had been annexing portions of Hamtramck virtually since Hamtramck Township had been formed in 1798.
By 1921, the village of Hamtramck was so large that the residents saw no advantage to being a part of Detroit. Further, they would have lost their local control if Detroit had taken over.
Also, the Poles who came to dominate the town thought they had a chance to take political control through an election — if the town incorporated as a city. This was important to them because, while the Poles vastly outnumbered the original German residents, the Germans still retained political power.
There was a lot of animosity between the two groups, dating from their uneasy coexistence in Europe and going back centuries from there. And, in fact, when the first city election was held, Poles did take political control.
The Review: The city is, once again, in the midst of some pretty big demographic shifts. How has this pattern of immigrants coming here first — before oftentimes moving on to other “wealthier,” or more “up-scale” areas — affected the city’s “sense of itself,” in your opinion?
Kowalski: (I don’t see that that’s really happened), because shifting demographics have become part of the city’s “sense of itself.” Immigration and migration have become the key factors of Hamtramck’s existence.
Because so many people have continuously been moving into and out of the town, the city has developed an amazing degree of flexibility. All are welcome here. That has been demonstrated since the massive immigrant influx that basically began in 1910.
Polish immigrants, who themselves felt as outcasts in the eyes of many others, were much more willing to accept other ethnic and national groups as neighbors. Patterns of ethnic, religious and racial discrimination, while they did exist, were not ingrained in Hamtramck as they were in many other communities.
Simply put, people in Hamtramck tend to maintain a strong sense of community — even as some move out, and new people move in. This is often shown today with people who left the city long ago, but still feel a strong connection back to Hamtramck, which they demonstrate especially on social media sources.
The Review: What was life like for the average Hamtramckan of 1922? Would you say there was anything here that made the city special, in that time?
Kowalski: Life in that period was extremely difficult, for a variety of reasons. Consider that, typically, when a person bought a house here they got only electricity and cold running water. There was no furnace, no insulation, no hot water, and many homes still had outhouses, not indoor toilets.
Living conditions were extremely crowded. The city’s population reached 56,000 people in an area of 2.094 square miles. And, there are no high-rise apartments in Hamtramck.
Most people worked in factories, where conditions often were inhumane and the pay was low. There were almost no social services. Pollution, including air made foul by the numerous factories, was rampant. Serious diseases, like tuberculosis and polio, were a common threat.
But it wasn’t all misery. Family ties were strong, and the churches and other social organizations provided aid — and entertainment venues.
And, of course, there were the bars, which (for better or worse) provided a way to escape the miseries of life, at least for a while. In many ways, the residents often were economically poor, but spiritually wealthy.
The Review: What would you say are the biggest changes for the city over the past few years – and yes, some might be obvious, but perhaps some others might not be?
Kowalski: The obvious demographic shifts aside, one of the most intriguing aspects of Hamtramck is the sense of community that seems stronger than ever. This is especially evident in the number of younger new residents who are moving into town and becoming involved in community activities.
This is extremely important, because not only does it add to the diversity of Hamtramck, it also provides a resource of new, young residents to take part in activities and contribute to the stability of the community.
It seems that more people than ever are volunteering in a host of ways, including serving on city commissions; volunteering for other activities such as animal rescue, planting and beautification projects; delivering social services like snow shoveling for the elderly; and even operating the Hamtramck Historical Museum.
Commitments like these must not be underrated. They are vital to the strength of the community, and demonstrate that these people really care about their town, and are willing to make personal sacrifices to support and improve it.
The Review: What is your exact role (or that of the Historical Museum’s) going to be, with respect to the centennial celebration?
Kowalski: The Hamtramck Historical Museum, and associated Hamtramck Historical Commission, are working closely with the city’s Arts and Culture Commission to plan and implement activities for the centennial.
The Arts and Culture Commission has developed the logo for the anniversary, which will become more prominent in the months to come. We are planning a series of activities in the museum, as well as at other locations across the city.
The Review: What plans can you reveal that have been discussed for the centennial celebration – at least, that you have been included in?
Kowalski: Several activities are in the works. One of the largest will be a dedication of the grave of Col. Hamtramck at Veterans Memorial Park.
The Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution will be placing small, new markers at the gravesite, and there will be a reception afterward at the historical museum.
Also being planned is a historical scavenger hunt in June, and the annual city festival will carry a centennial theme. And a series of programs at the historical museum, including a pair of Hunger for History events on the history of Hamtramck.
Other museum events focusing on diversity are planned for the museum. Dates will be determined depending on the Covid situation. The museum currently is hosting a Memory Wall entitled “Somewhere in Time,” featuring written memories of residents, former residents and friends of Hamtramck.
We also are tentatively planning several summer events at Hamtramck parks, including a special event to be held in conjunction with the Friends of Historical Hamtramck Stadium at the stadium in Veterans Memorial Park. More details will be coming in early spring.
The Review: How, in your opinion, has the pandemic affected – or how does the pandemic continue to affect – the types of activities that may be offered, or other aspects of such a public celebration, such as crowd distancing, possible mask mandates, temperature checks, vax card requirements, or so forth?
Kowalski: The Covid-19 pandemic will have a major impact on the centennial.
As this is being written, the pandemic is easing up, which is encouraging, but whether that trend will continue isn’t clear. We have some activities planned to be held in the Hamtramck Historical Museum, but they are tentative because we don’t know if there will be another Covid surge.
We feel confident we will be able to make decisions by the spring. However, we also are planning a number of outdoor activities, such as the re-dedication of Col. Hamtramck’s grave on Memorial Day, events at Veterans Memorial Park, and the annual city festival, which will be held unless such outdoor events are prohibited by the state.
The Review: Your specialty is the city’s history, and you’ve seen a fair bit of it unfold yourself in the many years you’ve lived here – what specific aspects of the city and its history would you like to see incorporated into the centennial celebration? And how many years have you lived in Hamtramck?
Kowalski: I was born in St. Francis Hospital on Nov. 2, 1950, and have lived in Hamtramck all my life. I have been to many places but this is the only place I will live.
In fact, it is the only place I will die. I have left instructions that, after I die, I am to be cremated, and my ashes spread on the railroad tracks (away from people) in Hamtramck.
As for the centennial celebration, we absolutely must incorporate the city’s most memorable accomplishment — the successful blending of its diverse population. We are an example for the world to see and learn from.
We will be highlighting that in programs at the historical museum, and elsewhere.
The Review: If you were to put some items from this city, in this time, in a capsule for those in 2122 to find, what would you add?
Kowalski: A copy of The Review; menus from a Polish, Bangladeshi and Yemeni restaurant each in Hamtramck; a detailed map of the city; an N-95 face mask (unused); a copy of the centennial logo; a photo (both on paper and digital) of the mayor and city council.
A collection of photos (on paper, and digital) of everyday scenes of people and places in Hamtramck; a letter from the mayor giving his impression of the state of Hamtramck today, and his hopes for the next 100 years; a letter from the school superintendent doing the same.
And, several membership cards for the Friends of Historical Hamtramck — for them to fill out and then bring to the Hamtramck Historical Museum.
The Review: Here’s the hardest one: what might you guess the city will be like in that far-off year? Can we even begin to speculate?
Kowalski: Not really. There are just too many variables.
Posted April 1, 2022