By Walter Wasacz
After receiving a gracious welcome to the pages of The Review last week by Editor Charles Sercombe (in a note attached to my report on the fabulous Blowout weekend)) and Publisher John Ulaj (via a very kind late night phone call), the least I could do was try to prove my worth in this first of a series of weekly columns devoted to telling Hamtramck’s stories, great and small.
Where do I begin?
How about here: the city’s life and my own share some deep personal history. My mother — still vibrant, independent and living in Hamtramck — was born in a house on Florian St. in 1919.
It was still a village then, the nation’s biggest, it was said, thanks to the booming automotive industry. My late father, born in a mining town south of Pittsburgh in 1911, migrated with his family to a house in Detroit’s old Chene St. neighborhood, then kept migrating north to Hamtramck, where he met my mom.
He helped mobilize the Polish-American vote for local, state and national candidates. I’ll save the story of how, where and when he met Sen. John F. Kennedy for another column. It’s a good one, often shared by Hamtramckans of his generation, and politicians of the next (it was one of longtime mayor Robert Kozaren’s favorite stories).
My parents were involved in community and fraternal organizations, often in leadership roles, though modestly so. When I called my mom to get some of the facts straight, she warned me “not to brag. Just tell it like it was.”
They simply believed in this place: a small city inside a bigger city and how it played an important role in the American dream. It still does.
I’m a believer, too. Hamtramck has a magnetic pull on me (I know I’m not the only one), a quality that’s rare and hard to define. Call it an “aura” or a “vibe,” something old and mysterious, perhaps pre-dating the township’s founding in the 1790s.
For a writer and photographer, few better places exist. I’m an editor for Model D, an online magazine that dedicates itself to all things Detroit (note the “D” in the name, but it also includes Hamtramck development and cultural news); I do a music column called the Subterraneans and write features for the Metro Times; and I’m a staff writer for San Francisco-based music mag XLR8R, and do other freelance work out of town. I mention this only to come back to a theme I hope to revisit here again: I do what I want to do and I choose to live here while doing it. The soul and inspiration of real life, gritty and unpredictable as it may be, is right outside my doorstep. I’m never bored.
As a reporter for the now defunct Citizen, I chased down colorful grit when researching a 17-part series on the city’s truther than strange political history. I also dug deeper into the dark side when I did a series on ethnic gangs in the early part of the 20th century. Fascinating stuff, with characters worthy of a Martin Scorsese production. I also went to New York and Chicago to compare and contrast neighborhoods in those cities that had similar qualities — from immigration trends to hipster hangouts — to Hamtramck’s.
My pursuits for the new column, which we call Street Life, will be similar. I want to find interesting people doing creative things. Artists and musicians come to mind, of course. And people who engage their community, making it better through individual or collective effort.
Or just ordinary folks looking to make life better in simple ways, like planting a flower garden that helps transform their entire block into a more beautiful place. I’m looking to have fun, Hamtramck. So let’s get the party started, shall we?