By Charles Sercombe
Most of us can’t wait to kick the year 2020 in the rear and welcome in a new year.
But while 2020 presented a number of challenges for all Americans, it was another busy news year for Hamtramck.
Once again, we present our Year in Review. This week, we look back on the first six months of 2020. Next week, come back for Part Two.
The year started out as it usually does with The Review’s Newsmaker of the Year.
It was a familiar one, and one that continues this year: the city’s finances were tanking. What specifically delivered a knockout punch was the closing, or we should say, the retooling, of the GM Poletown plant.
That shutdown was going to cost about $700,000 in lost revenue for the city.
The good news is, that plant has since been retooled and even renamed as Factory Zero where all-electric vehicles will be built. The models will be the Bolt EV, GMC Hummer EV and another model yet to be named.
Even better news, there will soon be three shifts at the plant, which will translate to even more revenue for Hamtramck.
Now the bad news: the city is still in massive deficit spending. That will likely be an ongoing story in 2021.
City Manager Kathy Angerer remained optimistic. She outlined her goals for the year for The Review.
• Bringing jobs back to the Detroit-Hamtramck GM Assembly Plant
• Adopting a balanced budget for 2020-21
• Solving MERS pension obligation increase
• Infrastructure improvements: Road, water and sewer lines on Holbrook from Jos. Campau to Lumpkin, and on Caniff from I-75 to Jos. Campau
• Settlement of contract with Firefighters — IAFF 750
• Finalization of the Hamtramck Recreation Plan and Rehabilitation efforts for the historic Hamtramck Stadium
• Continuous improved services for residents, including the launch of an app for reporting city issues and concerns to city administration
• Updating city website
• Appointment of Community and Economic Development/DDA Manager
At the start of the year Hamtramck lost a former mayor and longtime Wayne County Treasurer, Raymond Wojtowicz. He was 90 years old and served as county treasurer for 39 years.
Police agencies were on the lookout for a Hamtramck woman, Camay Lowe, who went missing. After several weeks, the woman was found being treated in a hospital in Canada.
Hamtramck had a busy but productive January. Officers and detectives busted a second armed robbery gang that had robbed several victims.
Another crew, which had no relation with the second, had been busted at the end of December.
Federal investigators forced Hamtramck’s Homestyle Foods to shut down inspectors found listeria bacteria in a food preparation area.
The plant, located on Edwin St., is owned by the Kowalski Sausage Co.
Some 60 people work at the plant. Homestyle specializes in salads, pierogi and dips. The plant soon after re-opened.
The year 2020 marked 100 years since the birth of Steve Gromek in Hamtramck.
Gromek, a graduate of St. Ladislaus High School, was one of the greatest baseball players to ever come out of Hamtramck. He even played a role in the integration of Major League Baseball.
Gromek, who started out as an infielder in the Cleveland Indians organization, eventually became a pitcher in 1941. The dependable right-hander pitched in the majors for 17 years, winning 123 games, tossing 17 shutouts, and completing 92 games.
In 1945, Gromek won 19 games for Cleveland, despite missing two weeks after injuring his knee while scoring the winning run in a game against Detroit. Gromek was named to the American League All-Star team that year, but the game was canceled due to travel restrictions during World War II.
Gromek would later be traded to his hometown Detroit Tigers, where he would win 18 games in 1954.
State officials came under fire for decision on allowing a nearby recycling plant to process more toxic material.
The recycling plant, the ironically named US Ecology, is located off of Mound, about a mile east of Hamtramck.
For four years, residents opposed allowing the plant to accept toxic material, for fear that it could endanger the health and well-being of the community.
But in February, the equally ironically named state Department of Environmental Quality gave the company to the OK to handle 4,500 tons of toxic material each day.
Former State Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit, whose district includes Hamtramck), had been in the lead against allowing the material to be stored at the site.
(Robinson died later in the year of COVID.)
He and local activists and environmentalists warned that some of the material is fracking waste, which contains radioactive material.
In an email to The Review, Robinson said he found the decision:
“Shocking, alarming and disturbing. In light of the Flint Water Tragedy and the discovery of thousands of contaminated sites across Michigan, it is disheartening to watch corporate special interests muscle state and city government in Detroit to get their way, to make Wayne County a one-stop shop for all the dangerous waste this side of the Mississippi.”
City and school officials had big plans for Veterans Park where if the stars align right, it could undergo a major renovation.
Make that millions of dollars’ worth.
Plans for the park were introduced to the city council and also to the community last Friday during a dinner presentation sponsored by the Michigan Municipal League.
The plan was created by a Minnesota-based urban planning company, and coordinated by Global Detroit. It was funded by a $800,000 grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation, which has been funding programs to encourage younger people to get more physically active.
City and school officials were – and still are — also hoping to receive a multi-million-dollar grant from the foundation to renovate Hamtramck Stadium, one of only five remaining baseball stadiums built for the Negro baseball leagues that existed back in the early 1900s.
Hamtramck Stadium was built in the 1930s.
The renovation plan also includes the stadium, and further on over to Keyworth Stadium, which is owned by the public school district.
In all, the renovation plan covers a total of 26 acres.
The plan includes:
Creating a “green alley” near Keyworth Stadium.
Creating trail loops that “stitch” neighborhoods together.
Planting “living rooms” in the park. These are social gathering areas that are secluded by plantings.
Creating a “wet prairie meadow.”
Creating a botanical garden.
You could say The Review was prescient – at least when it came to the fate of US postal mailboxes – which later in the year became a big issue during the Presidential Election.
During the election, a Trump appointee in the postal service, started removing mailboxes throughout the country. Critics said it was a deliberate attempt to thwart mail-in voting.
But back in February, we noted that mailboxes had long been disappearing in the city.
According to an online blog by the postal service, some 12,000 boxes across the country had been removed because fewer people were actually mailing things out.
In other words, email has become the go-to way of communicating.
The general idea was to eliminate any collection boxes that weren’t averaging 25 pieces of mail per day.
Foreclosure loomed for about 100 Hamtramck property owners.
Wayne County Treasurer’s Office said those property owners failed to pay their 2017 property taxes, and would soon enter into the final phase before the county holds its annual tax auction.
The Hamtramck Public School District had nothing but good news to report at its annual State of the District address.
This was the first such presentation made by Superintendent Jaleelah Ahmed, who was appointed to her position in 2019.
She enjoyed a successful year, to say the least.
The district was still boasting of a budget surplus of $12.2 million. The district’s Chief Financial Officer, Sherry Lynem, pointed out that financial picture was in sharp contrast compared to 10 years ago, when the district was in a financial crisis and had a $5 million budget deficit. The district managed to climb out of that financial hole by slashing the budget, and also due to teachers and staff members taking deep salary cuts.
In 2020, the financial picture was better. Gov. Gretchen Witmer had increased per pupil funding by the state by $240. However, Hamtramck received the lowest amount of state aid, at $8,111 per pupil.
The district has about 3,500 students – a number that has continued to increase in recent years.
There was one more huge financial goal the district was about to embark on: Asking Hamtramck voters to approve a 30-mill bond, to pay for extensive renovations to the district’s existing buildings, and to actually construct a new school building on the grounds of Kosciuszko Middle School.
Alas, that was rejected by voters later in the year.
Once again, Paczki day was a resounding success. What can we say? It was the usual boozy fun celebrated by thousands of revelers.
And it was a huge boost in business for our local bars, veterans posts and restaurants.
Who knew that would be one of the last public gatherings allowed when COVID came along a month later?
Will there be a Paczki Day celebration this year? We’re kind of doubting it as the disease just keeps spreading and the national death toll has exceeded 300,000.
How low can some folks in this city go? Pretty low.
The recently closed Wheelhouse bike shop was offering a reward for the return of its custom-painted sign, which someone had stolen.
To this day, the sign has not been returned.
City officials received a financial audit that laid out where Hamtramck’s government gets its money.
According to a recent audit of the city’s 2019 finances, on the revenue side of the ledger, the city’s prime revenue stream is from property taxes – which should come as no surprise, at least to property owners who are painfully aware of how much they pay each year.
Last year, the city collected over $6.5 million in property taxes – down by almost $50,000 from 2018.
The next highest revenue stream is from state revenue sharing, which netted the city over $3.4 million last year, which is about $83,000 more than 2018.
Next up is revenue from the city income tax, which brought in a little over $3 million last year — up by over $300,000 from 2018.
On the expense side, 60 percent of the city’s budget, some $10.7 million, goes toward police and fire services.
The next highest expense is general government services at $3.4 million and then public works at $2.6 million.
This year’s financial outlook appears to be grim, not only for Hamtramck but for many communities that have experienced a great loss of revenue due to the COVID crisis.
For the second time in a week, a Hamtramck landmark business announced a huge change.
First, there was Hamtramck Drugs announcing its abrupt closing.
And then, the owner of Polonia restaurant, John Zurowski, put his business up for sale for $450,000.
As we went to press this week, Zurowski still owns his restaurant, and it’s unknown if he is still seeking a buyer.
Polonia is one of only two Polish restaurants left in the city – the other, Polish Village Café, is located just on the other side of the city parking lot that both share.
The year 2020 will certainly be remembered for the historic presidential election. Democratic Party voters started the year off with a presidential primary election.
Hamtramck voters overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders. But statewide, voters went for Joe Biden, who went on to win the Hamtramck presidency later in the yar.
Hamtramck had just one millage proposal – which was, whether to continue the Detroit Institute of Arts millage for another 10 years.
On this issue, Hamtramck voters were in step with the tri-county voters who decided in favor of the issue.
Voters here supporting the millage renewal numbered 2,368, and those opposed came in at 549.
In all, 3,548 Hamtramck voters participated in the election.
Hamtramck’s first homicide of the year took place at the Col. Hamtramck housing project.
Lateshia Young, 26, of Hamtramck, was arraigned on charges of homicide-open murder, assault with intent to murder and assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder.
Young and two men were outside of her apartment when an argument broke out at about 6 p.m.
Sources said Young began swinging a kitchen knife, and may have accidentally stabbed her brother in the neck, resulting in him bleeding to death.
The Detroit City Football Club (also known as “Le Rouge”) scored a huge victory – financially speaking.
The club paid off its final payments for renovations made at Keyworth Stadium.
The stadium is where the club plays its home games.
But the most impressive thing? The payments finish off the club’s obligation – two years early.
Later in the year the club had another big announcement: It went all the way up to the pro level.
The coronavirus pandemic finally hit home. City Hall closed its offices, and the public school district stopped in-person teaching.
The rest of the year never looked the same.
For homeowners who found themselves out of a job, there was some good news: Wayne County put a halt on property tax foreclosures.
A Wayne County Circuit Court judge dismissed an appeal by the county prosecutor’s office to have a Hamtramck man face charges of sexually assaulting a high school student.
Hamtramck 31st District Court Judge Alexis Krot originally tossed out the charges for lack of credible evidence.
The county did not purse further legal action.
As the coronavirus continued to spread, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the public to quarantine at home. Only those deemed essential workers were allowed to report to work.
The public was allowed to do needed chores, such as shop for groceries.
The shutdown also caused the school district to postpone a special election for a millage proposal.
The coronavirus claimed its first victim in Hamtramck. State Rep. Isaac Robinson, a champion of environmental rights, died in April.
He was 44 years old, and was in his first term.
According to media reports at the time, Robinson, a Democrat, had been ill for several days, but despite the urging of this mother Rose Mary Robinson, he refused to go to the hospital.
He finally to Detroit Receiving Hospital, but died a few hours later after being admitted.
Robinson recently led the charge against US Ecology, located about a mile east of Hamtramck’s border, being permitted to handle fracking waste, some of which environmentalists said was radioactive.
Sharon Buttry, a resident, worked closely with Robinson on his many environmental concerns.
“Representative Isaac Robinson gave 100% of his heart and talent to the community. He championed unpopular environmental and grassroots causes that no one else would touch,” Buttry said.
“His concern and leadership on behalf of those most vulnerable was always front and center. He will be greatly missed, and many like myself lost a great personal friend today as well. I wish all possible comfort and peace to his mother, our dear former Representative, and all the family.”
At this point there were 23 known COVID-19 cases in Hamtramck. Before the end of the year, that number would climb to over 1,000.
The crisis prompted Mayor Karen Majewski to address the community, via Facebook, every week to give updates about the virus.
The coronavirus may have put a halt to a lot of businesses, but the Holbrook Ave. rebuilding project continued.
Work resumed for the second phase of repaving the majority of Holbrook, which began two years ago, which went from Jos. Campau to Conant.
This time around, it was from Jos. Campau heading west to Lumpkin.
The street was entirely torn up. While the street was being replaced, new water lines connecting to houses and buildings were also be replaced.
While crime in general had been in decline since the coronavirus lockdown, there was uptick in one area.
With many people observing the state’s “stay home, stay safe” policy, there was a slight increase here in Hamtramck in domestic violence.
Hamtramck was not alone.
Cities across the nation were also reporting more home assaults as nerves got frayed between couples and family members from the constant confinement.
The crime trend continued throughout the year. Feeling like you can’t control your anger? The first thing is to admit that. The second thing is to seek help. And sometimes it can be as simple as talking to a friend or someone you trust.
Talking about your emotions will help you realize that you are aware of a problem.
The restoration effort for the historic Hamtramck baseball stadium just scored a huge home run.
The National Park Service, through its African American Civil Rights Historic Preservation Fund, awarded the city and Wayne County $490,729 to make improvements to the structure.
The baseball stadium, built in 1930, served the National Negro League. At the time, Major League Baseball forbade African-Americans from playing in the all-white leagues.
The stadium, one of only five surviving stadiums nationally that catered to the Negro League, was home to the Detroit Stars.
For years the stadium sat idle, slowly deteriorating to the point where it was not safe to go into the grandstands. It wasn’t until several years ago that the stadium’s historical significance was discovered.
Up to that point, there was talk of demolishing the structure, but once research revealed its unique role in American history, it was a whole new ball game.
Local officials and history buffs moved quickly to save the stadium.
Through their efforts, the state designated the structure as a historical site, which helped lead to winning various grants to restore it.
A Cosmos basketball legend got a new home: The Hall of Fame.
Rudy Tomjanovich, an NBA star player and coach, and pride of Hamtramck – having been born and raised here – was voted into the NBA Hall of Fame on his third time as a finalist for the nomination.
“Rudy T,” as he is affectionally known, starred at Hamtramck High and the University of Michigan, before embarking on an illustrious pro career for the San Diego, later Houston, Rockets.
He played his entire career for the Rockets, a career cut short by a vicious sucker punch by Los Angeles Lakers player Kermit Washington during a game in late 1977.
But Tomjanovich would not go quietly. He would, instead, embark upon a coaching career that managed to eclipse his playing one.
Although schools were closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, class lessons continued for the remainder of the school year.
To help continue those lessons, the Hamtramck Public School District handed out Chromebook laptops at all of the schools.
Each household received one laptop – at no cost to parents.
Face-to-face schooling was canceled for the year by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because of the pandemic.
In a notice Public Schools Superintendent Jaleelah Ahmed distributed to parents, she said:
“HPS will loan Chromebooks to the families during the week of April 20th. We are looking forward to a full implementation of the online learning on April 27th.
“Each school will share communication about their specific plans on their technology distribution plans. At this time, we are seeking to distribute one Chromebook to each household. Once we have ensured that all households have one Chromebook, we will work with families that request an additional Chromebook.”
Hamtramck lost another community leader to COVID.
The Rev. Darla Swint died, leaving behind a legacy of community activism.
Swint was also a champion of those who felt they had no voice in city government and in the community.
Hamtramckans have long complained about speeding and reckless drivers.
The Review took a dive into traffic citations issued by Hamtramck police officers to get to the bottom of this question:
Just who are these folks behind the wheel?
As it turned out, it is Hamtramckans.
According to traffic citations issued by Hamtramck police officers from June 1 to Dec. 31, 2019 – a six-month period – most of the tickets went to residents.
There were 1,078 tickets issued to residents.
The next highest violators came from Detroit – 985 of them.
The tickets included moving violations, no insurance, expired license plates and drunk driving.
The most common ticket issued was for speeding, which there were 923 issued during those six months.
The next highest was for impeding traffic – 485 tickets – which is a catch-all ticket that usually means a police officer gave a driver a break for something more serious, such as running a red light.
Other most-issued tickets include: driving while license suspended (465), no insurance (418), disobeying a stop sign (272), running a red light (125), equipment failures (48), failing to signal (47), careless driving (27) and squealing of tires (12).
In many instances, drivers were issued a combination of tickets.
The coronavirus claimed another victim.
This time the new season of the Detroit City Football Club. As it turned out, an abbreviated season was held later in the year, but spectators were not allowed to see the games live, in-person.
The financial impact of the coronavirus economic shut down hit Hamtramck.
The city was forced to furlough 27 city employees, which included 10 full-time and 17 part-time employees. This action was taken because of a sharp decrease in property tax collection.
City Manager Kathy Angerer also reduced salaries for department heads by 5 percent, and her own by 10 percent.
No cuts were made in the fire or police departments. However, Fire Chief Danny Hagen became a part-time employee, and had his salary reduced by 50 percent.
The furloughs are different from layoffs because they were temporary, and most workers will be called back. However, Angerer said city finances will ultimately determine whether all of the employees would be returning.
While most folks were adhering to the state’s quarantine order, there were some who were out on the streets causing an uptick in the number of graffiti sprayings.
As usual, it’s rare that anyone gets caught in the act. The cleanup of the sprayings was the responsibility of building owners.
Most of the new graffiti was concentrated in the Jos. Campau business district. About 20 businesses were hit.
For a few seconds, cooped up Hamtramckans got a break from the monotony of quarantining.
The famed Blue Angels did a flyover in downtown Detroit one morning, and they made a turn right over Hamtramck.
The PNC Bank parking lot on Caniff Ave. proved to be a good viewing station, as the planes seemed to fly almost directly above before heading back downtown.
The flyover, involving seven U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet aircrafts, was in honor of hospital frontliners. The Blue Angels had been performing flyovers of cities that have been hardest hit with COVID-19.
It was called “America Strong” – a show of thanks to those working in hospitals.
Voting in the August and November elections got easier and safer.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, all registered voters would automatically get absentee ballot applications for both elections.
“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Benson in a press release. “Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe, and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”
Voting by absentee ballot later became a hotly debated national issue over whether that led to fraud.
Yet another victim of COVID was claimed. This time it was the annual Hamtramck Labor Day Festival.
Organizers said they had to make the hard decision because the virus kept spreading.
It was feared that even if the event was held, very few people would attend.
Next year, perhaps?
So far, there appears to be no letup of the virus. Hang on to those face masks, folks.
Desperate financial times for the city called for desperate action.
And how the city survives financially would depend on voters.
Acting on a suggestion by the city administration, the city council agreed to ask for voter-approval of a millage to cover the cost of the police and fire pensions.
The city was collecting a half mill for the cost, but that raised only a little over $103,000 a year.
The city’s actual cost is over $2.2 million a year, which comes out of the city’s general budget.
To cover the actual cost, the city sought to levy up to 10.5 mills, which could be adjusted down if pension costs decreased, or if another revenue stream was found.
Spoiler alert: The millage failed miserably.
Hamtramck was set to go hi-tech. As in parking meters.
The city agreed to hire Municipal Parking Services to install new parking meters up and down Jos. Campau as well in the city’s two municipal parking lots.
The new parking fees will now be $1 an hour, as opposed to the old 25 cents per 30 minutes.
Leave it to Hamtramck to have a sense of humor about the ongoing COVID crisis.
Someone dressed as a “plague doctor” from the 1600s was seen picking up trash around town.
No one knew the identity of the person, and he/she mysteriously disappeared from public view.
Considering the amount of litter in town, the job probably became too depressing.
For a moment, it appeared the COVID pandemic was receding. Gov. Whitmer allowed bars and restaurants to re-open, which they remained open for the summer.
But the virus roared back with a vengeance this fall, and the governor was forced once again to shut down those businesses. The closures will extend to Jan. 15.
Hamtramck joined the growing list of communities protesting police brutality.
On a Sunday evening, about 100 people gathered in front of Alladin restaurant on Conant Ave. and then marched several blocks to Zussman Park, located in front of city hall.
During the walk, the crowd held signs and chanted what has become a standard refrain: “No justice, no peace.”
Joining the speakers at city hall were local elected officials and candidates seeking the state representative seat that includes Hamtramck in its district.
Abraham Aiyash, who appeared to be the lead candidate for the position, said that African Americans have long suffered, ever since they came over as slaves.
“For 400 hundred years, black Americans have had a knee on their neck,” Aiyash said.
He also advocated for the defunding of police departments, which has become a much talked about proposal, and diverting those financial sources into schools and low-income housing.
Aiyash eventually did win the election.
Although the city’s budget was in deficit spending mode, alley repairs continued.
In fact, a majority of city councilmembers decided to double down on the repairs, and not only restored the budget for the repairs, they increased the expenditure.
Last year, the city earmarked $200,000 for repairs, but this year City Manager Kathy Angerer canceled the program because the city was facing a financial crisis.
The city council decided to override that decision and agreed to expand the program up to $500,000.
The proposal came from Councilmember Mohammed Hassan, who said that the city could dip further into its budget surplus, which the city was already doing to balance this year’s budget.
Councilmember Nayeem Chowdhury also supported Hassan’s proposal, saying that, although the city is in financial trouble, residents “deserve better.”
That’s it for this week. Come back next week for Part Two of our Year in Review.
Posted Dec. 24, 2020