Editor’s note: This past week it was announced that the mayor and city council have been invited to the White and celebrate Eid with President Biden. This isn’t the first time city officials met with a president. Hamtramck historian Greg Kowalski writes about that visit.
By Greg Kowalski
That summed up the meeting the Hamtramck Common Council members and the Mayor had with the president in his office. Only it wasn’t uttered by any visiting Hamtramck official, it was the first thing President Jimmy Carter said when then-Mayor Robert Kozaren strode into the Oval Office in the White House.
Kozaren, who topped six-foot-seven, had little difficulty impressing people with his large presence — even presidents.
Current Hamtramck City Council members, along with Mayor Amer Ghalib, will have a chance to make their own impression with their planned visit with President Joe Biden soon, but they will not be breaking new ground.
In February, 1980, several city officials were invited to meet with President Carter and discuss the plight that Hamtramck was in at the time.
The Dodge Main factory had closed, and Hamtramck was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Dodge Main provided nearly one-fourth of Hamtramck’s operating revenue through the taxes it paid to the city. Its closing by the Chrysler Corporation, which itself was on the verge of financial collapse, left the city groping for help.
The story echoed around the world. It was the tale of the American Rust Belt, of prosperity fading to poverty, of aging industry left in the dust of history. Journalists from England and Germany came to Hamtramck to chronicle the story.
But, at the time, it looked like only big government could come to the rescue. That led to the invitation for the Hamtramck officials to come and meet with the president.
“It was fantastic,” said City Treasurer Joe Grzecki, Jr., after the meeting. “It was an unbelievable day,” Mayor Kozaren said. “This is what makes this country great, when a small town mayor can meet with the president of the United States. This is what makes America, America.”
But, practically, the meeting was a photo shoot. The city officials presented President Carter with a St. Florian Strawberry Festival T-shirt, a beer mug and copies of The Citizen newspaper from the week before that blazed with the banner headline: “City Officials Endorse Carter.”
The intent, of course, was to win favor with the president who was up for re-election that year.
And it did.
Mr. Carter was gracious, and appreciated the gifts. And he did appoint a special task force to find ways to help the city. The city officials also met with the president’s staff members to discuss the city’s situation. How successful it all was is debatable; even then there were skeptics. Hamtramck was in the worst crisis of its history. The cure was not in bureaucracy or taskforces — it was in cash.
The city desperately needed new sources of revenue. It needed a solution to the long-standing Urban Renewal lawsuit, and it needed to overhaul its operations to make them more efficient.
But before any of the systemic problems could be addressed, Hamtramck needed money. And that was something government taskforces were not going to supply, at least not in any great amount.
But General Motors could and ultimately would. The visit with President Carter helped set the stage for the proposal for the GM factory to be built in the old Poletown neighborhood of Detroit and the Dodge Main site in Hamtramck.
That became the answer to the cash question, as its operation replaced the tax revenue lost with the closing of Dodge Main.
That’s another dramatic tale, but in February, 1980, no one in Hamtramck could have imagined what was to come. And, for a time, they could put the problems of Hamtramck in the background and bask in the thrill of traveling to Washington to meet face to face with the President of the United States.
As Ralph Carbonero, The Citizen newspaper general manager who also was on the trip, noted, “It was the chance of a lifetime.”
(Greg Kowalski is the Chairman of the Friends of Historical Hamtramck. He is also Executive Director of the Hamtramck Historical Museum, located at 9525 Jos. Campau. You can reach the museum at (313) 893–5027.)
Published April 28, 2023