By Charles Sercombe
You could safely say that the past year has been like no other one.
But then again, living in Hamtramck has always been a rollercoaster ride. As we do every year at this time, we will spend two weeks looking back over the highlights of the year.
This week, we start with the first six months, January through June.
So grab a cup of coffee or tea, or whatever your favorite beverage is, and buckle your seatbelt.
Let’s take a look:
We started the new year with the ongoing threat of Covid hanging over all of us. In Mayor Karen Majewski’s weekly update on the number of Covid cases in Hamtramck, there were almost 1,700 known at this time for the past year-in-a-half.
To illustrate just how rapid-moving this disease was and still is, over a two-week period, the number of cases rose by 200.
Flash forward to now December 2021), and we are almost at 4,000 cases, and there is no sign of a let-up.
Covid was affecting our lives in many ways. Besides keeping many of us in a lockdown, Covid hit us in all aspects of things we take for granted.
For example, the post office on Caniff Ave. had to close for several days because their staff was becoming infected as well.
What really freaked people out was the sudden removal of a number of mailboxes, including two in front of the post office. That prompted speculation – proof, some thought – that the office was closing.
Not so, said postal authorities. It turned out that in two separate incidents, reckless drivers crashed into the boxes. A shortage of boxes led to a delay in replacing them, but new ones were eventually installed.
City parks were on the mind of city officials, who were seeking public input into a five-year plan on both upgrading existing parks, and creating new ones.
As it turned out, two new parks were created: Sarah Garrett Park, on the I-75 service drive near Caniff, and a pocket park on Trowbridge.
Although the coronavirus pandemic was still spreading, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed schools to re-open in March for in-person teaching.
The governor’s directive, however, was not mandatory.
Hamtramck Public Schools Superintendent Jaleelah Ahmed opted to wait.
In a statement on the district’s Facebook page, Ahmed said:
“At Hamtramck Public Schools, the safety and well-being of our school community has been — and will remain — our top priority. While we are eager for students to return to our buildings, we will be continuing with virtual learning for all HPS students out of an abundance of precaution for our school community.”
District students have not been in their schools since the prior March, when the governor ordered all schools to close because the pandemic was beginning to spread aggressively.
Hamtramck said good-bye to one of the city’s iconic landmarks: Hamtramck Coney.
George Gjokaj had been manning the grill at Hamtramck Coney for the last 46 years.
At the time of his retirement, he was close to 70 years old although, to look at him, you would never have guessed. He looked at least 20 years younger. Must have been something special in those coney dogs!
George said of his decision to retire:
“It’s just that time. Forty-six years – it’s not a little time, it’s a lot of time. I don’t want to be behind a grill for all my life.”
The space is still vacant, and there was remodeling done, but we still don’t know what’s going to happen there.
In the meantime, we are getting our coney fix at Maine Street restaurant.
The issue of allowing recreational marijuana sales outlets to operate continued with its up and down saga.
City councilmembers did a reset on banning marijuana sales outlets, after receiving a voter-driven petition that demanded a reconsideration on the matter.
In a complicated move, the ban was modified to allow the existing dispensaries to continue to operate, while preventing any new licenses from being issued.
Hamtramck eventually had four dispensaries open, with some of them already in the works at the time of the modified ban.
The state’s Covid ban on allowing restaurants to open was modified to allow them at no more than 25 percent capacity, and to be open only to 10 p.m.
Slowly, things came back to “normal” during the year, despite the increasing number of cases.
In a messy move, the city council, at first voted to allow voters to decide on whether to approve a special tax to pay for police and fire pensions.
But there was a misread of how the vote when down – never mind the sloppy details. The upshot was that the council rejected allowing the ballot proposal to go forward and to this day, the city continues to burn through its budget surplus to pay for those pensions and other expenses.
The city administration warned that without the tax, it is likely the city will default on its pension payments, which means it will end up in court.
And if the past is any guide, a judge will order a special tax to be put on property taxes to pay for the pensions.
So, brace yourself homeowners: one way or another, you will be paying.
Road repairs in Hamtramck got a major shot in the arm.
The roads north and south of GM’s renamed Factory Zero (informally known as the Poletown Plant) will be repaved, thanks to a Michigan Department of Transportation grant for $6 million, plus the City of Detroit kicking in $5.7 million.
The total for the project comes to over $11 million.
GM recently renamed the plant Factory Zero, to both reflect the new technology being installed there, and the new line of electric-fueled cars to be produced.
GM plans, in the next several years, to manufacture 40 percent of its cars to be battery-powered.
For the second year in a row, Paczki Day wasn’t what it usually is.
The blame? COVID, of course.
This year’s party was scaled back because the state has imposed strict guidelines on how bars and restaurants could operate, in an effort to reduce the spread of the disease. Bars and restaurants could still only operate at a maximum of no more than 25 percent occupancy.
Paczki Day was also hit with another setback: a massive dumping of snow the day before, and then bitter cold settling in. No matter, the holiday went on – sort of.
It looks like that this year, the party will be in full swing. We’ll pay for the first round of Jezy.
Hamtramck public schools were getting ready to welcome back students.
But it would be done only a few students at a time, starting March 2.
The School Board agreed to what was called a “Reconfirmation Plan.”
That plan allowed for opening classrooms first to students who were just learning the English language, then expanding to special education students. About 85 percent of Hamtramck students live in households where English is not first language spoken.
Hamtramck’s plan to begin replacing uneven and cracked sidewalks hit a snag.
A majority of the city council rejected a proposal by the city administration to hire the city’s engineering firm, Hennessey, to identify which sidewalks need to be replaced.
Hamtramck has not had a citywide program for 10 or more years, back to when officials targeted sidewalk slabs that had become upended by tree roots.
That council majority which rejected the proposal did so because of one thing: the cost to property owners.
It was estimated that it would cost $175 per sidewalk slab, which homeowners would then have been responsible for.
Later in the year, the council agreed to start a modified program that would be funded by the city.
Longtime city official Robert Zwolak succumbed to pancreatic cancer, dying at age 79.
Mr. Zwolak was a former city clerk, city councilmember, and he also served on the City Charter Commission. That commission successfully produced the city’s current charter, which updated the city’s original charter that was, at that point, decades old.
He was an outspoken critic of government officials, and a fierce watchdog on how taxpayers’ money was spent.
Mr. Zwolak was a regular attendee at city council meetings, often having a better attendance record than some elected officials.
Covid struck again. This time it was the cancelation of the annual Hamtramck Music Fest.
In an announcement about the cancelation of this year’s festival, organizers said, on their Facebook page:
“Once it is safe and healthy to be with one another again in large gatherings, we will restart plans for the next amazing music festival, all while keeping in line with our mission to raise funds to purchase equipment and supplies for Hamtramck Public School’s Music and Arts Programs.”
The festival typically attracts thousands of music lovers, and takes place in over a dozen bars, halls, restaurants, and even in the public library.
For many bars, this festival represents a huge money-maker that can tide them over for the whole year.
As mentioned, the festival also benefits the public school district.
In previous years, the festival has donated roughly $10,000 worth of supplies each year to the public school district.
There’s been no word yet on plans for this year.
The recreational marijuana business proved to be a major money-maker in the state.
And Hamtramck was in line to receive a minor windfall in taxes and fees from the city’s three operating dispensaries. That would be to the tune of $28,000 per outlet – or, in other words, $84,000.
The Michigan Department of Treasury issued a report on how much money was distributed to the 38 communities and counties that host marijuana dispensaries.
According to the press release:
“For the state of Michigan’s 2020 fiscal year, more than $31 million was collected from the 10% adult-use marijuana excise tax. Combined with fees, there was a total of $45.7 million available for distribution from the fund.”
Michigan schools are also getting a piece of the financial pie — make that a piece of a gummy.
“Aside from the nearly $10 million in disbursements to municipalities and counties, around $11.6 million will be sent to the School Aid Fund for K-12 education, and another $11.6 million to the Michigan Transportation Fund, upon appropriation,” the press release said.
Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski welcomed the additional revenue, especially since the city administration recently presented a devastating financial picture for the city over the next several years.
“I’m taking this as an indication of what we can expect next year, and it’s very encouraging,” the mayor told The Review.
Hamtramck, like dozens of communities in Michigan, was in line to receive a financial shot in the arm.
The federal government had announced a special stimulus package for certain communities, and Hamtramck was set to receive $2.1 million.
But that amount won’t go far.
City Manager Kathy Angerer said it will be spent on shoring up budget shortfalls that are due to COVID’s impact on the economy.
“This is going to be backfill,” she said.
And by that, she meant that the city saw a drastic downturn in revenue from property and income taxes, as well as what comes yearly from the GM Poletown plant – amounting to a projected loss of almost $2 million to the city’s budget.
“This barely helps make up what we lost,” Angerer said.
Greg Kowalski, Executive Director of the Hamtramck Historical Museum and a prolific author sometimes fondly referred to as “The Hemingway of Hamtramck,” had yet another city-themed book out, and this one was a dilly.
“Murder in Hamtramck: Historic Crimes of Passion & Coldblooded Killings” was released in mid-February. It covers some of the more sensational such crimes from between 1884 and 1978 (Kowalski cuts the book off there, out of deference to any potential relatives, friends or survivors of any more-recent violence), and is well-organized, illustrated with photos, and just plain fascinating.
This is his 10th book about Hamtramck.
The city council hit a reset on sidewalk repaving, and came up with a new plan.
The council initially rejected a comprehensive citywide sidewalk repair proposal because the cost of the repaving would have been passed on to property owners.
It was rejected on the grounds that COVID had already caused much economic stress on many households. In other words, many homeowners were already broke.
So, instead of beginning a citywide plan, the council opted for a much smaller plan that will be funded by a state road repair grant that the city receives each year. Homeowners will not be charged for sidewalk slabs that are replaced.
The new plan will spend $100,000 from this grant, and will cover only a small portion of the city.
Hamtramck took its first step in meeting a housing shortage.
For the first time in decades, the city began selling off its empty lots.
A first batch of 80 lots were put up for auction, with the understanding that the purchaser must build either a single-family housing unit, or else multiple-family housing units.
The minimum bids for each of the lots started at $10,000.
There were some strings attached to the offer: You had to be able to provide financial proof that you could afford to develop the lot(s), and also then get the city’s approval for your housing design.
Developers had a year to show that a development is indeed underway, or else the city would reclaim the lot.
After March Madness gripped the nation, the Hamtramck Public Schools community had its own taste of hoops mania with the success of the Hamtramck High School boys and girls basketball teams.
Both squads had extremely successful seasons, despite facing restrictions and ever-changing circumstances due to the pandemic.
The boys’ team finished the regular season with a nine-game winning streak, and locked up the Michigan Metro Athletic Conference (MMAC) title – its first title in 15 years.
The HPS girls’ team also had an impressive season, finishing the year 9-5, with major wins against River Rouge, Ecorse, and Harper Woods.
First came the rebuilding of Holbrook.
In April, it was Caniff’s turn.
Work crews began replacing sewer lines at Caniff and Lumpkin.
After the sewer lines were replaced, the street was torn up and then repaved.
Along the way, houses and buildings got new water lines to replace the old lead lines.
The rebuilding went from the I-75 service drive up to Jos. Campau.
It was funded mostly through a federal grant. The city had to also kick in $300,000 from its annual state road repair grant.
The total cost was $1.5 million.
Hamtramck Public School students returned to in-person classroom learning, although the initial date to return had to be pushed back a couple of weeks because of another spike in Covid cases.
Students and teachers were required to wear masks while in school. School desks were also spaced apart, to keep students from being too close to each other.
Students had been learning virtually at home for several months. A number of parents complained that learning at home was not working out as intended.
An opinion article on modeldmedia.com stirred up a heated discussion on Hamtramck’s social media.
The article was titled “Hamtramck does not need a police department. Replacing the majority-white police force with unarmed resident responders would be a step into the future.”
The author, Elizabeth Garrett, went on to say that, because of the lack of racial and ethnic diversity, and past lawsuits against the department for racial matters and assaults, the city would be better off with “a civilian-led organization with unarmed first responders trained in de-escalation (community solutions workers).”
Garrett, who lives in Hamtramck, also pointed out that the police department is the largest expense in the city’s budget, about $4 million, and that the city is facing a financial crisis.
On the Facebook page called “I love Hamtramck,” reaction to the article was immediate.
Karen Plochinski, the moderator of the site, said not only was she opposed to the idea, but the article had several factual errors.
“I believe this to be the worst article ever posted by modelD,” she said, in part.
In election news, Mayor Karen Majewski decided to seek another term. She would go on to survive the primary election, but in the end would be defeated by newcomer Amer Ghalib in the November election.
Ghalib is now the first Yemeni-American to become mayor in Hamtramck, and may possibly be the first in the nation.
The Hamtramck Public School District announced big plans on how it would spend its portion of President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill.
About $35 million worth of plans.
It would all come from President Biden’s first $1.9 trillion financial aid package, some of which was carved out for schools across the nation.
The school district approved plans on to how spend the financial aid coming to HPS.
High on the to-do list included: installing air conditioning and heating systems, and new windows, for the district’s mostly very old school buildings.
The city recorded its first homicide of the year.
On Saturday (April 24), around 4 p.m., gunshots were heard in the area of Conant and Commor.
When officers arrived, they found a man who had already died from gunshot wounds.
According to one witness who contacted The Review, the body was found on the sidewalk.
According to Police Chief Anne Moise, witnesses saw a suspect flee from the area in a light-colored vehicle.
There was speculation in the community, via social media, on whether the shooting was related to the shootings of two men the day before, on Friday, on Hasse St. in the Detroit neighborhood just east of Jayne Park, which neighbors Hamtramck.
One of the two men in that shooting also died.
City Clerk August Gitschlag announced he was leaving his job here and taking on the role of city clerk for the City of Clawson.
Gitschlag is well-known in town and, for many residents, had been the face of the city – at least when they come to city hall.
“There is not a single City Clerk in the State of Michigan who has the experiences that I have had here, and I am a better public servant as a result,” he said in his resignation letter, submitted to City Manager Kathy Angerer.
Gitschlag was clerk for seven years, and during those years there had been a number of stormy council meetings, with some members yelling at each other, and others walking out of meetings.
Two Detroit teens were arrested in connection with a bomb threat at Hamtramck High School.
Hamtramck Police Chief Anne Moise released this announcement:
“Thanks to the hard work of Hamtramck Police Detectives and the great work and partnership with Hamtramck Public Schools, I am relieved to report that two male juveniles from Detroit were identified and arrested today as being involved in the bomb threat that was called in to Hamtramck High School yesterday.”
The Michigan State Police bomb squad was called in to help investigate. A police dog trained in detecting bombs walked through the school and around the outside of building, as well as around the community center next door to the school.
Police Chief Anne Moise said that nothing was ultimately found.
A city parking lot on Caniff Ave. finally got some attention.
The lot, at McDougall, had long been filled with potholes, and probably had not been repaved since it was constructed who-knows-how-many decades ago.
The repaving was part of an ongoing alley repaving project that the city has been undertaking for the past few years.
Alleys that were repaved:
• West of Jos Campau between Belmont St. and Yemans St.
• West of Conant between Trowbridge St. and Belmont St.
• West of Conant between Belmont St. and Yemans St.
• West of Conant between Yemans St. and Evaline St.
The repaving project cost $440,000.
In a second attempt to address the street harassment of women, the city council agreed to a resolution that took the police department out of the equation.
Former Councilmember Ian Perrotta initially offered a resolution to address.
Several women objected to Perrotta’s resolution because they did not want police officers involved for fear that some officers would use that as an excuse to harass minorities.
Perrotta resigned after his resolution was postponed – accusing his fellow councilmembers of being “all dicks and no balls.”
This time around, Councilmember Fadel Al-Marsoumi offered a version that would offer training for city officials, employees, and residents of Hamtramck.
That amended resolution was unanimously passed.
Some of the women who initially rejected the wording of Perrotta’s resolution praised the council.
“It’s really awesome to see this body taking seriously community voices,” said Kit Parks.
Speaking of police officers, Hamtramck’s police department came under criticism over three officers’ handling of a mentally disturbed man in Veterans Park.
Although the department said proper procedure was followed, there were some in the community who called for the hiring of social workers to deal with such matters.
About 50 people gathered in Zussman Park to protest the ongoing clash between Israelis and Palestinians.
There had been worldwide protest over Israel’s bombing of buildings in the Gaza Strip in the name of eradicating Hamas.
The Israeli government says that the targeted bombings began after Hammas first started bombing Israeli cities.
For the first time ever, city officials recognized June as “Pride Month.”
But later in the month, there were protests over a proposal to fly the gay pride flag on the city’s flagpole in Zussman Park. The flag was displayed, but the issue evolved into a campaign issue in the council and mayoral elections.
A Hamtramck woman and a Detroit-based voting rights organization filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying that the city failed to provide accurate Bengali-language translations in the 2020 elections.
The matter was eventually resolved, and a new translation was agreed on.
Well, that does it for the first six months of 2021. Come back next week for Part Two.
Posted Dec. 26, 2021