Author gives a view of everyday people in latest Hamtramck book

Greg Kowalski

By Alan Madlane
Hamtramck author Greg Kowalski has once again taken a stroll down the memory lane of the city.
But this time it’s a little different.
In his latest book, “Hamtramck Through the Years,” he has put himself in the head of folks through the decades, talking about their experiences living in Hamtramck.
Trust us, it works.
Recently we caught up with Kowalski, who is the executive director of the city’s historical museum as well as chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission.

The Review: Hello, Greg. Well sir, how many books does this make for you now, on the city of Hamtramck and in general? What did you hope to achieve, or bring to light, with this new one that you hadn’t with prior books?

Kowalski: “Hamtramck Through the Years” is my 13th book. Eleven of the books have been on Hamtramck and two are on Detroit – one on Detroit’s Masonic Temple and one (co-authored with Rebecca Binno Savage) is on Art Deco in Detroit.
In “Through the Years” I wanted to give readers a close look at what life was like in Hamtramck at specific different periods. It employs extreme detail – what sounds people heard, what odors they smelled in the air, what type of trees lined the streets at those times. It also was designed to show what issues concerned the residents and how they coped with the special challenges of each era.

The Review: A quick glance at the table of contents reveals ten chapters, each named with a date and spanning more than a century overall – without getting too much into specifics, what were you looking for in a given year that would gain it inclusion into the book?
Also, why not give more info about each date as part of the chapter title – were you trying to lead the readers to discover the importance of these dates for themselves?

Kowalski: This book was very carefully planned and designed. Each year represents a specific time period and in some cases has a special meaning. 1890 was representational of the farming township years.
1901 was the year the village of Hamtramck was formed. 1910 the Dodge Main plant began major operations.
1922 Hamtramck became a city. 1933 was the heart of the Great Depression and Prohibition ended. 1945 marked the end of World War II. 1968 was symbolic of the turmoil of the 1960s as a whole.
1987 focuses specifically on the visit of Pope John Paul II and his visit to Hamtramck. 1997 is specifically about the great tornado. 1959 was the most important chapter to me because I could draw much of it from my own personal experiences growing up in Hamtramck at that time.
And note that the chapters do not necessarily only cover those specific years. Often there is background information in years leading up to the events in the named chapter. I deliberately chose not to put tag lines on each chapter because I am an old-style journalist. Less is better. The readers get it without being led.
Note that 1987 and 1997 do not cover the whole years, but the two major events that happened during those years — the visit of the pope and the tornado, respectively.
Many people still remember those events and already have memories of them. But what I wanted to do was show details that many people don’t know, even if they were there at the time.

The Review: It’s notable that the date of the final chapter – 1997 – ends before the new millennium. We know that interesting things have happened here in town in the 26 years since; was it just a matter of wanting to let Time judge more recent history, to sort of “season” it for a minute?
Or something else?
Certainly, it doesn’t imply that the city’s “golden age” has come and gone?

Kowalski: The book really doesn’t end at 1997. The Conclusion chapter gives a literal feet-on-the-street overview of Hamtramck today and is based on my actual walks through Hamtramck on the days of the subheadings.
And by that point I felt I had given the readers all the information they would want to get an understanding of the lives of the people through the years.
As for the “golden age” of Hamtramck, that is based more on nostalgia than on reality. That’s one of the things I wanted to show in the book. Nostalgia is fun but it has to be kept in perspective.

The Review: What would you say are the overriding factors of history that have shaped Hamtramck – we could guess, but your informed perspective would be far and away the most valuable here, we think …?

Kowalski: The creation and shaping of a city like Hamtramck is extremely complex. In Hamtramck’s case, the immigrant influx through the decades has been the core factor, but that has a thousand facets to it. And each one could be the basis of a book on its own.
That’s why I have been able to write 11 books on Hamtramck and still not covered the whole story.
Prohibition, the Great Depression, the influence of the churches and many other things all played pivotal roles not only in their direct impact but in the many ways they influenced lifestyles. And the process is still continuing today.

The Review: Why would a person want to make Hamtramck their home? What traits in a person tend to make them succeed in a place like this? Do you ever write a book in the hopes that it will turn someone’s head to look at the city as a Home destination?

Kowalski: Hamtramck is and always has been an amazingly energetic city. Its diversity is a great source of strength yet creates great challenges.
I believe that is a key reason that Hamtramck not only survives in spite of its challenges, it thrives. It draws strength from facing and overcoming challenges.
From my years of being a journalist I have gained a lot of insight into how cities operate and I’ve learned that some towns that seem to have everything actually have little while a town like Hamtramck, which is constantly battling some issue, actually has great resourcefulness. In effect Hamtramck has built up an immunity to crises. We suffer but we always get better.
All that being said, Hamtramck isn’t for everyone. Just as some people don’t like living in an apartment, not everyone is comfortable with the intensity of our crowded neighborhoods. But Hamtramck has a great sense of community.

The Review: What do you see as your next project after this one — what direction will you go next time?

Kowalski: For now I am directing my energy into growing and improving the Hamtramck Historical Museum. We’ve been in operation for 10 years now, but we are just getting started.

The Review: The book is called “Hamtramck Through the Years,” by Greg Kowalski, Director of the Hamtramck Historical Museum. Where are all the places that the book can be found?

Kowalski: The book can be found at Barnes & Noble bookstore, CVS drug stores, Costco, the Polish Art Center in Hamtramck and the Hamtramck Historical Museum and is available on Amazon.

Posted Dec. 8, 2023

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