On the world stage, Hamtramck competes culturally

(Editor-at-Large Walter Wasacz writes a weekly column on life in Hamtramck.)

By Walter Wasacz

Earlier this month, I went to Montreal for a weekend of music, fun and urban adventure. Mutek, one of the top electronic music events in the world, drew me there. I wrote about it in a previous column in The Review and reviewed the festival in XLR8R magazine, where I am also a staff writer. Anyone interested in that can find it on the web here.

I shared a few thoughts about Montreal in the column, including a brief history of a place that has gone through numerous social, economic and political changes over the last 30 years.

The city looks shabby and unkempt in some spots, compared to the first time I went there in 1984. I’ve been back several times and witnessed its “decline” from the ranks of what was once a so-called “world class city.”

In Canada, that title has been commandeered by Toronto, though Montreal is miles ahead in terms of something that’s more felt than seen. Passion for life and community vibrancy are alive and kicking, despite population loss (then gain, via controversial merging of smaller municipalities on the Isle de Montreal) and displacement of manufacturing and finance sectors to Toronto and other parts of Canada.

The story has imperfect parallels to the Detroit-Hamtramck narrative of the past three decades. But they seemed apparent as I walked around Midtown Montreal and came back and did the same in my own neighborhood.

The place I’d just visited runs on raw human energy, with cultural capital as its primary currency. The festival we attended was one of several planned for the summer months. There were stages and exhibition spaces set up or under construction all over what was roughly an area the size of Hamtramck — about 2 square miles — people bustling about, tourists, natives, on foot, on bicycles, heading into Metro stations (Montreal has one of the cleanest, most efficient subway systems in the world), getting on and off buses, sitting in cafes and bars, in Vietnamese and Italian restaurants, rocking in scrappy heavy metal bars and dancing in chic modern clubs featuring house and techno jams.

How did the Hamtramck urban experience compare when I returned home?

Most favorably, I must say. The racial and ethnic diversity in my own neighborhood seemed even to trump what I witnessed in French Canada. Pedestrian traffic is nearly on par, and bicycle use appears on the increase. Very good signs. The bicycle will become an important tool in all local urban redevelopment plans going forward. It can take us all over the city very quickly, down to Eastern Market or Wayne State University in about 20 minutes; downtown in about 35 minutes; Corktown and Southwest Detroit in about 45 minutes. Those times might vary depending on how fit you are and what kind of gear you have. But the connectivity is crucial. Hamtramck is part of a social and cultural network spread across physical Detroit proper (excluding the suburbs) like a constellation of 21st century urban villages.

The first week back, I attended a marvelous, one-of-a-kind performance at Public Pool, the gallery on Caniff that has had one hit after another since opening this spring.

The show was intriguingly titled “Dream Narratives: short operas for floating quartet and voice.” It featured minimalist composer James Cornish (who I learned that night lives on Hamtramck’s southend); vocalist Deanna Relyea, a mezzo soprano from Ann Arbor and founder of the Kerrytown Concert House and Edgefest; reed player Piotr Michalowski, a professor at the University of Michigan, and other modern classical musicians. They were accompanied by the Mack Avenue Dance Company, two women who interpreted the music in a series of elegantly sensual movements around the tiny space.

It was a fabulous cultural moment (spread over a couple of hours) that had me, and everyone that I talked to who was there, buzzing on a natural high. It revealed, once again, that anything is possible when you provide it with the right platform and populate it with people interested in pushing the modern urban experience forward.

It comes as naturally here as it does in Montreal. Or Brooklyn (even more naturally here, I’d argue). There’s something to meditate on until we resume this conversation next week.

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