When the media comes knocking on Hamtramck’s door

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

By Walter Wasacz

Sometimes we get the best material for Street Life by just looking in the mirror. Not to see our faces, but to get a glimpse of an even bigger picture that’s there but often taken for granted.

That was my experience on Wednesday, when we got a call from the Takeaway, a joint production of Public Radio International and WNYC in New York. The show is hosted by John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee, a former reporter at Detroit’s WDET.

They were preparing a story on Hamtramck’s highly unusual tactical approach to resolving its financial shortfall: a request to the state’s treasury department to allow the city to file for bankruptcy. Readers of the Review have no doubt followed this story, the Detroit dailies have covered it and now the national media is in the mix.

This all began because the city says Detroit auditors claim our bigger neighbor overpaid Hamtramck over $7 million in tax revenue from the General Motors Poletown Plant property that straddles our shared border.

It’s complicated. It goes back to 1981, when a deal was cut between the two cities and GM to create a subdivided revenue stream. If the economy had remained at 1981 levels (which weren’t rosy, as longtime residents of the region well know), this just might have worked.

But the future got in the way. GM nearly went under, of course. Detroit is staring into its own financial abyss. Cities are trying to re-imagine and reinvent themselves. It’s happening for the better, trust me, things might look a whole lot different in 10 years if our local economy becomes more diverse and no longer hangs on the thread of one industry.

GM looks like it will recover. But cities like Detroit and Hamtramck are no longer the direct beneficiaries of its corporate success. There are indirect benefits, sure. The tax issues need to be straightened out, legal maneuvers pushed to the back burner and real life resumed. But to go back to 1981 standards and expectations? No thanks. Let’s think of something better and more sustainable.

That was the gist of what the Takeaway wanted to talk to me about: what is life really like in Hamtramck? What’s happening on the ground, not in City Hall or in obtuse arguments between lawyers.

My story, Hamtramck’s story, seemed fascinating to Jillian Weinberger, who called to prepare me for an interview on the show.

I gave her the short historical tour, beginning with the organizing of Hamtramck as one of Wayne County’s original townships in the late 1700s — the boundaries once stretching from the river, veering east to Lake St. Clair and north to Base Line Road. It was settled by French landowners (Joseph Campau, among them), its land later cultivated by German farmers, still later saloons opened by Irish immigrants, perfectly setting up the explosion of hard-working (and hard-drinking) Polish-born laborers who flooded into the city during the auto manufacturing boom of the early 20th century.

I told her about the changing social landscape — let’s stay with the year 1981 just as a convenient marker in time — and how over the last 30 years Hamtramck has seen significant shifts in cultural identity.
Its Eastern European signatures are still all over town, as is the legacy (keyword, that) of 20th century auto industry power and might.

But life on the street now includes Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Bosnia and Yemen; Hindus and Buddhists (Theravada and Zen) from South Asia and elsewhere; students, professors, artists and musicians escaping the suburbs, bringing creativity, innovation and new energies to old neighborhoods.
Weinberger loved it all, she said. But scheduling the interview became its own story. We were supposed to go on the air live at 6:33 a.m. Thursday. Then it was changed to 7:33 a.m. Better news came next: we’d tape the interview Wednesday night and it would be edited into a piece to include an interview with Hamtramck City Manager Bill Cooper. Then it was decided, finally, that the show would go in a different direction and feature a discussion about other cities that could see bankruptcy as an option.

So Street Life was out and economic experts were in. But that’s fine. Cities across the nation are running out of money. Tactics need to evolve into strategies. Hamtramck is fighting for its survival on multiple fronts — and doing a pretty good job of it. The main point is that we’re not alone here; we’re just a lot more interesting than most. That’s all part of the even bigger picture staring back at us.

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