Hamtramck is a town of 22,000 residents and is surrounded by the city of Detroit. Despite its size, it has four mosques and 20 churches, along with a Buddhist ashram and a Hindu temple. Twenty-seven different languages are spoken in its schools. As of January 2016, it will also be home to the first Muslim-majority elected city council in America. For some, this milestone confirms their suspicions that this nation is becoming “Islamicized” and that, somehow, Hamtramck will lurch toward becoming a “Sharia law” zone. One may suspect that many of those who believe that also think that the new Starbucks holiday cups are an intentional effort to kill Christmas once and for all. For the vast majority of metro Detroiters and Michiganders, the news of the Hamtramck elections either registered a faint blip on their radars or was seen for what it is: yet another milestone in the ever-developing American narrative of lived democracy in a land of immigrants.
Saad Almasamari, a young Yemeni-American was elected to his first four year term on the council. He joins re-elected incumbents Anam Miah and Abu Miah, and fellow incumbent Mohammed Hassan, all of Bangladeshi heritage. The remaining council members are Titus Walters, an African-American, and re-elected incumbent Robert Zwolak, a Polish-American.
It didn’t take long for news of the Hamtramck elections to reach the ears, anxieties, and prejudices of those who go apoplectic at the very word “muslim.” Micky Garus, a city councilman from Dallas, Oregon, belched on Facebook that what happened in Hamtramck would end western civilization. His reaction approaches the same level of xenophobic hysteria as ex-presidential candidate and soon-to-be ex-Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s warnings (while visiting Great Britain) that nearby Dearborn, Michigan, the epicenter of Arab-American life, was a “no-go zone” for non-Muslims.
Apparently, media outlets that were once perceived as sensible have decided it is inadequate to simply drink the proverbial “Kool-Aid” of anti-Muslim hysteria fomented by politicians like Garus and Jindal, not to mention presidential candidate Donald Trump; they have elected to freebase it. When Hamtramck’s Polish-American mayor, Karen Majewski appeared shortly after the elections, the CNN news host asked her, point-black and with no pretense of guile, “You govern a majority Muslim city. Are you afraid?” Initially, and understandably, stunned by the tenor of the question, mayor Majewski responded firmly that she bore no such fear and that neither did the residents of her city, who were far more concerned with pressing concerns like functioning streetlights and repaired roads.
As the new city council takes office next month, prepared to tackle some of the pressing municipal challenges of the city, the local demographics are markedly different than they were a century ago. During the 1910’s and 1920’s, Hamtramck became a destination for Eastern European immigrants, particularly Poles, eager to take advantage of newfound opportunities afforded by Detroit’s burgeoning automobile industry. Even as recently as 1970, Hamtramck was 90% ethnically Polish, giving it the moniker that it still holds today of “Poletown.” With economic travails and the natural immigrant impetus for upward mobility present during the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Polish population started to leave Hamtramck for other suburbs; many former residents of the city now live in communities like Sterling Heights and Warren, slightly north of their old home. Their departure coincided with the arrival of new immigrant communities, a common narrative in America’s migration history. Today, Hamtramck still has a Polish population, though it is a shadow (12%) of what once was there. According to the 2015 US Census Reports, the city has a population that is 23% Bangladeshi; 19% Yemeni (5% are from other Arab countries); 19% African-American; 6% Bosnian; 3% Albanian; and 3% Ukrainian. But it is still Poletown for many; every year on Fat Tuesday, metro Detroiters rush to the city’s Polish bakeries to purchase Paczki, the diet destroying, deep-fried donuts specially prepared as a last hurrah indulgence prior to the start of Lent.
The demographic diversity of Hamtramck allows it to possess an atmosphere that is both eclectic and electric. It is a town where the main thoroughfares of Conant Street and Joseph Campau Avenue are lined with stores bearing Polish, Ukrainian, Arabic, and Bengali scripts next to one another. It is a place where markets serve as tributes to eastern European pork products like kielbasa harmoniously adjacent to halal butchers. There is a mosque that was once a bank—Baitul Mukkaram Masjid—on the corner of Conant and Carpenter. It is a place of character and uniqueness in an era of tragic homogenization and cultural banality, evocative of the vivid description of everyday life one may hear in The Beatles’ Penny Lane.
Hamtramck is also home to the General Motors plant that manufactures the Chevrolet Volt and the Cadillac DTS. Its low cost of living and low crime rate make it an attractive address for hipsters and other young people who wish to avail themselves of affordable housing and multiculturalism and still be close to Detroit, a city that has recently emerged from bankruptcy with a rejuvenated esprit de corps and tremendous opportunity for economic and cultural renaissance. The semi-professional soccer team, Detroit City Football Club, has announced its desire to relocate to Hamtramck and restore Keyworth Stadium, a local landmark, for its home pitch.
The city has long been known to have a thriving alternative music scene. Add to this, the recent opening of BanglaTown, an area that celebrates Bengali cultural life, similar to Detroit’s Greektown and Mexicantown districts. Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder was on hand for the inaugural festivities, extolling the value and importance of immigrant communities and the diversity they bring to the state. Snyder had been an ardent advocate for Michigan as a destination state for immigrants, especially refugees from the Middle East and South Asia, given the existing cultural support systems and tremendous potential for economic and employment opportunity. After the Paris attacks, however, Snyder seemingly reversed his prior stance, calling for a pause in the Syrian refugee relocation initiative announced by president Obama, until the federal government provided greater assurance that the process would prevent potential extremists from exploiting it. Hamtramck is home to people seeking sanctuary from South Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. If anything, it stands as a testament, not a harbinger, to how refugees enhance their new home.
As Hamtramck has transitioned from being a majority Polish enclave to a city with a sizable Muslim population, the process has not been without discord. In 2004, a contentious debate emerged as to whether Muslims requests for the call to prayer (adhan) could be broadcast from loudspeakers five times a day. A unanimous city council vote gave permission to an activity that many contend to be constitutionally protected speech and not dissimilar to the ringing of church bells, once a pervasive sound in what once had been a predominantly Catholic city. The councilmen imposed reasonable time regulations, requiring the adhan to be broadcast only between the hours of 6a.m. and 10p.m., and at a certain prescribed volume. A decade later, the controversy has evaporated into the ether of daily life and grind in a working class city.
Hamtramck may not be a hamlet out of some Norman Rockwell depiction (and thankfully so), but is a haven and a home for thousands who exemplify that quintessential aspect of Americana known as the immigrant experience.