My Own History of Hamtramck, Michigan

Hamtramck Historical Museum to be

The Hamtramck Historical Museum-to-be stands on Holbrook.

I disliked the city when I was a kid. My mother knew it. Threatening to move to Detroit was her ace in the hole when it came to making me behave. “That’s it,” she would exclaim with feigned exasperation, “We’re movin’ to the city.” But we never did; I attended Armada schools for 13 years. Until I was fourteen, I had a forty-acre playground with fields, woods, meadow, and creek, all to myself. For many years, my mother worked in the city and rode a Greyhound bus out to the farm on her days off. The bus stopped at the Peerless Café in Romeo and she had to rely on an aunt or uncle for transportation to and from the farm where I lived with my grandmother.

By the time I graduated from Oakland University in Rochester in 1972, I couldn’t wait to move to the city. Family and friends thought I was crazy, but I knew by then that I would never make a very good farmer. “You have other talents, Lenny,” my Aunt Betty once consoled. I moved into an apartment building on Seward in what was then called the New Center, near Wayne State University where I attended graduate school and worked as a page at the Detroit Public Library. I loved the idea of being a “page” in a library–one page among millions and millions of pages.

As a new resident of Detroit, I didn’t wait long before I started to explore Hamtramck, the city within the city of Detroit, and to enjoy its Polish restaurants and old stores, all of which my mother had made magical by disappearing into them for long periods of time. For many years in the 1950s my mother worked at the still-thriving New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck, once the epicenter of Polish Detroit and the community to which her parents both immigrated some forty years earlier and the place where she was born. When she retired in 1986, pensionless and living in a pricey but rather undistinguished apartment in Romeo, we decided to buy her a house in Hamtramck. It cost $21,000 and the rent from the upstairs flat paid the mortgage. Of the prospect of moving back to Hamtramck, she said with her usual pull-no-punches style, “ I was born here, I’ll come here to die.”

My mother has been gone now for fifteen years, and I still maintain her little house in Hamtramck, the lower floor is rented and the upper floor is what I refer to as my pied-à-terre. In all its shabby glory, it welcomes me every time I visit.

All of this is my attempt at a short explanation of what I was doing at 3105 Holbrook June 16 for what was billed as an evening of “Fun, Fundraising, and All That Jazz” dressed in something resembling the clothing that would have been worn in 1925, the year in which the party venue was built. The stately brick building, up until a few years ago, was the home of the Polish Legion of American Veterans Post #1.

Mayor Karen Majewski with Greg Kowalski

Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski with Greg Kowalski.

A hundred or so people paid $100 a head to raise money to restore the building to its original style. The construction workers have already removed a hideous drop ceiling and are replacing all the mechanicals in the basement. The money is a pittence compared to what will be needed to bring the building back and turn it into the real museum of Greg Kowalski’s dreams.

Kowalski and other Friends of Historical Hamtramck—Joan Bittner, Cynthia Cervenak, Hillary Cherry, Tom Jankowski, Dennis Orlowski, and Christine Renner—envision a restored building that is less of a museum and more of an educational center with emphasis on rotating exhibits and lots of programming.

“A real community center,” is what Kowalski calls it, one that partners with a metropolitan network of museums. But first, he said, comes the plumbing, a complete re-engineering, retrofitting for a sprinkler system, and so on. “City Museum Goes through Final Paperwork,” an article in today’s Hamtramck Review outlines the plans for the building.

Architectural renderings were on display, and Joan Bittner of Hamtramck’s Polish Art Center(incidentally the best Polish store in America, in my humble opinion) took me on a tour. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see how splendid the second-floor program space could be, complete with a great old stage. I ventured into the basement, with all its moisture damage and ancient plumbing and heating systems. Installation of a new heating and cooling system is already underway.

Joan Bittner

Striking a 1920s pose is Joan Bittner of Hamtramck's Polish Art Center.

I went home to my little Hamtramck house on Norwalk inspired to spend the rest of the weekend patching and doing yard work and meeting neighbors who love to see people taking care of their homes. People in Hamtramck, like the rest of the nation, are suffering bitterly from what’s happened to the economy and jobs. I sat at my window for a long time, looking at the cute little house across the street, thinking about my talk with a neighbor from Iraq who is serving in the National Guard, and wondering what it will take to get the community behind the museum project.

One thing is for sure, as Greg Kowalski has said, this museum is about the history of Hamtramck, not just Polish Hamtramck, although that is a huge piece, but the Hamtramck that is evolving every day. I took my customary walk down Joseph Campau, main street. I went to my favorite Polish markets, and then I shopped at the lively Middle Eastern market on Caniff, where you can buy the most delicious hummus, olives, pita bread, and feta cheese in the world.

I love the new Hamtramck. The city hangs in there and young people move in and make music and art in clubs and studios all over town. This is Hamtramck history in the making, and there is a place for all of it in the Hamtramck Historical Museum.

It’s hard to predict when the museum will be ready to open, Kowalski said. Much depends on fundraising, and the party planners posted discreet signs all over the building suggesting what donations of various amounts will buy—from $25 for a gallon of paint to $10,000 for a restroom renovation. To get involved, call the Friends at 313-874-2242.

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One Response to “My Own History of Hamtramck, Michigan”

  1. Vilma Jakubicki says:

    I love Hamtramck! That short visit a while back left good memories and a longing to come back.I remembered the church,a walking distance from your home; some cute porches with flowers as we walked to the shopping areas; the Polish store-the biggest one I’ve ever been.Where’s the nearest hospital? That’s my only concern.

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