Hamtramck Preserved

Sep 18, 2013

Just about everyone has at least heard of Hamtramck, the little, deeply Polish-American enclave city embedded within Detroit.

When you ask people what comes to mind when they think of the town, they say “Packzi,” the giant jelly donuts everyone eats on Fat Tuesday. They remember the triumphant day twenty-six years ago, when Pope John Paul II came to visit and say mass.

Old-timers remember legions of workers, lunch buckets in hand, trudging to jobs at the now-vanished Dodge Main or Poletown plants. Some even remember when Hamtramck was a wide-open town, with gangs and bordellos, and it was common for residents to make their own whisky in basement stills, a practice that continued long after Prohibition. Back then the Bowery was the happening nightclub, and you were liable to bump into anyone from Jimmy Durante to Sophie Tucker if you hung around into the night.

Greg Kowalski knows it all. He literally eats, breathes and sleeps Hamtramck, where he was born in 1950.

Though once editor of Hamtramck’s now-defunct paper, The Citizen, Kowalski spent most of his career with the Birmingham Eccentric, a community vastly different from the one he calls home. But he never left Hamtown, and has written six books about his two-square-mile birthplace, of which “Hamtramck: The Driven City” is best known.

For years, however, he was driven by his own dream: He wanted to see Hamtramck have a museum of its own, a place that would celebrate its history and rich heritage.

Now, he and the Hamtramck Historical Commission, which he heads, have made that happen. Earlier this year, a businessman donated an 8,000 square foot building on Joseph Campau, Hamtramck’s main drag.  They did a “soft opening“ with little fanfare on Labor Day.

They have a few interesting exhibits, including posters from movies made by somewhat forgotten stars like Tom Tyler, born Vincent Markowski, who played Captain Marvel before coming home to die a sad early death.

There are portraits of past mayors, a surprising number of whom ended up in prison, and women‘s tennis coach Jean Hoxie, a national legend whose life was cut short when she was run over by her own car. 

The museum still, however, has a long way to go; the upper floor can’t be used until layers of ancient lead paint are removed.

Hamtramck, like Detroit, is under an emergency manager. But eyeing the threat to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Kowalski’s commissioners made sure they, not the city, own the museum.

They’ve got plenty of history, and now all they need is the time and money needed to put together the exhibits to tell the stories of natives like Emil Konopinski, who went to Los Alamos to help make the atom bomb, and Fred Kovalevski, a Cold War spy who left the CIA for love and ended up making a fortune instead.

In the last quarter-century, Hamtramck has changed a lot. There are now, Kowalski says, more Bangladeshis than Poles, and a significant number of Yemenis, Albanians and African-Americans.

The museum, he says, will reflect that diversity. In a sea of forgettable suburbs, Hamtramck has a storied present and past. I hope he gets the funds to tell those stories as richly as they deserve. 

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