Hamtown Rising

Erik Tungate rings his hands and shifts his body in a chair while he talks, as if he can’t wait to get out and apply the ideas he says are zooming around in his head. He is looking out the window of his office in Hamtramck City Hall and talking about the community in which he has worked for the past three months as economic development director.

“Hamtramck is a living city, built on an urban model that still works,” says Tungate, just warming up. “Why does it work? One word: Density. What you see here is about 100 years of a work in progress. It has something many suburbs are trying hard to recreate: a sense of community. What we have here is the standard they are trying to achieve.” 

Tungate, 29, is part of a new management team in Hamtramck, a city of about 23,000 (that’s according to the official 2000 U.S. Census count; most people here put the actual number closer to 30,000) that is completely surrounded by Detroit on all sides but for a sliver of a border it shares with the city of Highland Park. Because of repeated stalemates created by a strong mayor clashing with a strong common council, the city was forced to spend the past five years under the thumb of a state-appointed emergency financial manager. But earlier this year, voters approved charter revisions that changed the course of Hamtramck’s political future. The city is now run day-to-day by a city manager, and it is nearly solvent again after years of teetering on the abyss. It is showing a renewed hunger to complete projects already started — including a massive housing development on the city’s devastated northwest side scheduled to break ground this fall — and to reach out to potential commercial clients to upgrade the downtown shopping strip on Jos. Campau.

“I believe we live and die with Jos. Campau,” says Tungate. “We envision it as a walkable, contiguous commercial district, with shopping and entertainment options from morning and into the night. We want to encourage more residential development on Jos. Campau to create even more foot traffic around the clock.”

Equally important, he says, is the attention being given to the neighborhoods, where another 125 houses on scattered sites are on track for construction next year. The boom in housing is a direct result of the settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit filed in the late 1960s. The case was marked by 30 years of judicial and political wrangling — and court-imposed restrictions on development in the city.

“People don’t realize how monumental it is having this behind us,” Tungate says.

Getting it Right in the Mix

Growing up in small-town Western Michigan (Plainwell: Pop. 3,000), Tungate early on began thinking big city thoughts. He was exposed to Chicago’s urban vitality on field trips there as a youth, but also became fascinated with Detroit when his father brought him to old Tiger Stadium to see games during the 1984 World Championship season.

He often makes allusions to neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Chicago that resemble Hamtramck’s rich history, its funky appeal or a multicultural makeup that often features African, Bangladeshi, Bosnian and Polish families living side by side on the same block with garage rock musicians and fine artists.

“Everything is here. … There is really not much about Hamtramck I would change,” Tungate says. “What we need to change is the perception of the city through good leadership and good planning. There are business models out there that really work for cities. I want to bring a higher level of sophistication to Hamtramck, and make this a place that investors will want to bring their dollars.”

Tungate says he’s trying to find a national restaurant to squeeze in between the independent eateries in the central business district.

“The nationals will help the mom-and-pops stores,” he says. “It would be ideal to have a mix here.”

An advantage to selling potential investors on Hamtramck is the new and improved look of a nine-block stretch of Jos. Campau, from Holbrook to Caniff. The city’s downtown received a boost two years ago when the Hamtramck Downtown Development Authority tapped into $2.5 million in federal money to give the shopping district, in decline since the 1940s, a significant makeover. It is now landscaped with trees, shrubs and flowers, and has new sidewalks and bump-out curbs. There have also been façade improvements to many of the avenue’s buildings, some of which date to the 1920s and 1930s. Tungate is also busy helping to reignite the DDA, which lost its funding when the city came under state oversight.


Organic Economic Engines

While Tungate plans for improvements to the Jos. Campau district, Hamtramck’s vibrant cultural life and ever-changing social currents are producing organic changes in other parts of the city.

Conant, a main drag that runs parallel to Jos. Campau on the east side of town, is showing signs that it might become the metro area’s first Little India or Little Bengal. In the late 1990s, large numbers of South Asian business people began opening markets and shops on Conant that sell Indian spices, food and clothing. Restaurants like Gandhi and Aladdin offer lunch buffets that attract locals, university students and business people from nearby American Axle & Manufacturing.

On the city’s south side, a community group called Preserve Our Parks has drawn up plans for a bicycle/pedestrian path that will wind its way around the General Motors Poletown Plant and meet up with another trail that will eventually connect non-motorized riders to Detroit’s riverfront. The project is expected to be completed in 2010.

And Hamtramck’s reputation as a destination for music fans continues to hold steady, despite the closing in recent years of nationally-known venues like Lili’s (for rock) and Motor (techno, and other electronic dance music). Now, people head to Small’s or The Belmont — which recently had a packed house for the Detroit Cobras on a Monday night, despite only word-of-mouth advertising — or opt for something even more delightfully quirky: like spending happy hour at the new Dodge Lounge listening to a string quartet made up of musicians from the Michigan Opera Theatre. The group has a weekly residency at the south side bar this summer.

There is also a strong musical lineup for the upcoming Hamtramck Labor Day Festival. One of the featured performers is Mitch Ryder, who was born in Hamtramck’s St. Francis Hospital — the same building that was later converted into City Hall; the same building where Tungate works on new strategies for the city’s economic development.

Tungate says it’s difficult to find crazy-positive energy like this in any city, especially one that packs so much punch into only two square miles.

“Maybe it’s because Hamtramck just feels like home to so many people,” Tungate says, eager to get out on the street. “It reminds me of my hometown, but it’s in the middle of the sixth largest metro area in the U.S. I came here because I wanted to be part of something big. That’s how optimistic I am about Hamtramck’s future.”

Erik Tungate can be reached by calling 876-7700 and following instructions on the recorded menu. The City of Hamtramck’s official web site is http://www.hamtramck.us/

- All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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