There’s a house on Conant with a garden in the front yard; the chain link fence wrapped all the way around, its gate right at the sidewalk. It’s a practical garden filled with practical things: produce. It’s not the type of garden that’s going to take home a city’s beautification award — though beautiful in its own right, sure. I’m just saying that, you know, it’s a garden. It looks like a regular old garden and it is.
But this is Banglatown, a community of Bangladeshi immigrants that spills over Conant from Hamtramck to Detroit. In the gardens here, tucked among the fruits and vegetables more commonly found among the gardens of the Western Hemisphere — your pumpkins, your cucumbers, et al. — are varieties of produce that are staples of a Bengali kitchen yet not readily available here in North America. So sometimes you have to grow your own.
“There's laal saag right here. Laal means red (in English). They’re just veggies, like spinach,” says Rebeka Islam, executive director of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote Michigan (APIAVote-MI) organization and de facto neighborhood ambassador.
“There’s this type of bean called sheem. They’re beans, basically, but only grown in Bangladesh. People brought the seeds over and they’re growing here now.”
Rebeka Islam’s parents brought her family from Bangladesh to the United States when Rebeka was a child. The prospect of moving to the U.S. was exciting at first, she says, and upon arrival, the sound of people speaking in English “was like music to my ears” — and especially as a second grader who had yet to master the language. She’d be fluent by fifth or sixth grade, she says.
They first settled in New York City, where her honeymoon with the American dream was quickly shattered. There was the small and cramped Queens apartment that her family shared with people she didn’t know; the language and cultural barriers that resulted in schoolyard taunts and bullying; rats. The Islam family would soon look for greener pastures in Hamtramck, where the city’s welcome sign says it all: “The world in two square miles.” Though not dissimilar from New York City in terms of a robust international population, Hamtramck is certainly less expensive.
“We didn't stay in New York for too long,” Rebeka says. “And that's the case with a lot of the community members here (in Banglatown). It's just not affordable for us to start off in New York. So we moved to Michigan.”
Rebeka Islam in front of her childhood home on Yemans Street.
Hamtramck’s story as a landing spot for Bangladeshi immigrants starts somewhere in the late 1980s, as small, locally-owned Bengali markets and restaurants began to pop up in the vacated storefronts once operated by the Polish immigrants that preceded them. Mosques were founded amongst the primarily Muslim community. As with many an immigrant community, the friends and family members that first settled here paved the way for others to follow suit, with markets now carrying the foods with which they’re familiar and a network forming that could help cushion the challenges of immigration with tips on places to live and work.
It was the 1990s when Banglatown really began to take shape, residents here say, when the tightly packed duplexes of northern Hamtramck began to fill with Bangladeshi families and the dormant Conant corridor would come roaring back to life with the businesses that serve them. Aladdin Sweets & Cafe opened on Conant in 1998 and has served as a hub for the community ever since, where nearby residents meet and commune daily. The restaurant and bakery also serves as a magnet for the Bangladeshi diaspora well beyond Banglatown’s unofficial borders, its visitors making a point to stop here whenever they’re nearby.
Aladdin Sweets & Cafe opened on Conant in 1998 and has served as a hub for the community ever since.
“When I think about Hamtramck, I'm gonna think about Bengali food. And I think Aladdin is the best restaurant here. It's been here for a long time. Everyone who lives here, they're a part of Aladdin. They come here to talk to everyone; it's like a community center for everyone in this area,” says Fabia Firoze, a Bengladeshi-American who lives in Ann Arbor. Firoze was in Detroit for a small business conference and had made a point to stop at Aladdin before heading back home, a regular stop for her whenever she’s in the area.
“Also, if you notice, if you go to other places, most of the shops here are owned by Bengali owners. So it's a good place to get together and meet all the Bengalis here in Michigan.”
Fabia Firoze doesn’t live in Banglatown but comes to Aladdin whenever she’s in the area.
In 2001, as more and more Bangladeshis arrived in Hamtramck, Badrul Choudhury opened Quixend Money Transfer on Conant. It was, he says, the first Bangladeshi money exchange business in the neighborhood and it continues to provide essential services to the community more than two decades later. Money exchange services and travel agencies are packed in among the corner markets, restaurants, and clothing shops of Conant, bridging the gap between the families of Banglatown and their loved ones back home.
“Most people that come here, they still have family in Bangladesh and they support their family here and back home. They needed a means of sending money back to support their families and that’s where I came along. So it’s a pretty important service,” Choudhury says. “There are services like this in any immigrant community. Whether it’s people from Bangladesh or India or Pakistan, it’s the same thing. People come here and share with their family back home.
“This is a country of immigrants. People come here for a better opportunity and to share that with their loved ones.”
Badrul Choudhury, owner of Quixend Money Transfer.
A better opportunity is exactly what the Islam family found in Banglatown. After leaving New York and moving to Hamtramck thanks to a job tip from a family friend, the Islams found a flat on Yemans Street where they’d raise their family. For Rebeka, attending Dickinson East Elementary School proved a much softer landing spot, where upwards of 80 percent of its 700 students are English Language Learners and of Bangladeshi or Yemeni descent. She would become fluent in English by the end of her time there, eventually going on to attend Cass Technical High School in Detroit. There’s a sizable Bengali student population at Cass Tech, and even a dedicated bus stop in her old neighborhood.
It’s at Cass Tech where Rebeka found her voice, after a senior project had her working on the U.S. Census in 2010 and inspired her to get involved in politics. As the executive director of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote Michigan (APIAVote-MI), Rebeka led the efforts to keep Banglatown united as one district in the recent community redistricting efforts from the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Initial maps split Banglatown into three voting districts; Rebeka’s community organizing was successful in ensuring that it would remain united as one, going so far as to organize Uber rides for community members to testify in front of the commission.
APIAVote-MI hasn’t rested on its laurels since their redistricting win. Rebeka has been leading community outreach sessions at places like Banglatown’s Kabab House & Mouchak Sweets, an old funeral home-turned-restaurant and banquet hall that regularly hosts neighborhood events. It’s not easy learning about the culture and customs of a new country, let alone a completely different language, and that’s especially true when it comes to politics.
“We don't come from a culture where we can just call up our representative and say, Hey, we need this done, this trash can is blocking the way. The government in Bangladesh is not as accessible as it is here; elected officials are not accessible as back home. So it's really nice to have access to elected officials here, but that's also where there's a cultural gap. Some community members from the Bengali community still think that they don't have access to elected officials here,” she says.
“That's something that we, as a part of APIAVote-MI, are always trying to do: to bring elected officials to our events to let people know that these guys are making laws that are going to impact you. So you need to have a direct line of communication with them to tell them what your concerns are. What is it that you want to see in your community? What does a more united community look like for you? So we always try to bring elected officials to our events.”
Points of pride
On a late summer afternoon at the end of July, APIAVoteMI helped host state senator Stephanie Chang for a community input session at the Kabab House, where she sat down with members of the Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee (BAPAC) and other community stakeholders for a community input session. If BAPAC sounds familiar, it’s because the organization is one of the groups responsible for the “Welcome to Banglatown” sign installed in 2017 at the district’s north end at Jayne Field.
State senator Stephanie Chang meets with members of the Bangladeshi-American community.
The sign was a major win for the neighborhood, stakeholders here say, a bit of branding that recognizes the Bengali community here while at the same time inviting visitors to come and enjoy the cafes and restaurants that the neighborhood has to offer. New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown are often brought up as inspiration. Since its installation, BAPAC has turned its attention to politics and jobs, says Aziz Khandker, BAPAC treasurer.
“We are more into economic development now,” he says. “We are trying to get money into the area. We have a connection with the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh, and we are trying to get investment from Bangladesh to Banglatown.”
Aziz Khandker, BAPAC treasurer.
Locally, investment is coming to the neighborhood via Detroit’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund (SNF), a partnered program with Invest Detroit that is investing tens of millions of dollars into targeted areas of the city through streetscape improvements, mixed-use developments, and more. And though not technically an SNF-funded project, the January opening of the Transfiguration Place Apartments development, which redeveloped a historic church into housing, is pointed to by the city as targeted investment at work in Banglatown.
Rebeka Islam and former Hamtramck city councilman Abu Musa at Aladdin.
Watching Banglatown grow and flourish is a point of pride for the community here. Even Rebeka Islam, who now lives in suburban Sterling Heights, says she’s in Banglatown more than she is at home. It’s a push-and-pull experienced by many an immigrant community over the decades, the arriving generation settling into and developing a neighborhood before the next generation starts branching out into the surrounding communities. But even with a house in the suburbs, Banglatown will always be home.
“I literally just sleep there,” she says. “I spend most of my time in Banglatown.”