Biba Adams’ guide to life in Hamtramck

This story was originally published in Metromode, April 5, 2021. 
The signs that mark the entrance to Hamtramck declare it as a city where you can find, “The World in Two Square Miles.” The tiny hamlet is, in fact, the most diverse city in Michigan. Over 40% of the city’s residents were born outside of the U.S. 

Hamtramck’s population is made up of Polish people who have lived here for generations, as well as African Americans, Yemeni-Americans, and Bangladeshi-Americans. Historically, the area was home to German immigrants. The Polish immigrants moved to the area and imprinted it with their signature, and even despite the demographic shifts, the city remains synonymous with Polish culture. 

Like its neighbor, Highland Park, Hamtramck has resisted being incorporated into Detroit despite dozens of attempts. The city is and will remain its own entity. 

Greg Kowalski who runs the Hamtramck Historical Museum observes, “to me, what makes Hamtramck so strong is its amazing diversity. You see people here of all ages, nationalities, and religions all living together and working together. I find that it gives this very old city new life and really strong energy. I find it to be absolutely thrilling.” 

Hamtramck: An art mecca 

Hamtramck is slowly becoming a mecca for emerging artists. The midrange rents and multifamily housing units fit their financial needs, and the multicultural environment stokes their creative juices. 

One such artist was Dmytro Szylak, who immigrated to Hamtramck from the Ukraine in the 1950s. Szylak worked at General Motors for 30 years, but after his retirement in the mid-80s, he began constructing an assemblage structure atop two garages that he owned. The colorful kinetic art structure came to be known as Hamtramck Disneyland, which has been the subject of two documentaries and is considered one of the top art destinations in Michigan.

Szylak passed away in 2015, and to ensure his legacy continued, a group of residents and artists stepped up to save the folk art installation. Since 2016, Hatch Art: A Hamtramck Art Collective has managed Hamtramck Disneyland and frequently hosts art events and gallery showings throughout the city.

Hamtramck: A spiritual center

With its diverse population of residents who practice many faiths, Hamtramck is home to dozens of mosques as well as churches, including St. Florian Church, which is one of the oldest and most beautiful Roman Catholic churches in the state. 

According to the church’s website, St. Florian Church is eight stories high and is styled after the great cathedrals of Europe. It features a giant pipe organ, altar windows depicting the five famous Polish saints, and a steeple bell that chimes every hour. 

St. Florian is the sponsor of the St. Florian Strawberry Festival, which takes place every year in May. The festival kicks off with a procession to the church, a special mass, food tastings, and most importantly, sampling of dozens of strawberry dishes.

The Detroit Zen Center is another of Hamtramck’s spiritual destinations. It is a residential center for students of Zen Buddhism and a center for spiritual study, yoga classes, meditations, and even home to a cooperative grocery store. The center is welcoming to any who are interested in learning more about Buddhist practices in-person and via Zoom. 

Hamtramck: Yes, we have packzi (and other food) too

One day a year our little city becomes one of the most popular destinations in metro Detroit. 

On Fat Tuesday, New Palace Bakery and New Martha Washington Bakery see lines that stretch down the block for devout Catholics and other sweet treat enthusiasts come to the city to buy an authentic paczki. The fried, filled donut is the traditional indulgence that many Christians indulge in before the 40-day Lenten fast before Easter. 

In addition to yummy donuts, Hamtramck is also home to other flavors of the people who live here. Polonia and Polish Village Cafe offer up native tastes including the Polish platter — a feast that includes all the Polish staples like pierogi, stuffed cabbage, and sausage.

With its large Middle Eastern population, Hamtramck is also home to several options for traditional fare such as halal restaurants Yemen Cafe and Boostan Cafe. Curiously enough, Hamtramck is also becoming known for pizza places. Amar Pizza is a great spot for unique pies such as the infamous Ghost Pepper Pizza, and Ray’s Coney Island & Pizza combines Detroit’s signature coney dogs with pizza takeout. 

Russell Street Deli owner Ben Hall is looking to move into the neighborhood with a new pizza and pasta place that he plans to put in the old Baker Streetcar Bar on Joseph Campau Avenue. The popular location would be a great destination for fans of Russell Street bringing new customers who can learn to love our unique little neighborhood. 

For me, my favorite spot is Hamtramck Coney Island. The menu is like any other coney, but I can not stress enough that they serve the BEST hash browns that I have ever had in my life. 

Hamtramck: Come for the sausage, stay for the beer (and cocktails)

The iconic Kowalski Sausage Co. sign has lit up the night in Hamtramck for years. The neon sign was refurbished in celebration of the company’s 95th anniversary in Hamtramck several years ago. The company celebrated its 100th year in business in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. Known for “Kowalski Kowality” the company is still family-owned and has been committed to remaining a part of the community. 

But, the Kowalskis aren’t the only sausage game in town. There’s also Srodek’s Campau Quality Sausage. Opened in 1981 by Walter and Marianna Srodek, this market is still family-owned. The market/restaurant in Hamtramck is one of the best known for Polish style sausage in the city. The Srodeks produce and manufacture their own meats and ship them all over the country to people who enjoy the taste of authentic Polish food.

And what goes great with sausage? Beer. 

Hamtramck doesn't have its own label, but it is becoming more and more known as a hotspot for cool bars. 

The city boasts a mix of iconic dives like Kelly’s Bar and up and coming trendier spots like Barter. Bumbo’s, Painted Lady Lounge, and Whiskey in the Jar are some of the best spots in the city to grab a cocktail with a friend. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Hamtramck bars and restaurants hard like the rest of the country, but as the silver lining in the sky starts to shine brighter, these businesses will hopefully see better days. 

I definitely spent my share of weekend evenings on a stool at Kelly’s where the drinks are cheap and the people are friendly with a great story or two to share. The bar is also a staple during the Hamtramck Music Festival hosting unique bands and even the occasional comedian. 

There is so much more to explore in Hamtramck. There’s the fact that Joseph Campau is home to lots of pawn shops filled with weird stuff that people gave up owning. Thrift stores and vintage shops like Rat Queen Vintage make Hamtramck a go-to place to buy the wares of days gone by. There’s also Your Special Day, one of the premier wedding dress destinations in the metro area. 

Hamtramck claims to be where you can find “the world in two square miles,” and if you come over, you’ll find that to be true. For those of us who live here, we wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

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