Whiskey Town: As Blowout Beckons, a Look at Hamtramck's Barroom Legacy

Fast Eddie was a bartender in a bar town. But he wasn't very fast and most people in town don't ever remember him ever being young – as if he were perpetually 60 years old. He ran the Norwalk Bar on the corner of Conant and Norwalk in Hamtramck. It was his for 60 or so years, and it was his family's business even before that. And up until just recently when a Hamtramck Bengali businessman purchased the old place, it had been empty, and the blue and white, paint chipped sign had still hung there above the bolted door.

A lot of Hamtramck's bars have gone the way of Fast Eddie's place, who's in the ground now. Turned into homes, grocery stores, razed, forgotten. There are now only about 40 or so places where you can grab a drink.

Only 40. Yes, that's a lot considering the city's 2.1 miles, but still that number pales in comparison to what once was.

"Some say there were as many as 400 bars operating in Hamtramck," says Greg Kowalski, chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission. "I'm not so sure if it was that many, but a safe bet would be somewhere between 250 and 300 bars." Damn, that's a lot of bar stools and hooch.

Serious bar growth came with the population explosion of Hamtramck, which started in 1910 when the Dodge Brothers opened the Dodge Main plant in the south end of town. And it was that event that put into motion so many aspects of Hamtramck: the huge influx of Polish immigrants, the spacing and the aesthetics of the houses (they built them so close and so fast because of the lightning quick population growth), and the number of bars that saturated this tiny town.

Between 1910 and 1920 the city's population ballooned from 3,500 to 45,000. Nearly all of that growth was Polish immigrants coming to the city for work. "Poles have a powerful thirst, and it followed them here," Kowalski says.

It also didn't help too much for these thirsty Poles that plant life back in the '20s wasn't exactly a day at the beach.

"Plant life back then was extremely grueling," Kowalski says. "So grueling in fact that workers would go to these bars at 7 a.m. and get tanked up before work just to deal, then come back right after work to unwind."

Sinatra, Iggy and the Clash

These bars served their rightful purpose, which was a shot and a beer for the regulars, but there was more to it than just the booze. It didn't hurt that Irish immigrants that preceded the Poles to Hamtramck had already established saloons and speakeasies in the decades prior to the manufacturing boom.  

"The bars were cultural institutions here," Kowalski says. "They were the social centers of towns."

Kowalski says that bars were used to grow political bases and owners were very civic-minded people. "Social organizations were formed at bars and city meetings were held at bars. Bars sponsored events and sports teams. They weren't just bars," Kowalski says.

The bar owners in Hamtramck were also on the school board, they served on the city council, and were even mayors. And it wasn't uncommon, back in the first half of the century, for every councilmember to also own a bar.

There is much of the same today, though not as prevalent.

Darren Grow owns the Belmont and is the city's Downtown Development Authority director. Andy Dow runs the Painted Lady and is on the DDA board. Cathie Gordon operates the New Dodge Bar and is on city council. And Tom Jankowski, former mayor, owns the Whiskey In The Jar.

"Bars have always played a major role in Hamtramck life," Kowalski says. "And they continue to do so. But it's different now. Now there is a club scene. People are coming here, mostly from the suburbs, for the bars. (The bars) are really contributing to the city."

The dives still exist, however. It's not all just clubs and venues. There's Suzy's, which Suzy Briskey-Calsada has ran for the last 18 years. Her place is just big enough for an internet jukebox, a handful of friends, and a shot and a beer. The Seven Brothers Bar is much of the same, except there you can play darts. Baker's Streetcar Bar is pretty much your quintessential old man bar -- but hey, old men need a place to drink, too.

Still the biggest draw these days to Hamtramck's bar scene is the music. And it has been that these last few decades. There were a few early places that drew live acts to Hamtramck back in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, and none were more famous than the Bowery – a nightclub on Jos. Campau. It's gone now, but back in its day it was a hopping joint and known throughout the Midwest. Frank Sinatra was spotted there, and so did the Three Stooges, singer Sophie Tucker and 1950s television pioneer Danny Thomas. "Major stars went there to hang out after their shows in Detroit," Kowalski says.

But what the scene is today with live acts at a dozen or so places on any given weekend night can be attributed back to a place called Lili's 21 (now the Painted Lady).

"In the (late 1970s) Lili's 21 started with the punk rock," Kowalski says. "It became an established place." The constantly clad in leopard Lili Karwowski owned this little hangout. The Clash hung out after a show at the Motor City Roller Rink, Iggy Pop bellied up to the bar, as did the MC5's Wayne Kramer. Every punk in town -- heck, even if you weren't -- loved the fabulous Lili K.

"She added a lot to the city and really showed it the way to go," Kowalski says.

Blowout roots

Music writer Chris Handyside (along with Model D Publisher Brian Boyle) is one of the reasons why. He's a chief architect of the Blowout, now in its 12th year. This year's rockin' rollin' weekend fun fest begins Wednesday (March 4) with a pre-party at the Majestic Theatre Center in Midtown and continues in 15 Hamtramck venues, March 5-7.

Handyside says the roots of the festival can be traced to a time when he snuck into shows in the city over 20 years ago.

"In 1988, I got into Paycheck's with a fake I.D.," Handyside says of the infamous and endearingly grimy club on Caniff that once hosted performers like the Gun Club, Sex Gang Children and the Velvet Underground's John Cale. "It was a place where bands could get out of the basement and play. There were places all along that strip that you could duck into for live music."

Handyside says the density of bars in the city played a big role in choosing locations for the first Blowout in 1998 -- when a pretty, ahem, fair lineup of artists included Eminem, the Volebeats, White Stripes and the Wildbunch (now the Electric Six). He says they wanted to create an experience that was similar to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin where bands fill bars all along the Texas capital's 6th street. "We wanted that here," he says. "We wanted people to aimlessly walk from one bar to the next."

And the two come together -- bars and music -- in a sort of critical mass every year. Over 200 bands will be squeezed into those 15 venues this weekend. It'll be loud, hot and sweaty, the way it should be, guaranteed.

And now the Blowout is 12 years old. People fill the town looking for their favorite bands, their friend's bands, new bands, good bands, and yes, even bad ones. The Blowout isn't just a showcase for Detroit-based music though. It's a showcase for Hamtramck and, of course, Hamtramck bars.

"Bars here don't get the respect they deserve," Kowalski says. "But the fact of the matter is that they are the cornerstone of the community and they deserve our attention."

It got Frank Sinatra's, after all.

Model D's Terry Parris, Jr., has ducked into many a Hamtramck bar in search of music and good times. Send feedback here.


 - Step off the corner of Yemans and Brombach, through the blue door, into Atlas Bar

-  Townies on a Saturday afternoon at Baker's Streetcar Bar

- Whiskey In The Jar nestled on Yemens St.

- Having a bite at Baker's Streetcar Bar

- The Volebeats perform at the Painted Lady during Blowout on Friday, March 6th - courtesy photo

Unless noted, All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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