Hamtramck, where every day is 'Paczki Day'

When considering what makes Hamtramck such a unique destination, it isn't easy to come up with one reason. That's because there is no one reason; there are several, and they appear to be multiplying before our eyes.

It is dense and diverse, filled with food, drink, art and music options. You want ethnic Arab, Bangladeshi, Bosnian and Polish culinary or cultural offerings? You've come to the right place. How about rocking out to an emerging local band, a hot touring group from the coasts or a DJ from overseas? Check. Innovative artists and fun-filled gallery openings? You'll find those in Hamtown, as well.

And if you crave not only paczki -- that high-calorie, deep-fried, sugary, doughy treat that is the undisputed symbol of Fat Tuesday in Detroit -- but live music, DJs, dancing, beer, plates of hot food at Polish Village Cafe or Polonia, more beer, more dancing and maybe a nightcap made from an authentic Polish vodka (Chopin, Belvedere and Sobieski are currently tied for first in our book), this is the place to be. That's today, so hop to it. Check out a calendar of events here.     

What is easy is getting there. All roads, from nearby Detroit neighborhoods to nearly all suburban communities, lead to Hamtramck. Pedestrians, cyclists and skaters thrive in this 2-square-mile urban village entirely enclosed within the City of Detroit (but for a sliver on a northwest border it shares with Highland Park).

Immigrant entrepreneurs and beacons of hipster cool operate side by side. Families walk to and from the markets, shopping bags in hand. The streets stay active and lively the year round. For a small town it has a big city swagger.   

Movies were filmed there well before the state began offering film incentives: anyone remember Gene Hackman and Al Pacino in Scarecrow?
That quirky 1973 road movie used Hamtramck locations (and Belle Isle's Scott Fountain). Plenty more have been used since, largely because the city has a quirky, authentic American charm that appears timeless. Much of the built environment remains intact from the 1920s and 1930s, when Hamtramck was known as a little industrial giant. Its main street, Jos. Campau, is a classic, with bus service via the Chene line or #10, to Lafayette Park and downtown. Plus the city has two other commercial strips on Caniff and Conant, the latter re-dubbed Bangladesh Avenue for the large South Asian community that began investing in and redeveloping properties in the late-1990s, bringing more exotic flavors to the east side of the city. More on Detroit's only Little India, or, to be more exact, Little Bengal, shortly.  

Because the list of things that makes this place special is always expanding and ever-changing, where do you begin when planning a visit? The correct answer is wherever you want. Hamtramck is meant to be experienced fully. You can begin and end anywhere to suit your tastes.

But if one place is to be picked it's Cafe 1923, which boasts that "coffee can save your soul." Indeed, it can, not to mention a variety of teas, smoothies, sandwiches, salads and baked goods that might also do the trick. Come early, set up your laptop and study, read, write, compose music, edit video or just check your email. There is a small library adjacent to the coffee bar and patio seating in a courtyard during warmer weather.

Or come late and catch some sweet coffeehouse entertainment. Some of Detroit's best poets read, folk guitarists strum and sing and the neighborhood collective HATCH puts on art shows here.

If you miss a HATCH art opening there's no need to fret. There has been an explosion of creative production in the city in the last few years. Actually, it is more like a continuation of art-related energy that began to simmer in the early 1990s, when Hamtramck became a live/work option for students at the College of Creative Studies and Wayne State University. Those Midtown campuses are only 10 minutes away by car, about 20 minutes on bicycle. In the other direction, University of Detroit Mercy -- architecture & design and theater students and faculty are well aware of Hamtramck's assets -- is about 15 minutes by car.

Some of Detroit's edgiest artists -- as well as artists of national or international renown -- show works at 2739edwin, Popps Packing and Public Pool. The openings and special events are a blast, and usually include music, beer and friendly people of all ages. Yup, and young families and kids are most welcome.

Just up the street in Detroit's NoHam neighborhood, artist Mitch Cope and architect Gina Reichert of Design99 have the wide-ranging Power House Project, which has developed into a magnet for academic researchers and DIY creatives. San Francisco's Juxtapoz magazine bought some properties and hustled up a residential installation by redoing the exteriors and interiors of four houses on Moran St. in 2010.  

From there, slide back down into Hamtramck proper, take a deep breath and exhale as you marvel at another installation in progress. In the alley between Sobieski and Klinger north of Commor, outsider folk artist Ukrainian immigrant and retired auto worker Dmytro Szylak has been creating his own Disneyland, an interconnected network of whirligigs, flying machines and portraits of Elvis covering two garages and two backyards.

This project as been ongoing for a quarter century and is not to be missed.

To keep up with all the arty activity in Hamtramck check out Hamtramckart.com

In the heart of the city on Jos. Campau, Detroit Threads is a unique boutique where you can find techno, house and all sorts of vinyl from the 1960s to the present, vintage clothes and newly-produced club gear, comic books, jewelry and sunglasses. You might run into electronic musicians like Theo Parrish, Omar S or Kyle Hall, who come in to buy and sell records.                    

And don't neglect the Polish Art Center, a few blocks south on Jos. Campau, where you can find ceramics, books, more jewelry and gorgeous items imported from Poland.

All this art tourism and shopping has no doubt left you famished. Good thing that Hamtramck has plenty of excellent food options.

Hamtramck is still the place to go to experience Polish cuisine. It was Polish immigrant energy that helped transform this town from a township to a village to a chartered city in the early 20th century (for the record, Hamtramck was founded in 1798 and is one of the four original townships in Wayne County: Detroit, Sargent and Springwells are the others).   

On Yemans east of Jos. Campau is the popular Polish Village Cafe, an old country rathskeller where you can get Okocim or Zywiec beer on tap and hardy plates of food made with pierogi, golumki, kielbasa, potato pancakes and other Eastern European specialties. Or on the same block, try Polonia, where Anthony Bourdain's No Reservation series filmed a segment in 2009. This is also the location of the original Workingmen's Co-op, also called Russians, a Depression-era luncheonette favored by members of the Hamtramck Communist Party, which ran a full slate of candidates in the 1936 city elections. The fabulous history here is as rich as the food.

For something completely different but always delicious, dig into the Mexican-Asian fusion cooking at Maria's Comida. It's on Jos. Campau, just north of Caniff.

A block east on Mitchell and Casmere is the Detroit Zen Center. A full schedule of activities goes on at the beautifully reconditioned former Polish social hall that once hosted weddings 50 years ago.

At Caniff and Gallagher, fresh cumin, cardamom, baharat and other spices await at Royal Kabob, a Middle Eastern restaurant packing in diners nightly. The Al-Haramain market is on the opposite corner, where you can get all the produce, olive oils, spices in bulk, sauces, meats and breads you need to prepare your own meal at home. This might be the most multicultural corner in all of Detroit. Bozek's Meats, specializing in Polish foods, is across Caniff at Sobieski St. Also on Caniff is the area's only concentration of Bosnian businesses (B&H Bar, Palma restaurant, Mesnica Meats) and the Bosnian American Cultural Center and Mosque. And one of Detroit's longest operating indie live theaters, Planet Ant, is also on this strip.

Now back to Bangladesh Avenue. New businesses materialize all the time in this part of town, which begs for exploration on foot or on bicycle. There are several markets to poke into, but try Bengal Spice to start. The business is a pioneer on the local scene, opening its first storefront on Caniff in the mid-1990s. Later, the same family opened Hamtramck's first Indian cuisine restaurant, Taj Mahal (now closed).

Sit down for a lunch buffet or dinner at ZamZam Cafe in the spot that once contained Gandhi, or a block away at Aladdin Sweets and Cafe. Both places are easy on the pocketbook in the extreme. How does $10-15 for dinner for two sound? Or less. And you will take home leftovers.

Hamtramck by day is one story; by night it adds more chapters, thanks to the bar scene that features a ton of entertainment options.

Once known for possessing more bars per capita than any other city in the U.S. (during its hard-working, hard-living days as a three-shift manufacturing hub from the roaring '20s to the mid-1960s), Hamtown still jumps with liquid possibilities.

Where you go depends on what you like, or on the band that might be taking the stage. Neighborhood people mingle at Whiskey in the Jar, on Yemans (across Jos. Campau from the Polish restaurants). The newer, clubbier Mars Bar is on the same block, offering house music DJs in rotation. Skippers Hamtown Bar (on Conant at Evaline) has character galore and one of the best jukeboxes in the city (plus live music and DJ programs).

Check out the punk and noise scene at the the Painted Lady, on Jacob just east of Jos. Campau on the south end of town. This space used to be Lili's, one of Detroit's hotspots from the 1970s to the late-1990s, when Utne Reader named Hamtramck one of North America's hippest neighborhoods.

National touring acts (Jello Biafra, Hot, Hot Heat) play at Small's, an old bank redesigned with Art deco features and home to another great jukebox.

Then there are the festivals. Every March, the Hamtramck Blowout brings thousands of indie rock music fans to nearly two dozen venues. The Blowout is one of the largest gatherings of its kind in North America. This year it kicks off early, with a Feb. 29 pre-party and a full lineup of bands March 1-3. There are special events at Detroit Threads and other businesses. Check out next week's FilterD for more details. 

If you're there on Paczki Day, expect to see crowds line up at a favorite bakery or market for raspberry, strawberry, lemon or other flavors. The first weekend of May is the Strawberry Festival, held at St. Florian, one of the most gorgeous church buildings in the region.

During Labor Day weekend, the Hamtramck Festival kicks out more food, carnival and music fun, this time on the street (Jos. Campau, north of Caniff). It's another chance to see great sounds for free (Blanche, Detroit Cobras and native son Mitch Ryder have played the festival). There is even a parade on Labor Day, the perfect punctuation mark for the Hamtramck visiting experience. Or 24/7 living experience. Not many places do "wow" much better than this.

Model D managing editor Walter Wasacz was born in Hamtramck, lives there still and prefers raspberry and blueberry paczki above all others. 

Photos, from top to bottom:

Installation by Jessica Frelinghuysen at Public Pool art space

Outrageous Cherry performing at Popps Packing

Dedication of Conant as Bangladesh Avenue

Detroit Party Marching Band at Polish Day Parade during Hamtramck Festival
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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.