The future of Hamtramck is being built today

To see the Hamtramck of tomorrow isn't difficult. It's already taking shape. It stares back at you as you stroll through neighborhoods composed of the city's trademark vertical duplex dating from the 1920s and 1930s.

The scale of this manageable 2.02 square mile urban grid, where sidewalks can lead you on foot to nearly any kind of cultural or social destination, is ideally suited for American city-dwellers decreasingly reliant on the car for transportation. Hamtramck's diversity, affordability, and walkability impart an authentic, tactile experience. Professionals and artists of all stripes mingle here as both producers and consumers of local culture.

Most residential blocks are stable. Housing prices are up slightly, as are rental units, though the cost of living is still far less than in the nearby, 7.2 square mile greater downtown Detroit.

What's missing is what's coming: an integrated cityscape powered by a robust local economy, fed by business activity on two commercial corridors, Jos. Campau and Conant. Add to that Caniff — an avenue mixed with retail, restaurants and residential — effectively becoming a bridge connecting the two primary commercial districts.

Fundamentals of community entrepreneurship

The merchant class leading this commercial resurgence will come as no surprise to those who have been paying close attention to the Hamtramck economic story: immigrant entrepreneurs. They've found success by selling to people who will buy it because they need it, then expanding the base to non-ethnic consumers.

Bangladeshi-American businesspeople began investing in Hamtramck in the late 1980s. The first shop was Bengal Spices on Caniff near Lumpkin. The same family later bought an old Polish Hall (once part of the Polish Roman Catholic Union) and opened Taj Mahal, Hamtramck's first South Asian restaurant, in the early 1990s. When European-American business ownership began running out of steam here in the last quarter of the 20th century, Caniff and Conant were left in states of decline. It was largely Bangladeshi immigrant business investment that turned those streets around. Conant's reversal has been especially eye opening —  today approximately 35-40 businesses from that community are active.

Kamal Rahman of BAPAC at Aladdin Sweets and Cafe

In 2008, Gov. Granholm designated Conant as Bangladesh Avenue. Today, efforts are underway to put more juice into branding strategies. A group known as BAPAC (Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee) is using BanglaTown —  also used by the
artist community in the neighborhood north of Carpenter —  to describe a district along the Conant corridor on either side of the Hamtramck-Detroit border with Davison at its northern edge.

"We believe the people who live here and the business community are part of one community. We all work together to make this a better place for all," says BAPAC spokesperson Kamal Rahman. "We like to think BanglaTown is the downtown for the Bangladeshi people in [southeast Michigan]. This is our Greektown, our Mexicantown. We want our business community to grow, for more people to come visit and shop here."

On the south end of Hamtramck, in the city's oldest neighborhood once marked by blight and neglect, word is that the Yemeni-American community is building a case for its own branded district. Yemen Cafe just moved into a new, bigger space in a building adjacent to Veterans Memorial Park also occupied by Sheeba Restaurant.

Arab-American investors originally from Yemen also have key footprints on Caniff in Al-Haramain market, Royal Kabob restaurant, and Delite Cafe.

What's popping now

Hamtramck is gaining a reputation as a place where entrepreneurs can experiment. Even traditional businesses offer twists on the old models.

Some of those already dot the commercial landscape, like Mikel Smith's Detroit Threads, Jeff Garbus's Record Graveyard and Richie Wohfiel's Lo & Behold — all players on the local underground music scene.

Danny & the Darleans at Hamtramck Music Festival at PLAV Post 10

Speaking of music, the recent Hamtramck Music Festival — which took place in 24 venues over three days — attracted 4,300 attendees, 1,300 more than last year. According to festival organizers, attendees spent
$40 on average while in Hamtramck, contributing $172,000 to the local economy.

A new bar, Trixie's, opened by twin brothers Andrew and Ian Perotta, hosted bands during the festival, then had its official opening two weeks later. The business is on Carpenter, at the northernmost edge of the city, in a neighborhood artists have dubbed the Northwest Territories.

Other bars executing good ideas to attract more customers include Kelly's, which has done taco, burger and fish fry pop ups; Baker Streetcar Bar, where Summer Radke does creative bar food fare on Sunday evenings; and Bumbo's, where Brian and Tia Fletcher Krawczyk offer Polish food fused with other cuisines every Wednesday night.

Also recently opened is Bank Suey, a project that offers low-cost space for community-driven events and activities. The building — once a bank branch, later a bar, and most recently a Chinese carry-out — has quickly asserted itself by illuminating the night at the crucial intersection of Jos. Campau and Caniff. (Editor's note: Bank Suey is run by Model D publisher Alissa Shelton and her family)

Another Shelton, Alissa's brother Darren, is working with The Planet Ant Theater to redevelop the former BHA Hall on Caniff into a second theater, restaurant, and bar.

What's coming

Indira (left) and Zlatan Sadikovic at the Belmont cafe, gallery and photo studio

There's much more development on the horizon, a few far enough along to potentially open this spring. Here's a quick rundown:

  • Zlatan and Indira Sadikovic, who left Sarajevo in the 1990s during the Bosnian war, are converting the former Belmont Bar into a coffee bar, photo studio, and gallery. The couple also bought the building directly to the north of the Belmont and are renovating the ground-floor commercial space.
  • More coffee (with full Class C liquor license) is coming to the south end of Jos. Campau. HenriettaHaus Coffee Roasters, formerly of Ferndale's Rust Belt Market, is expected to open later this year in the former Kopytko Meats storefront near the corner of Andrus St. Business owner Amy Duncan and partner Jeremy Duncan also live in the building, which was built in 1919.
  • Living Zen Organics, the cafe at the Detroit Zen Center, is expanding into the garden on the north side of the building at Mitchell and Casmere streets. It will include a teahouse with Korean recipes that stretch back over 2,000 years.  
  • An alternative clothing store is moving from its original Midtown location to Jos. Campau near Evaline St. An official announcement is expected soon by the owner, who purchased the building that once contained New York Fashions.
  • Bon Bon Bon is moving uptown from its tight quarters on Evaline St. west of Jos. Campau to a building on Jos. Campau north of Caniff.
  • Sound engineer Adam Cox is opening Hamtramck Sound Studios on Jos. Campau between Edwin and Norwalk streets in a building that once housed a flower shop, then a film studio, and more recently a yoga studio.
  • The Detroit City Futbol Club is locating its business offices in a space on Yemans Street in the same building as Amicci's Pizza. The club launched a successful $750,000 campaign to renovate Hamtramck's Keyworth Stadium for the upcoming season. Matches at the 7,000-capacity stadium built in the late 1930s will bring another huge economic boost to the city when the season begins this spring.
  • Better Life Bags — a community-minded business that hires women with various employment barriers to make leather and fabric handbags — has relocated after being in the space soon to be occupied by Detroit City FC.
  • Sharing that same building at the corner of Jos. Campau and Florian St. will be Wheelhouse Detroit, the bicycle shop whose first store is on Detroit's East Riverfront. If all goes as planned the business will open in May.
Another reason for Wheelhouse to open in Hamtramck? The Inner Circle Greenway, a 26-mile non-motorized trail, will head straight through the heart of the central business district past Wheelhouse. That'll make it easier for cyclists to get into the city from Eastern Market, Midtown and downtown, providing a further boost to the local economy.

Say hello to the future, Hamtramck. It's coming at you from multiple directions, lured by opportunity, charmed by your authenticity. It is not hard to imagine that more and better is yet to come.

Walter Wasacz began writing for Model D in 2005 and was its managing editor from 2010 to 2014. He currently authors a column on walkable discovery for the Hamtramck Review.   

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