Hip Hamtown

It seems silly to write it, but I will write it anyway: Hamtramck is indelibly hip, Michigan's original cool city, because of something in the air. Yes, that's right, as simple as that. It's all about atmosphere, ambiance, attitude. It just hangs there, a non-erasable otherness best not measured or even described, much better experienced.

Hamtramck's hipness did not originate from a marketing strategy; its cool comes free of government initiatives. If it is on the cutting edge of anything, it is the knife edge of the organic American experience: rough and tumble, pioneering, struggling to create and sustain cultural life, filled throughout its history with people participating in a theater of the real. That means living, dying, and everything beautiful and not so beautiful in between.

From its beginnings as a township (one of the original settlements in then newly-established Wayne County) in the late 1790s, when first French then German homesteaders created ribbon farms from the river to Baseline road (well before modern orators like, ahem, Eminem began calling it 8 Mile) to its reinvention as an industrial production center at the dawn of the automotive age, Hamtramck has been in constant motion.

Most famously, Polish immigrants came by the tens of thousands for factory and service jobs, established a city charter in 1922 and held onto to almost total government control for the balance of the century.

But by late 1997, when the Utne Reader published its list of the 15 hippest neighborhoods in North America, Hamtramck had cooked up a cultural stew that had the world paying attention for a variety of other reasons. The city still retained echoes of Eastern Europe, largely because of the remaining Polish restaurants, specialty shops and churches. The evidence of heavy industry was seen in the sputtering factories on the edges of town. The classic urban grid, where solid but modest residential blocks were within spitting distance of Joseph Campau, one of the country's classic main streets, was largely intact.

You want hip? There it was in abundance, just in the way the place looked and felt.

In the 10 years since getting on the unofficial national registry of hip, the city stubbornly retains many of the characteristics that got it there in the first place. But first, we look at what got it there.

Honesty and authenticity

Utne dedicated much of that November-December 1997 issue to the changing face of American cool, and included a feature on emerging hot spots. Hamtramck snuggled up alongside neighborhoods from coast-to-coast: places like Belltown in Seattle, Chicago's Wicker Park, Brooklyn's Williamsburg, Los Feliz in LA and the Inner Mission in San Francisco.

Surprising? Not to me. I knew Hamtramck was made of the same kind of stuff, physical and psychological, that enabled vibrant urban life to flourish in those other cities.

But many of my neighbors — if they could read or understand English — had no idea what such a designation meant. If they did, they probably would have cared less, which, of course, just added to the honesty and authenticity of the cool this place possessed. To paraphrase the Sex Pistols, We were so pretty, oh so pretty, but we didn't really care.     

Motor night club, which glossy UK-based mags were calling one of the world's best venues for techno and other electronic dance music, was playing host to artists called DJ Hell, Miss Kittin, Felix the Housecat and Detroit techno luminaries like Carl Craig, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. But that didn't mean much to the Bosnian refugees who found a safe haven in the same north end neighborhood, sent their children to the city's public schools by the hundreds (producing scores of valedictorians and honor students) and established businesses and a cultural center down the street on Caniff.

Lili Karwowski was still running Lili's 21, one of Detroit's original punk clubs, in a south end dive on Jacob St. Utne writers Jay Walljasper and Daniel Kraker called it an "Iggy Pop shrine," and the MC5's Wayne Kramer and the Clash hung out there in the late 1970s. But now, Bangladeshi immigrants were beginning to buy property on Conant, opening grocery stores called Bengal Spice and Asian Mart, clothing shops like Bombay Fashion, and the restaurants Aladdin and Gandhi. Dozens more were to follow in the decade ahead.

Back in '97, The mayor was a Cranbrook-trained artist, Gary Zych, and his mentor and campaign manager was Michael Hall, who chaired Cranbrook's Sculpture Department until he retired in 1990 to a life of collecting, lecturing and community engagement in Hamtramck.

Coffee flowed at the Shadowbox Caffe on Trowbridge, which soon begat
Cafe Zuppa, which later morphed into Soupersonic. A loungey version of Motor, called Lush, was in the works on the opposite corner. Small's later opened on Conant, the Belmont opened down the street from Lush, Lili's was sold and became the Painted Lady. All brought in national indie bands and local garage rockers and hosted, along with over a dozen other bars, the Metro Times Blowout from 1998 to the present.

Investing in passion

Flash forward 10 years, and Hamtramck still maintains its scruffy seat among the authentically hip places to live anywhere on the continent.

The main commercial strip has been given a facelift, with futuristic, pedestrian-scale lighting and trees, and the entire length of Jos. Campau is now a Neighborhood Enterprise Zone, giving investors incentives to develop projects there. An economic development corporation has also been established to help lure in industrial clients to redevelop some of the vacated manufacturing properties on the outskirts of the community.

But the real game breaker is that real, everyday life continues to coarse through the heart of this miniature big city, attracting people who are looking to invest in themselves, and in their own passions.

Tired of working for someone else and eager to start your own business? Follow Sandra Kramer Shaw's lead and open up a trend-setting hair salon like Barberella. Want to combine art, architecture and design with retail? Do what Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert did with their innovative business, Design 99: find an empty storefront on Jos. Campau and just do it, dammit. Or do what Sean Kowalski did with a building his family has owned since the early 1920s: renovate it and restore community life in one bold gesture by opening an arty coffee shop and calling it Cafe 1923 — where Hamtramck-based popartmonkey artist Carl Oxley III currently has his colorful naughty and nice work up on the walls, by the way.

Maybe a sure sign a place is truly hip is that you never have a shortage of people and places to talk about, some of them just popping up, well, whenever and wherever they please.

At Barberella, which happens to be in a reconditioned space that my mother used for her own neighborhood hair salon from 1963 to 2001, Kramer Shaw recently cut my hair and gave me a scoop: a designer from Japan who runs a line called Hysteric Glamour is scouting Hamtramck locations for photo shoots, the next one to take place early next year.

"They love neon art and Andy Warhol," she says. "They want to use the Kowalski Sausage sign as a background." Well, of course!

I walked down the street to Hamtramck Orthopedic Physical Therapy, in need of some work on a sore shoulder (the result of sitting in a chair and pounding on a keyboard all day, no doubt). My therapist, David Puls, who happened to chair the city's Charter Revision Commission that updated a document that had politically handcuffed the city for over 80 years, added an exclamation mark to my story by putting the reasons behind Hamtramck's hip and cool reputation in perspective.

"It's the natural resources that people are after," says Puls, who is from Fraser originally but moved to the city about 10 years ago. "People will keep coming to Hamtramck because those resources are here for those who want them. You can create whatever future you want with the materials you find here, molding and shaping them into anything you desire."

Walter Wasacz is editor of FilterD, Model D's arts & culture weekly list. He loves Hamtramck dearly, obviously.


Barberella Salon

Cafe 1923

Chris Riddell work at Design 99

Celebrating a Birthday at the Bosinian B & H Bar

Cafe 1923

Sandra Kramer Shaw of Barberella

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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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.