Immigrants in the 313: 'This is Where the Future Begins'

You know it when you see it -- or better yet -- immerse yourself in it.

It can be charted, measured and put under statistical scrutiny, but a neighborhood that benefits from the presence of immigrants is best appreciated in real time, on its own terms, in dramatic living color.

The early voice of Detroit was French, Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Spanish and Yiddish. Many of those voices have disappeared into the greater American tapestry, but others came to replace them: Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Albanian, Arabic, Urdu, Bengali and others. And to ensure urban vitality in the region, history suggests there need be a lot more to come in the future.

Southwest urban panorama

Take a stroll down Vernor, come to the Junction intersection and look around, left, right and back. This urban panorama reveals a variety of human and business activity; professional services, clothing stores, markets, restaurants, bars -- people, people, everywhere. At the southwest corner stands the neighborhood's centerpiece, the Most Holy Redeemer Parish, which serves as a house of worship, elementary school and community center.

"We call it our anchor store because it is the real heart of the community," says Kathy Wendler, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, a group that has lent support and services to the neighborhood since 1957. "Holy Redeemer is where the people who live here come together for weddings, baptisms, funerals, religious holidays and all kinds of neighborhood programs. It's been the magnet for activity for a long time."        

The parish was organized by immigrants -- Irish Catholics moving west from rapidly populating Corktown. Germans, Poles, Hungarians and other Europeans soon followed, creating one of the 19th century's largest American church congregations housed in one of its most ornate -- and largest -- cathedrals. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, the demographics of church and the surrounding neighborhood went through even more interesting diversification.

Mexicans began arriving (last stop: the grand Michigan Central Train Station) for migrant agricultural jobs and for work in the auto plants that were just a streetcar or bus ride away. Those factories included General Motors plants, the Cadillac Fleetwood and Clark St., and the massive Ford Rouge on the west end of Vernor in Dearborn.

Many of those immigrants came from the Mexican state of Jalisco, best known for its capital, Guadalajara. Later, Central and South Americans from El Salvador, Guatemala and Columbia settled in Southwest Detroit. And they are still coming, along with newer immigrants from the Middle East.

Southwest Solutions, a nonprofit (called Detroit's best-managed by Crain's in 2005), has helped develop the Vernor commercial strip in a phenomenally efficient fashion. How does $1.6 million in mixed-use renovation projects and close to 100 percent occupancy from the St. Anne parish community near the Ambassador Bridge to the Dearborn border sound? Not too shabby. But how does this happen?

"The community is a welcoming place to immigrants, who create their own need for basic services and a variety of businesses," says Bob O'Brien, vice-president for development for Southwest Solutions. "We have one of the youngest demographics in the region, people that are here for a better life, pursuing the American dream. There is a great demand here for social programs and commercial and residential development."
The immigrant-flavor also makes the neighborhood an attractive place to live and visit. Wendler says it is food services, including small neighborhood shops and big market (or supermercado) developments, plus restaurants and bakeries that draw people from elsewhere in the city and all over the metro area. The organization keeps a tally of a yummy list of options on its site.
"We call food our competitive edge," Wendler says. "Nowhere else in Detroit will you find the number of quality grocers and restaurateurs as you will in Southwest Detroit. The options keep expanding as people keep coming."

Changing faces of Hamtown

Like Southwest Detroit, Hamtramck's history is rich in fascinating detail, most of it tied to a cycle of immigrant stories that began in the late 1700s, when the French settlement became one of the charter townships in the newly organized Wayne County.

German farmers came later, as did Irish saloon keepers and laborers from Eastern Europe (from Poland, mostly), building the nation's most famed "city-within-a-city," one almost entirely dependent on the auto industry.

Fast forward into the 21st century and Hamtramck still relies on property and income tax revenues from the distressed automakers and their suppliers, but it is also developing an identity quite separate from its industrial and Euro-ethnic cultural past.

A place that was about 90 percent Polish-speaking in the 1940s still retains that ethnic flavor via its three Roman Catholic churches, a Polish National Catholic parish and a Ukrainian Catholic church based on principles of the Eastern Byzintine Rite, as well as assorted restaurants, meat markets, credit unions and retailers. Hamtramck now, however, shares its dense 2 square miles with newer immigrant communities originating in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. A long decaying commercial strip on secondary main street Conant was recently designated "Bangladesh Avenue," to signify a decade-long turnaround helped by dozens of businesses opened by Bengali-speaking newcomers. An excellent account of this development appeared in Model D in October.

Economic Development Director Jason Friedmann says the transformation of Conant is only the beginning of what he sees as more investment by immigrant entrepreneurs in the near future.

"We are getting more interest in the south end of Jos. Campau (Hamtramck's well known main drag), where there is a larger Arab community (from Yemen)," Friedmann says. "There is a bakery in the works and other businesses (quite separate) from what's going on the Bangladeshi community."

To add more multicultural flavor to this urban stew, there is a Bosnian American Cultural Center and mosque in the city, which serves a Muslim population that fled its war-torn country in the late 1990s, a Zen Buddhist center, in a former Polish social hall tucked away in a northend residential neighborhood, and a newly-relocated Hindu temple on Conant.

Debashish Das, who runs a business on Conant and is a member of comparatively small Bangladeshi Hindu community, lives within walking distance of his work and the temple.

"Some of my customers who moved to the suburbs say I should move there, too," Das says. "But I disagree. I have everything I need right here: business, community, religion. I tell them, 'You should join me, my life is a full as life can be in this neighborhood.' "

Models for the D  

What Southwest Detroit and Hamtramck have to teach us is that by concentrating our most valuable resource – people, people, people – into densely populated neighborhoods, real social building results. Then even more people are attracted to this growing human core of energy, creating exciting cultural hybrids.

It's no surprise then that these two districts within the 313 are also attractive to young adult artists and professionals who favor the snap, crackle and pop of city life over the generally dull and unremarkable suburban experience favored by their parents. Imagine Corktown, Midtown and Woodbridge infused with a recombined immigrant business and neighborhood buzz (let's use Brooklyn's North Williamsburg and Greenpoint as prime examples), and the mind boggles.

Hamtramck's Friedmann sees the potential for wider connections once the planned Intermodal transportation hub is completed in nearby New Center, which can be seen from his third floor office in City Hall. Increased bus service there and to destinations south -- to the Cultural Center and Eastern Market -- he says will eventually provide critical links to and from immigrant-generated intensity of funky Hamtown.

"We like the way we are positioning ourselves," Friedmann says. "Hamtramck and our friends in Southwest Detroit both have enviable tangible assets that can help this region move forward. This is where the future begins."

Walter Wasacz is a pierogi-eating, techno/punk-rockin' Hamtramck native son and resident. Reach him here.

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Immigration Rally in Clark Park - Southwest Detroit

A major component to Southwest Detroit's continuous growth, Holy Redeemer Parish

Typical Southwest Detroit neighborhood

Vernor commercial strip - Southwest Detroit

Bangladesh Ave - Hamtramck

Shoppers at Bengal Spice - Hamtramck

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

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.
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