Outbound Poletown: New and old ethnic vibes keep West Michigan Avenue neighborhood fresh

Among the emerging Mexican and Arab businesses along Michigan Avenue's far western edge, there remains the ambient presence of century-long Polish-American culture.

This might be surprising to some who associate Detroit's Polonia with old Chene St. -- later called Poletown -- and Hamtramck, yet historically this area has had as strong an ethnic presence as either. On a recent visit to the Starlite Restaurant on Michigan Avenue, which features Polish American cuisine, my companion commented that she had driven by the place a thousand times and never noticed it. This is the case with much of the evidence of Polish impact on this neighborhood -- it's subtle, but if you walk up and look closely at the carved names over building entrances, or the names of the shuttered businesses, it becomes more apparent.

Perhaps the most obvious remnants of Polish culture are the houses of worship. Most Poles that settled in Detroit were Catholic, and while they came from modest means, the glory of their churches is testament to the importance of the church in community life. Particularly amazing is St. Francis of Assisi on Wesson and Buchanan as well as St. Hedwig, at the corner of Junction and St. Hedwig. Both are formidable and gorgeously inspiring structures. Many of the Polish businesses that remain are close to these parishes.

Looking around St. Hedwig one notices that the signage on the building has shifted from being in both English and Polish to English and Spanish. It's good to know the new neighborhood residents are making use of the space rather than the parish being shut down. The number of former storefronts now converted into apartments and houses shows just how many businesses this neighborhood once supported. Even VFW names give a clue as to what this neighborhood used to be like: the still active VFW 4553 Kozdron/Zeyer Post, on the corner of Campbell and Plumer, is not far from St. Hedwig.

With a little exploring one quickly discovers that there are still a number of Polish businesses. The first and perhaps the best known bastion of Polish cuisine along Michigan is the Starlite, which opened in 1948 and seemingly hasn't bothered to change it's decor or menu since. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that many of the customers have been eating there since the restaurant was opened, I was by far the youngest customer in the place. This is a greasy spoon take on classic Polish cuisine, including pierogi, potato pancakes and blintzes.

Just around the corner north of Michigan on Central is General George Patton P.L.A.V. Post 11. Dedicated to Polish American veterans, it's very much what you would expect on a Saturday afternoon walk around the neighborhood -- old men smoking, watching sports, and arguing over the TV. We likely could have dropped in any other time and day and seen the same events unfold. We were outed as not being regulars by our choice of Stroh's to drink, though I recommended selecting a Budweiser to blend in. Jackie, our bartender, was extremely kind and welcoming and showed us the hall next to the bar which is available for rent for very reasonable prices. It was being prepared for the post's annual Halloween party complete with cash prizes and all you can eat sloppy joes and macaroni.

On the northside of I-94, which largely divides this community, is Supreme Bakery on Proctor St. (at Panama St.). In a residential neighborhood without many other businesses, it's graffiti-covered facade is hardly where you would expect to find a quality marble rye. Supreme is competitive with any of the Polish bakeries in Hamtramck. It makes paczki for Fat Tuesday as well as other specialties: angel wings or chrusciki -- a light pastry covered with powdered sugar -- and kolachs, flaky pastry covered traditionally in apricot jam but adapted for more contemporary tastes with the addition of fruit flavors like pineapple.

Violet manned the counter and was kind enough to help me decide what to purchase. Supreme has been in the neighborhood for over 43 years, and while the neighborhood may have changed, many of her older customers never moved out of the neighborhood. "This is their home, they don't want to leave," Violet says. Those that don't live in the neighborhood are often second and third generation customers, leaving with dozens of loaves of rye to stuff in the deep freezer. Other changes to the clientele are more recent, they have seen a drop in foot traffic in the afternoon now that the schools in the neighborhood have closed. Supreme has also changed what it offers based on the community preferences, a sign behind the counter announces that they now offer tres leches cake -- a traditional Mexican "three milks" cake.

A bit further west on Michigan is Markowycz's European Style Sausages, a prime destination in the West Side Polish community. Open since 1954, they carry a few imported Polish groceries, but the focus is the legendary (yes, legendary) homemade meat products. Markowycz's serves a variety of polish sausages as well as homemade bacon, Canadian bacon, and lunch meats, all processed and smoked on site.

Closer to the eastern edge of the neighborhood, at Gilbert and Dennis streets, one block west of Livernois Avenue, is Abick's, possibly the oldest corner bar in Detroit. It has been in the Abick family since at least 1919, though it first opened in 1910 -- that's 100 years ago, folks. It is a picture perfect old school neighborhood business with tin ceilings, a wood bar, and a buzzer to get in. While the menu lacks any Polish relics, and is more likely to feature jello shots than genuine Polish beer, it's still a great place to relax, make a few friends, throw back a couple of drinks, and enjoy the end of our tour of one of Detroit's oldest, still vital, neighborhoods.

Patrick Crouch is the program manager of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's
Earthworks Urban Farm. He writes a blog called Little House on the Urban Prairie.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


Markowycz Sausages

Potato Pancakes at Starlite diner

St. Francis D'Assisi

Owner of Starlite Diner, Steve Josifouski, picks up his daily bread from Supreme Bakery a few blocks away from his diner.

Angel wings at Supreme Bakery

General George Patton P.L.A.V. Post 11

Anne Markowycz at Markowycz's European Sausage

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