In the early 80s, we lived in Detroit where we learned of Hamtramck, a neighborhood largely consisting of Polish immigrants, from friends who dined there. For us, The Detroit Years (1979-1983) were also known as The Lean Years; we never ate out.
Hamtramck is a two square-mile city fully surrounded by the 140 square-mile city of Detroit–a city within a city. It has its own police force, mayor, and gritty blue-collar identity. Although I associate Hamtramck with Central Europe, today it is one of the most diverse places in the United States.
It was also a logical break point during our drive from Charlottesville, Virginia to our next home just north of Traverse City, Michigan. After all these years, I still remembered The Lean Years and our goal to eat at a Polish restaurant.
Home to 22,000 people who speak 26 languages, it feels part dust bowl, part United Nations. I read a newspaper account of a group of neighbors complaining about the condition of the streets over drinks in a local bar. They decided to act, purchased 17 bags of cold patch (which equates to 900 pounds) and repaired all the holes on their block. “For ten dollars a family we can save our streets,” one resident suggested.
This modern city, a combination of bungalow homes and sprawling factories, sprung from a modest German-American farming village of 500 inhabitants, established in 1901, and named for a French-Canadian Revolutionary War captain.
In 1914, the Dodge brothers opened the first automobile plant which attracted an influx of Polish workers. By 1920, the population had swelled to 47,000 people, sufficiently large to incorporate into the current city. Hamtramck’s population has deflated, like Detroit’s, to less than half its peak, now measuring 22,000 inhabitants.
The top two rated restaurants on Tripadvisor were Polish (the next 20 were kebab shops). When I checked into our hotel in nearby Detroit, the concierge asked if we had dinner plans. “Yes, we plan to eat in Hamtramck—at a Polish restaurant.”
“Interesting good? Or Interesting bad?”
I wondered if they were trying to control our Detroit experience by bypassing the most impoverished neighborhoods. Or perhaps they felt a need to protect us. Whatever their motivation, the shuttle proved valuable since the driver lived in Hamtramck, “I suggest you try the Polish Village Café. It’s the famous one.”
We pushed open the door to enter a windowless, basement restaurant– dark and crowded with a portly clientele wedged into tables set an elbow’s distance apart. The room was ripe with the pungent smell of sauerkraut; the music, a polka; and on the ledge next to our table, a bowling trophy. Perhaps this seems implausible, but it was exactly as I expected.
The cooks grew up with the restaurant, and now hunched thirty five years later as a matched trio of 60-year-old women over a series of large black skillets lining a 10-foot stove top. In a small, windowless back room, a pair of grey haired men worked over two piles: one meat, the other dough. The menu contained no surprises: pierogis, stuffed cabbage or peppers, and kielbasa. I choose a sampler platter of all the above which arrived with slices of rye bread in a plastic baggie and a bowl of dill pickle soup.
I struggle to characterize the food as either good or bad, but rather the no-nonsense, filling food I associate with the region. At the table next to us, a group of four work colleagues from Cleveland devoured platters of stuffed peppers with bottles of Zywiec, a Polish beer. “We come here every time we have business in Detroit,” they told us, “It’s the best.”
Two policemen walked in. The waiter noticed them and yelled out, “Hey guys, your table’s down here!”
I sensed a largely locals crowd with a few tourists mixed in.
Outside, while waiting for our shuttle to retrieve us, we met a man who was walking down the street. “You eat there?” he asked, nodding toward the restaurant. “It’s the best.”
“Are you Polish?” I asked.
“I am,” he replied, “I’ve lived here my whole life. We’re not Detroit. See that police station down there? When the thugs from Detroit come into Hamtramck, the cops tell them to go the hell home.”
The next morning, we decided to return to explore the Catholic churches, Hamtramck museum, Polish Art Center, and Pope Memorial Park. And of course to sample sweets at a Polish bakery on Joseph Campau Street that our friend from the prior night had pointed out as “the best one in town.”
At the bakery, the server, Anna, informed us she was Bosnian, “Lots of Bosnians live here now. Ever since the war.” I asked her to give me one of each of the most traditional pastries. She selected an assortment including a filled, glazed donut known as a paczki–consumed most notably on Paczki Day, the Polish equivalent of Mardi Gras. As she handed me three white bakery bags, she smiled, “Try these, and enjoy your visit.”
Next door, we admired an assortment of hand painted ceramics imported from Poland—expensive, navy blue hearts and dots set on a cream background, the sort I would consider buying if I had a house and stashes of extra money to spend on such things. Further down the street at the museum, we looked through photos of Hamtramck from decades ago, noticed a record entitled Hamtramck placed on old Victrola, and read SOS posters from the 60s, Slavins for Our Safety, placards from a city increasingly in peril.
Before we left to head north to Traverse City, we sought out the Pope Park. This pope is, of course, John Paul the Second, THE pope for the Central Europe Catholic community. The site commemorated his visit to Hamtramck. Flyers on every shop window advertised a fund-raiser supper to support the park’s renovation–which had tipped me off to its existence.
A man in a wheel chair stared up at the statue. “He was my mother’s cousin,” he said.
“Really? That’s amazing.”
“My mother got an audience with him. Those were the good days. Hamtramck isn’t the same. Most of my relatives have left. Friends donated money to buy me a special van, but it was stolen within two weeks.”
He wanted to talk, so we stayed as long as we could.
“We have to leave now. We are headed up north.”
“Travel safe. You are nice people,” and he reverted to staring at the statue.
On our way to the highway, we stopped at the locked St. Ladislav’s Catholic Church. A man, noting our interest, approached us, pulled out his phone, and shared pictures of the ornate interior. “It’s beautiful inside. I bet the priest would let you in if you went into the school. I grew up here in a Polish family, but it’s changed from when I was a kid. Now we have people from all over–Bangladesh, Yemen, Bosnia. I like the diversity. Just as long as everyone keeps their yards neat.”
As he lumbered away, I pictured him lugging a bag of cold patch out to fix the streets in front of his home. He headed towards the 90-year-old Kowalski sausage company, “Sorry, I have to get to work,” he yelled back over his shoulder.
The factory perfumed the air with the concentrated aroma of kielbasa. I sniffed, “Can you smell that, Pat? It’s amazing.”
Categories: The United States