Aug 29. 2011

Hamtramck: Detroit’s Polish enclave

by Nora

A mural on the side of a building depicts Cracow’s Old Square, a “John Paul the Second” poster reads “Nie ma miłości bez sprawiedliwości” (“There’s no love without justice“), and on a bright yellow board; JPII’s visit anniversary date. Welcome to the heart of Hamtramck, home to the “Polonia” of Detroit.

Hélène and I both speak Polish fluently (to know why and how, click here), and are always eager to practice our language skills.   Wanda was sitting on one of the concrete benches of the John Paul II Square in Hamtramck. A giant statue of the former Pope, arms spread in a Christ of Sao Paulo gesture, cast a giant shadow over the little square. Wanda was looking at the giant mural. Pigeons limped about, just as they would on Cracow’s Rynek, the city’s old square.

As we approached, they flew away and Wanda asked us, in a hoarse voice, rolling the r: “Where are you from?” We automatically replied: “Z Francji.” (“From France”), which felt like a secret code. We later figured out that this square was clearly a hangout for old Polish people longing for the Motherland. “I’m moving back to Warsaw next year. My son has bought me an apartment, everything’s ready for me there. I don’t want to stay in Hamtramck,” Wanda said. “I’ve been living here for 30 years; I’ve gone back to Poland occasionally. But I don’t feel at home here. There is no job left here. Last month a relative had her purse stolen in the middle of the street, in the afternoon. There were people around, but nobody did anything. The other day, somebody stole my girlfriend’s necklace as she was walking down the street. You gotta watch out here. It’s not safe.”

Wanda settled here back in 1981, fleeing Jaruzelski’s martial law that just got declared in Poland. She worked here in a Polish restaurant. “I come from a village near Warsaw, where some days I wouldn’t eat. During World War Two, I was placed in a work camp in Germany. After that, I was stuck in communist Poland. Moving to Hamtramck felt like reaching some sort of freedom. ” Since the mid-90s, a new population has come in Hamtramck: muslim Middle Easterners and Bengladeshis. Some of the Polish folks left for the suburbs, some of them had fled after the “riots” of 1967. In the meantime shops’ names shifted from the Polish (and Ukrainian) alphabet to the Arabic one.

Today Hamtramck is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Detroit. It’s an actual “enclave,” a city within the city, with its own Mayor. And the people from Hamtramck don’t like to be mistaken with those of Detroit. Wanda only shops in the Polish markets on the Joseph Campau Street, the main commercial street of Hamtramck. She speaks no English.

Wanda, from Hamtramck