Hamtramck is a small town in Michigan, USA, surrounded by Detroit on all sides. Its two square miles can be traversed North to South and East to West within a single day. The town was created at the beginning of the 20th century as a settlement of German farmers. After opening a Doge factory in 1914, the area witnessed a mass Polish emigration. They arrived both from partitioned Poland, and various other areas of the United States, e.g. Pennsylvania, where they worked as miners. Thanks to them, Hamtramck saw dynamic growth over a period of 10 years, becoming an industrial town. Even as late as the 1970s., around 90% of the local inhabitants were of Polish heritage.
For many Poles, the town was the first stop in achieving the American dream. In recent years however, Hamtramck was affected by the social and economic changes that affected Detroit. The collapse of the automotive industry was for many people, an impulse to leave Motor City. Today, the nearly 3.5 thousand Polish-Americans constitute only 14.5% of the entire population. These changes are accompanied by mass emigration from other parts of the World – initially from Albania and later from Bangladesh and Yemen. Hamtramck once again plays the role of a place where various emigrant groups can start their lives in the United States.
The “Faces of the Polish Diaspora – the Citizens of Hamtracmck” exhibition presents the effects of the work of researcher dr Anna Muller and photographer Tomasz Zerk, who documented the lives of the Polish-Americans of Hamtramck. The project is comprised of a series of 30 biographical interviews and photographs that portray the cultural heritage of the town and its modern-day citizens.
It’s surprising how rich were the lives of the Polish Diaspora in Hamtramck. The Poles created their own theatre, dance and musical groups, a philharmonic. The town had around a dozen social and cultural Polish institutions. They experimented with new trends in American culture, attempting to find a form which would allow the town to retain its uniquely Polish character. Despite demographic changes in its social fabric, Hamtramck is still closely connected to its Polish past. Many streets bear Polish names such as Sobieski St. or Poland St. Hamtramck is home to Polish attorneys and physicians, there are also funeral houses owned by people of Polish heritage. Polish can be heard on the streets, many cars bear Polish symbols: the flag, the Polish eagle… Polish products can also be found in Bengal stores.
It is striking how much families wish to maintain Polish culture: through religion, language, and sometimes through conscious decisions to become Polish despite not knowing the language. Being a Pole in Hamtramck is a way of being American. It is an attempt of defining oneself in the huge melting pot that is the United States.
Modern-day Hamtramck is a blend of different cultures and ethnicities. The citizens communicate in 26 languages. In the last several decades, Hamtramck was dominated by Bangladeshi and Yemeni, mostly Muslims, but also Buddhists. During the day, along with church bells, one can hear calls for prayer from mosques. In November of the current year, Hamtramck became the first town in the United States with a Muslim majority in its city council.