Why did you choose Hamtramck? What makes it different from many other places where Polish communities live, such as Chicago?
We chose Hamtramck because it is a fascinating enclave of Polish people in a very dynamic and multi-ethnic community. Logistics was also quite important. The town is located in the vicinity of University of Michigan-Dearborn where I work and know many people studying local communities. This is a small town (2 square miles) which, as Greg Kowalski, Director of the City History Museum, says, can almost be “hugged” and understood. The town is surrounded by Detroit, which reflects many problems of today’s United States (both economic and political ones). By being located close to the city, Hamtramck is a very interesting place. They share many problems but at the same time Hamtramck managed to cope with many issues that Detroit is yet to deal with. From the very beginning the town has been attracting waves of emigrants from different parts of the world (recently from Bangladesh and Yemen). Immigrants from these last waves basically stabilise the place and, compared to Detroit, make it a relatively safe and inhabited area (without deserted and destroyed houses, which you can see immediately after crossing the border between Hamtramck and Detroit).
Unfortunately I cannot say how much Hamtramck differs from Chicago because I didn’t spend much time in Chicago and I never studied Polish community there. Our idea of Polish communities in the United States is built on Chicago. I have an impression that the beginnings and life of Polish communities (and I know this from my studies in Hamtramck) differs a lot from the idea of what the Polish community really was.
In 1914 the Dodge brothers opened a car factory in Hamtramck, which attracted many Polish emigrants. What was the role of Poles in transforming this town? What were the consequences of their arrival in the social, economic and political sense?
This is a very complicated question. They played a huge role because they had a serious impact on the demographic tissue of the area. Hamtramck was a small village inhabited mainly by German people and suddenly thousands emigrants came from the Central and Eastern Europe. They spoke Polish and originated from the country which practically didn’t exist. They came from all over Poland but after having lots of conversations with people there I can see they were mainly from the south. They either came to Pennsylvania, where they worked in a mine, or Detroit, where they found jobs in various car factories.
Their influence in a social, economic and political sense was huge but it is very difficult to describe it in a few sentences. For example, it depends which period of time we are talking about. Tad Radziłowski, founder of the Piast Institute, claims that the migration could have had an impact on a sudden development of Detroit. Representatives of different minorities brought new customs and behaviours (both new langue and new flavours, such as roasted, boiled, fried or pickled cabbage) that terrified people settled there, forcing them to move from the city centre to the outskirts. At some point there were dozens of Polish settlements (called neighbourhoods) concentrated around Polish churches (parishes). Detroit is still considered one of the most spread cities in the United States, which is reflected by the scale of problems that it faces today. Another interesting piece of information that tells us more about the importance of Hamtramck is the fact that it was one of few American towns where racial segregation was almost non-existent. Afro-Americans got along with Polish people and it was an unusual place with regard to the number of houses belonging to the Afro-American minority.
What Polish traces can you find today? Do descendants of Polish immigrants nurture Polish culture, language and tradition? Or does this intense Polish presence in Hamtramck disappear from generation to generation?
Yes and no. The first generations that settled in Hamtramck didn’t teach Polish to their children. They were afraid that speaking Polish would slow down their assimilation with the American culture as well as learning the new language. I think it was only the generations that came after World War II that were in favour of maintaining the language. Every generation defines its Polishness from the beginning, which means that every generation does it in a different way. It turns out that the language is not something that determines that fact of being Polish. Unfortunately, the language often functions as something that divides people: those who come from Poland and speak Polish and those who don’t know the language very well. Many people from the second and third generation emigration perceive nurturing Polish culture as their way of being Americans (more than being Polish) and they see (interpret) the United States as a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl”. After all it is the United States where they live, pay taxes, go to school, etc.
Was it difficult to find people living in Hamtramck who would agree to take part in your project?
There were no problems at all. There was only one person who refused to participate in the project. It was a local businessman who met with us, showed us around his restaurant but didn’t want to give us an interview due to emotional and personal problems. It was such a moment in his life that going back to the past would be a huge mental strain for him.
Were children enthusiastic about your photographic project as well as finding and documenting their Polish roots and their family stories?
The photographic workshop was attended by very few Polish children. It wasn’t addressed to them but to teenagers from Hamtramck. At the moment Hamtramck is inhabited mainly by people from Bangladesh and Yemen and young people from these minorities came to our workshop. It was a very multi-ethnic meeting.
Is the face of Hamtramck changing again because of the new waves of emigrants? Being a sociologist, can you say that this town is, in a sense, a micro version of Europe? A reflection of transformations that are taking place in the western world?
I don’t know. This question requires a very precise answer. Besides, Hamtramck is a specific place. It used to attract, and it still does, relatively poor, not very well educated emigrants, who are often desperate to find their place in the world. This is how the Polish emigration was also like. With time as well as changing expectations and social status they moved to detached houses in the outskirts. Their American dream was coming true. They were replaced in Hamtramck by other communities. Most factories where Polish people used to work have disappeared (the car industry is in a quite difficult moment right now) but the new immigrants are very resilient. They open shops and different businesses. Together with Tomek we found Bengalese shops where hens were kept at the back so customers could choose one of them for dinner. These are very resourceful people. Hamtramck still plays the role of a “stepping stone” town, which creates a supply base, allowing different groups of people to climb up the social ladder. Do we have such a place in Europe? I don’t know. Intercultural relations are difficult here and dialogue is a rare thing. There are a few people in the town who are really trying to initiate this dialogue but different cultures rather stay in neutral isolation. Still, proper conditions are created for them so they can develop their culture. One of the people we talked to is Beata Chowla, a director of an international school in Hamtramck. The school is located in the building that was given to immigrants so they could learn a profession in order to become a part of the city life quicker. This is a small town and a scale of this gesture should be seen in this context. This is how it used to be. Contemporary Hamtramck is the only town in the United States where a mosque has the right to call for prayer during the day. Mosques are becoming such spaces where economic, social and political life develops. Despite certain difficult moments, both mosques and groups of emigrants receive help from local authorities.
You are an assistant professor in a newly-opened Polish Studies and Polish-American Studies Departments at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. What else do you and your departments study apart from Hamtramck?
My doctorate was on female political prisoners in the Stalinist times and this is what I study. At the moment I’m finishing a book on this subject. Living in isolation and the need to invent oneself day after day is something I’m interested in most. I hope that soon I will be able to complete a course which will allow me to teach in a local prison. This is part of the programme that brings a group of students to prison and involves them in a course participated both by external as well as internal students (prisoners).
The “Faces of the Polish Community: Hamtramck Residents” Exhibition can be seen at the Historical Museum in Hamtramck (starting from 12 November) and at the Emigration Museum in Gdynia (starting from 5 December). Join us there!
Photo © Tomasz Zerek
More information on: Emigration Museum in Gdynia | Public Library