“Another Detroit is happening!” was a slogan that resonated throughout the 2010 US Social Forum. Most often, this meant examining the devastated city’s new network of urban gardens. However, the, as yet, small-scale of these gardens is swallowed up by the devastated post-industrial landscape and urban blight most clearly symbolized by the hundreds of smashed out windows in the old Michigan Central Station. But, this doesn’t mean that the Social Forum’s slogan is so far off the mark – it is just that the “happening” may be happening elsewhere and in a different sort of way.
A Multi-Ethnic Working Class Alternative
Tucked inside of Detroit is a city within a city called Hamtramck. Settled in 1798, Hamtramck was incorporated as a village in 1901 and as a city separate from Detroit in 1922. In the early 20th century, Hamtramck was organized around the Dodge factories that attracted immigrant workers especially of Polish origin. Today, this city of 23,000 residents has significantly diversified as Arab and South Asian immigrants moved in creating something of a micro-international city in formation.
A vibrant multi-ethnic working class culture has grown in Hamtramck. At night, the streets bustle as workers return home to partake in food, drink and socializing. Though a significant portion of the city’s economy is still reliant on the declining auto industry, immigrants have brought a new ethic of self-reliance, collective organization and sweat equity. Open housing is snapped up quickly and small businesses stave off the mass exodus from commercial space so evident in Downtown Detroit.
The small Bangladeshi restaurant named Aladdin reveals all of the contradictions of working class Hamtramck. The restaurant is divided between a front section with a marble floor and pristine garden and the back, where a non-descript fast-food style cafeteria serves weary workers. A meal in the backroom means stripping off the formalities and lowering the prices paid by diners in the front room. The gritty affinity of backroom diners sharing a tea or a re-heated samosa is pure Hamtramck.
Slowly, these new immigrant groups have also found expression inside of the city’s cultural celebrations. Annual celebrations of Polish Day and Labor Day are now accompanied by celebrations of Bangladesh and Pakistan. A painted sign above a local store reading “Bangladesh town” displays the still small ethnic group’s hopes of making Hamtramck a new home. While car bumper stickers reading “Save Hamtramck” reveal a barely hidden resentment amongst some in the white and African-American community, the city has avoided serious ethnic disputes in favor of mutual co-existence and cooperation.
Threats to Stability
Yet, Hamtramck does not exist in an urban vacuum. The process of urban blight that has engulfed Detroit sits on the edges of this sturdy working class neighborhood. An area that residents refer to as “the jungle,” to describe the high grasses in empty lots and the generally unruliness, threatens to extend into Hamtramck bringing with it a cycle of out-migration, housing decay and cuts in public services. And, with nearly 38% of residents in the city employed in the service sector a kind of permanent precariousness pervades everyday life.
Residents are conscious that the defense of housing stock is a primary strategy to resist the kind of blight that has gripped much of Detroit. Home improvements are done piecemeal as slim budgets afford or in communal work groups during breaks from wage work. Some neighborhoods have instituted nightly block patrols to supplement the overwhelmed police in protecting homes from burglars. Others struggle against the handful of slumlords who own much of the usable housing.
Conversations with long-time residents led to the conclusion that some form of urban homesteading – where those without housing or those living in deteriorating conditions occupy and improve abandoned or dilapidated housing – was necessary to prevent a Detroit-like spiral. Fears spread as the occasional empty building appears. Residents who suffer under sub-par living conditions understand that their lives could be vastly improved through some form of collective self-ownership, yet are reluctant to act for fear of being put out by the slumlords.
Further alarm about Hamtramck’s future was raised in 2009 as American Axle announced that it was closing an automotive parts plant in the city. Parts production had been located in Hamtramck since the 1920s. The plant provided hundreds of jobs, many to local residents, as well as vital tax dollars to the city’s treasury. In 2008, a serious labor dispute broke out between management and the United Auto Workers that resulted in a 3-month strike and a cutting of wages by 1/3. Layoffs ensued and now, in 2010, only a handful of workers are employed on plant maintenance. The company has shipped out parts production to non-union shops in Mexico.
Acute fiscal troubles have also emerged from an ongoing conflict between Detroit and Hamtramck over tax receipts from a General Motors plant that straddles the two cities. Taxes are collected by Detroit and, since an agreement in 1981, $1.7 million is disbursed to Hamtramck annually. However, only $1 million of the agreed upon amount arrived in fiscal year 2009 as Detroit officials claim the old agreement to be expired. The subsequent revenue shortage has brought Hamtramck to the brink of financial crisis and the conflict seems destined for the courts.
The dispute over General Motors highlights the uneasy financial prospect of the city relying solely on one auto plant and the micro-economies set up by immigrant groups employed primarily in the service sector. Serious budget cuts may be in the offering and residents fear a local economic collapse.
Defending Hamtramck – Building a New Model
If a new Detroit may have already happened in Hamtramck, it will need defending. The lessons on re-development and re-invigoration are evident. Attracting immigrant groups seems like a critical factor. However moving toward policies that empower Hamtramck residents to defend their neighborhood against blight, seem equally important. A program for housing renewal and defense through urban homesteading that leads to home ownership would be a good first step. In addition, more radical measures such as getting the American Axle plant up and running again, retrofitted and operating through a system of worker management and ownership, could offer an alternative development model that could spread into the heart of the defeated city that is Detroit.
BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org