Hamtramck isn’t a place most locals think about as a spot to take a day trip in Michigan, but if you ask my 9-year-old son, Press, where he wants to be on any given weekend, the answer will most likely be, “Relaxing in Hamtramck, mom! Duh …”
Press fell hard, and fast, for Hamtramck.
When we first moved from New Orleans to Michigan back in 2013, we lived on Evaline Street in a house with a Hamtramck native (and Detroit die-hard), Mrs. Martharene Burk (aka “Big Ma” to Press and most of Hamtramck). Over huge bacon, egg and pancake breakfasts, Big Ma would explain to Press how Hamtramck is a city in Wayne County that is actually surrounded by the city of Detroit (and parts of the city of Highland Park). She also explained to Press what he was hearing coming from the many mosques that were located nearby, and why it was that his new friends left at certain times of the day and week to take part in prayer.
It was Big Ma who introduced us to the summer tradition of walking to Burk’s Igloo for huge Vernors floats (10300 Conant St., Hamtramck) and the amazing Polish sausages (the original Kowalski sausage plant is located on Holbrook Street) that Hamtramck is known for throughout Michigan. In our first few weeks of moving to Hamtramck, we also met the city’s mayor, Karen Majewski. During a brief encounter with Mayor Majewski at the annual three-day Hamtramck Labor Day festival, Press actually decided that he too wanted to someday be mayor of Hamtramck and even came up with a song he sang for a solid three months about being mayor. To him, probably about 4 years old at the time, Mayor Majewski’s job was pretty magical.
“Hamtramck is truly special in that we still have a small, tight community where little and big humans alike can move about pretty freely, and not only feel safe, but more importantly feel as though they are vital to our city streetscape and our neighborhoods,” says Majewski, when recently asked why she feels Hamtramck is such a unique space for children and families. “I always recommend to visitors to just walk up and down our main street, Joseph Campau, and they’ll truly get a taste of just how diverse we are, how we live and interact with one another, and my favorite, how welcoming this community is to anyone who stops by.”
Our family couldn’t agree more.
Community, Conversation and Contemplation
Capturing the awesome sense of community and the great conversations often occurring on the streets of Hamtramck actually became a central part of our family and friends’ vision in dreaming up our cooperatively owned bookstore, Book Suey, which is based inside of a community space known as Bank Suey (located at 10345 Joseph Campau Ave.).
Since last November, when we opened, visitors along with our children can quite often be found watching all the beautiful happenings that take place up and down Joseph Campau. When Book Suey is open (4-9 p.m. Wednesdays and noon-6 p.m. Saturdays), it isn’t unusual for a random tour group or visitors from other countries to peek in the window and spot our books, and come in and enjoy a conversation about a new book or hot topic with an adult or a child.
Once a month, Book Suey hosts a book club. Wednesdays are steadily becoming known as the night when neighborhood children gather to partake in reading and games, and on holidays there are typically extended hours with activities planned. For example, Book Suey is open all three days of the Hamtramck Labor Day Festival and serves as a cool resting area for attendees to escape the summer heat. Children can enjoy playing with Book Suey’s Imagination Playground blocks and participate in impromptu reading circles.
“When we envisioned our space – and the experience we wanted to provide – we were hoping to capture some of the great connectivity that you see happening on Hamtramck’s porches and streets,” says Book Suey co-op member Kristina Campa-Gruca.
Where to witness the magic
In the last few years, more and more businesses, like Book Suey, have opened up in and around Hamtramck. Many weekends after our shift is over at the bookstore, we are known to go exploring by foot or bike (Hamtramck is a great place to pedal around with children) to participate in a festival or even just enjoy a snack.
The choices are pretty unlimited.
If you have chocolate lovers in the family though and love a good conversation, be sure to stop by Bon Bon Bon (11360 Joseph Campau Ave.) where you can watch the chocolate-makers assemble the beautiful handmade bon bons that are sold in some of Detroit’s fancier gift shops and in Bon Bon Bon’s downtown storefront. One of the neat things about visiting the Bon Bon Bon shop in person versus receiving them as a gift is you can ask for a chocolate shot!
Our children love to order the shots, which involve a chocolate-maker pouring melted chocolate into one of the bon bon shells, and then consuming it as fast as possible before it melts. Warning: It is not easy tearing oneself away from the counter once you’ve experienced such amazingness … particularly if you are under the age of 5 (which our daughter Cecelia James is) and you have yet to realize that eating more than one or two shots at a time cannot necessarily lead to good things!
If chocolate doesn’t happen to be your or your kiddo’s thing, we’d also highly recommend visiting Oloman Café (10215 Joseph Campau Ave.) if you’re in the mood for a snack, and also looking to enjoy the rich culture and friendliness of Hamtramck. The owner, Zlatan Sadikovic, is a photographer and the café feels like a fine European gallery that is plopped right in the middle of Hamtramck.
Art aficionados, coffee snobs and croissant connoisseurs are guaranteed to be blown away by the high quality of food and scenery that can be found in the small café. That said, Sadikovic and his staff get five stars for their ability to serve and welcome neighborhood children and visiting little ones.
History to explore (and create)
Mayor Majewski will be the first to tell you Hamtramck’s history isn’t something you experience in a museum. “It’s in the streets, stores and smiles of all the people you will see in our city, every day at all hours of the day.”
However, if you are a history buff and do want to know more about the deep history and cultural roots of the city that is still home today to many Polish, Bangladeshi and Yemen families who have immigrated to Michigan, there are plenty of places for visitors and their families to visit.
Amongst the most popular traditional options are the Ukrainian American Archives and Museum (9630 Joseph Campau Ave.), the Hamtramck Historical Museum (9525 Joseph Campau Ave.), and the very modern outdoor folk art installation known as Hamtramck Disneyland (12087 Klinger St.), which many natives to Hamtramck say reflects the rich culture and spirit of the city.
Hatch Art owns and maintains Hamtramck Disneyland, and visitors can often participate in activities to help maintain and repair the installation throughout the year. The organization is committed to making it accessible to visitors for many more years to come.
A city that moves and plays
Visitors to Hamtramck are often struck by the amount of people biking, walking and running in every part of the city. Our own children are known to run about the neighborhood where their cousins live until long after the streetlights come on in the spring, summer and fall.
When they’re not running around with their friends at some of the other popular places, they are likely to be found at Pulaski Park (9625 Lumpkin St.), where there’s a splash pad, swings and typically a game of cricket happening in the open fields. Children and adults in Hamtramck are known to gather at Keyworth Stadium at Veterans Memorial Park, where the Detroit City Football Club plays its official soccer games.
Younger children in Hamtramck are also huge fans of watching their older siblings, cousins and friends ride skateboards at Ride It Sculpture Park (located just on the edge of Hamtramck at 3413 E. Davison St.). Art lovers and fans of skateboarding should be sure to visit the park to check out the amazing way green space, public art and skateable surfaces were integrated together to create a safe and distinctive space for all ages to enjoy.
There are also lots of lesser-known spots to eat, see and visit in Hamtramck. Press, our budding mayor of Hamtramck, would tell you, “Hamtramck is just where it’s at. You gotta come see it to know just how crazy cool it is – trust me!”
– Maria C. Montoya is a mother, former journalist, education advocate and Hamtramck fan.