Joan and Raymond Bittner have owned the Polish Art Center since 1973. She says Hamtramck can thrive without outside help. (Photos by Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)
Joan Bittner is fervently optimistic. She knew good things would happen in Detroit, even if she expected them 40 years ago, and now she knows they’ll spill over into Hamtramck.
A few blocks up Joseph Campau Avenue at the pawn shops, they’re carrying guns.
Like Detroit, Hamtramck has an emergency manager, and the governor doesn’t appoint those as a bonus because things are going so well.
Unlike Detroit, it’s not bankrupt, and it doesn’t have the state and the auto companies pledging millions of dollars to smooth the rough patches.
At the gloriously colorful Polish Art Center, Bittner says the city doesn’t need any handouts, thanks.
At Mirage Jewelry, purveyor of watches, sunglasses, large crosses on chains and fireworks, Ray Hirmuz has a different outlook.
“Go find a couple of millionaires,” he says, “tell them to redo all these stores, and make it like it was.”
Like it was, in Hamtramck, can mean several things. Enveloped by Detroit, its population was 90 percent Polish by origin as recently as 1970.
Now something like three dozen languages are spoken in the schools. The city has mosques and Bengali restaurants. Customers and camera crews flock to the bakeries on Paczki Day, but nearby storefronts are empty.
“When I came in 2000,” says the owner of Mike’s Detroit Jewelry & Pawn Shop, “you couldn’t find an empty store to rent.”
Mike doesn’t want to give his last name, possibly because of the day last August when three armed robbers walked into the store and encountered armed employees. The two robbers who survived were arrested.
“The Rite Aid down the block just closed,” says Mike the greeter, no relation to Mike the owner. That would be a few blocks south, in a strip mall at Joseph Campau and Holbrook. “It’s so bad around here, you can’t believe it.”
Except where it isn’t.
Seeds of growth sprouting
No Dan Gilbert and no grand bargain, but the three-term mayor is opening an upscale vintage clothing store in a spot downtown that used to sell church hats.
The store is across and up from the Hamtramck Historical Museum, which is new; it opened last year in a department store that became a barber college and then a dollar store.
The museum is around the corner and a few hundred yards from the stunning St. Florian Parish, which is old; two of its three Sunday masses are still celebrated in Polish.
Joan and Raymond Bittner, both 64, were married at St. Florian in 1974. They rented an upstairs flat for $90, then bought a house they figured to keep for a few years and have been in for 35.
They bought the Polish Art Center from its founders in ’73. It sells folk art, holiday decorations, expertise and atmosphere to passers-by, collectors and even tour groups.
Raymond is half Polish by way of Scotland. Joan is mostly Scottish by way of Farmington Hills.
Her family thought she was dotty when they went into business, but she seized on the old ethnic festivals and some other signs of life in downtown Detroit and it gave her faith — and patience.
“We’ve done what people should do,” she says, marking their territory with their hearts and their feet.
She took classes in Polish. They serve on boards and commissions and committees.
They would welcome Dan Gilbert if he needed teapots or authentic Polish candies, but aren’t looking for some civic sugar daddy. They’re glad Detroit is finding stability, but aren’t following behind the Brinks truck hoping sacks of money will fall out.
“I don’t believe we’re entitled,” she says. “That’s called whining.”
But she does think Hamtramck is worthy, and she thinks Detroit will be the conduit for progress.
It’s exactly what she saw coming, four decades ago.