In the First Majority-Muslim U.S. City, Residents Tense About Its Future

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Washington Post, November 21, 2015

Karen Majewski was in such high demand in her vintage shop on a recent Saturday afternoon that a store employee threw up her hands when yet another visitor came in to chat. Everyone wanted to talk to the mayor about the big political news.

Earlier this month, the blue-collar city that has been home to Polish Catholic immigrants and their descendents for more than a century became what demographers think is the first jurisdiction in the nation to elect a majority-Muslim council.

It’s the second tipping for Hamtramck (pronounced Ham-tram-ik), which in 2013 earned the distinction of becoming what appears to be the first majority-Muslim city in the United States following the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Yemen, Bangladesh and Bosnia over a decade.

In many ways, Hamtramck is a microcosm of the fears gripping parts of the country since the Islamic State’s attacks on Paris: The influx of Muslims here has profoundly unsettled some residents of the town long known for its love of dancing, beer, paczki pastries and the pope.

“It’s traumatic for them,” said Majewski, a dignified-looking woman in a brown velvet dress, her long, silvery hair wound in a loose bun.

{snip}

Majewski, whose family emigrated from Poland in the early 20th century, admitted to a few concerns of her own. Business owners within 500 feet of one of Hamtramck’s four mosques can’t obtain a liquor license, she complained, a notable development in a place that flouted Prohibition-era laws by openly operating bars. The restrictions could thwart efforts to create an entertainment hub downtown, said the pro-commerce mayor.

And while Majewski advocated to allow mosques to issue calls to prayer, she understands why some longtime residents are struggling to adjust to the sound that echos through the city’s streets five times each day.

“There’s definitely a strong feeling that Muslims are the other,” she said. “It’s about culture, what kind of place Hamtramck will become. There’s definitely a fear, and to some degree, I share it.”

{snip}

Surrounded by Detroit, Hamtramck is Michigan’s most densely populated city, with about 22,000 residents occupying row after row of two-story, turn-of-the-century bungalows packed into two square miles. Polish Catholic immigrants began flocking to Hamtramck, which was originally settled by German farmers, in 1914 when the Dodge brothers opened an auto assembly plant in town.

While the city’s Polish Catholic population has shrunk from 90 percent in 1970 to about 11 percent today, in part as the old residents have moved to more prosperous suburbs, Polish American culture still permeates the town.

{snip}

The once-thriving factory town now struggles with one of the highest poverty rates in Michigan. {snip}

But the new businesses have not been enough to offset the loss of a manufacturing base and reductions in state revenue sharing. Since 2000, Michigan has twice appointed an emergency manager to the city, which has an annual operating budget of $22 million.

Hamtramck’s exceedingly low home prices and relatively low crime rate have proved especially attractive to new immigrants, whose presence is visible everywhere. Most of the women strolling Joseph Campau Avenue wear hijabs, or headscarves, and niqabs, veils that leave only the area around the eyes open. Many of the markets advertise their wares in Arabic or Bengali, and some display signs telling customers that owners will return shortly–gone to pray, much in the same way Polish businesses once signaled that employees had gone to Mass.

{snip}

Many longtime residents point to 2004 as the year they suspected that the town’s culture had shifted irrevocably. It was then that the city council gave permission to al-Islah Islamic Center to broadcast its call to prayer from speakers atop its roof.

“The Polish people think we were invading them,” said Masud Khan, one of the mosque’s leaders, recalling that time in an interview earlier this month. “We were a big threat to their religion and culture. Now their days are gone.”

{snip}

Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.