HAMTRAMCK MAYOR KAREN MAJEWSKI, JANUARY 28, 2007
Hamtramck: Kind of an old-school, stodgy municipality stuck inside some time warp, right?
Visionalist had the honor and pleasure of spending a snowy Sunday afternoon with Hamtramck’s progressive and dynamic Mayor Karen Majewski and discovered not only a visionary, but a politician so far outside the stereotypical ‘mold’ as to sort of restore one’s faith in the whole system. Elected in 2005, easily outscoring the incumbent, Majewski is (as might be imagined) Hamtramck’s first female mayor.
This is a reality that Majewski is quick to downplay: “Hamtramck has had women in leadership roles since the 1930’s. Polish women, as a rule, are anything but shrinking violets. They wield power sometimes carefully, but with pure conviction. Personally, I have not encountered much by the way of resistance from the political network because of my sex.”
She refers to herself as a ‘professional Pololonian’, having ‘re-discovered’ her Polish roots after seeking out and finding a Polish great-aunt following the death of her father. Having grown up in Chicago’s largely Polish south side, she had previously downplayed her ethnic connection, preferring to believe that one’s genealogy was simply an accident of birth, and not integral to one’s makeup.
This is a theory which she has since re-thought. A teaching stint in North Carolina introduced her to a new wave of Polish immigrants with whom she forged instant connections, and at the age of 30, began to study the Polish language. As a ‘born-again Pole’, Majewski began to travel regularly to Poland, to interact with long-lost relatives, to make up for lost time by a total cultural immersion.
During the course of her genetic reconnection, she began to note that the municipal administration of Hamtramck, still a bastion of Polonia, could charitably be described as ‘problematic’. She saw the city’s woes, which had begun to take on legendary proportions, as an imminently fixable situation. So, in 2005, she took the remarkable step of emerging from her professional life (as Curator of Polish and Rare Books at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s) and running for Mayor of Hamtramck against incumbent Tom Jankowski. She trounced him.
Now, a familiar sight on the streets, in the pews and the festivals throughout Hamtramck (where she lives, unlike many of the high ranking city officials), the diminutive but tough-as-nails Mayor (who has a painting of FDR displayed prominently in her office along with a pro-Poland banner and describes herself as an ‘old school feminist’) has seen light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel being many years of mismanagement by a hardball in-fighting amid a changing (often with tension) ethnic makeup of the city. Only a little more than two square miles, more than 26 languages are spoken by Hamtramckans, forty percent of whom were born outside the United States.
“I always believed that with the right nurturing, Hamtramck could blossom again,” the Mayor says. “That its beauty could be resurrected. I see that happening.”
She admits that it riles her when long-moved-away Hamtramckans complain that the city ‘ain’t what it used to be’. She invites them back, says they’ll be welcomed. And more than that, she insists, they will discover that Hamtramck is “More of what it used to be than ever!”