Fellow Feature: Ensuring a more inclusive Hamtramck

By Elliott Zelenak, former Hamtramck community development fellow 

I moved to Hamtramck last fall prior to the start of the community development fellowship. I grew up in a town less than 30 minutes away and attended college in nearby Detroit—so while Hamtramck has always been on my radar, I never spent much time here, nor did I know the fascinating history of Hamtramck and its community. 

Hamtramck is 2.2 square miles, making it the most walkable city in Michigan. Census data lists the population around 21,000 residents within the city’s borders, yet residents believe it to be much higher (I’ve heard reputable claims of 26,000 to 29,000). The city is also just a few miles away from several Detroit neighborhoods experiencing economic booms, including Midtown, New Center, Corktown, and Downtown. 

Hamtramck has an incredibly diverse resident population with many cultures represented. In fact, there are more than 15 languages spoken in their public schools. Additionally, refugees and immigrants are known to come to Hamtramck before moving to other cities in the United States. Residents and organizations are active in assisting immigrants while they transition to life in the U.S. This diverse residency and the businesses they open represent the ideal American Dream—one where anyone can come to this country and open a successful business. Yet more than half of the residents of Hamtramck live in poverty—a sobering reminder that upward mobility is difficult.

With Hamtramck’s main commercial hub hosting a variety of businesses and restaurants, one might be under the impression that the diverse groups feel welcome in the city—but many residents don’t believe that this is the case. This fact was revealed in community conversations facilitated through Project Rising Tide, and resulted in a goal to increase community outreach and engagement. As the community development fellow this year, I was given the opportunity to find solutions for crossing this divide to help build a more inclusive Hamtramck.  

While there isn’t one solution, an idea I came up with is known as the Resident Ambassador Program (RAP). The RAP is a way for the city to connect with nonprofit and religious leaders by requesting they identify an ambassador within their group to disseminate information from the city. This is done through a monthly newsletter, ambassadors relaying information through word of mouth, sharing at congregations, and through social media. When ambassadors apply, they indicate where they can relay information, their social media handles, and if they speak any other languages. 

The RAP is part of the bigger picture goal of creating a city that is welcoming to all its residents, and where there is a trusted relationship between residents and the city. Here are additional steps we’ve taken:

  • Support community events that celebrate specific cultures  
  • Host community cross-cultural events
  • Translate information about services in City Hall
  • Create a Welcome Booklet for new residents
  • Encourage diverse community leader involvement

The diversity in Hamtramck is an asset and is part of the story of what makes it a unique and special community to visit and call home. While my role as a fellow has ended, we’re hopeful that these steps are just the beginning.

Our Community Development Fellowship placed fellows in Project Rising Tide communities to add capacity and help build strong planning, zoning and economic development plans. The fellows worked with a local steering committee and implement transformational projects within their community.