This name of a small city surrounded by the city of Detroit first caught my attention long ago just because of its appearance. First of all, it has the mck, which you just don’t see in English. How is that supposed to be pronounced? Secondly, it looked to me like an overstuffed version of Amtrak. And it has that ham-sandwich note as well.
I haven’t spent long hours contemplating the name of this city, but I haven’t forgotten it. And then this evening it came up when my friend Brian was telling me about his recent trip to Detroit. Detroit, it turns out, is in some ways a place very much worth a visit; in fact, Brian is planning to go back. Yes, it’s famous for being a hollowed-out city, its population reduced by more than a million in recent decades, block after block after block of abandoned houses, and even abandoned office buildings in the heart of the city. But there are still people who live there, and they like to do and be the same sorts of things as people elsewhere.
And it’s currently a very good place for internet startups and art studios and other funky small businesses that can choose what city to be located in and may very well choose a city where real estate is currently very inexpensive. Brian showed me a couple of real estate ads he had seen: one for a 9600-square-foot mansion with seven bedrooms and eight fireplaces and a ballroom and hardwood floors and so on, all for about $400,000; and one for a two-storey building, formerly a Polish veterans’ association (if I recall correctly), looking to be over 4000 square feet, for about $120,000.
The latter property was in fact in Hamtramck. Hamtramck has a few distinctions. The village of Hamtramck was established in 1901; a Dodge plant opened there in 1914, and the village incorporated as a city in 1922 to resist absorption into Detroit. It was able to do so because its population had grown to about 50,000, thanks to the manufacture of cars (so much for Amtrak!). And most of them were Polish.
Hamtramck has a long history of being a very, very Polish city. In 1970, 90% of its residents were of Polish origin. That has changed – now it’s more like 15% – but the city is a city of immigrants, with a very international flavour, and the Polish culture is still very important, with the St. Florian Church in the heart of the city (its cornerstone is inscribed in Latin and Polish) and much of the culture and celebrations Polish in origin.
So it’s not all that surprising that many people think Hamtramck is a Polish name. It’s a non-English-looking name, after all, and the city has a strongly Polish culture. But Hamtramck is not a word that could occur in Polish any more than it could in English. And the Polish residents moved to Hamtramck after it was founded. The village was actually named after the township of which it was a part. The township was founded in 1798.
Where did the township get its name? From the commandant of Detroit at the time, a colonel who had served in the Revolutionary War. Who was he? A native of Québec: Jean-François Hamtramck. Yes, Hamtramck is a name from France. Not that it looks much like one. The m’s would thus be just nasalizations of the preceding vowels.
But that, of course, is not how it’s said in Hamtramck, Michigan. After all, it’s surrounded by a city with a French name that is not said in the French way at all (I mean Detroit, from French détroit, ‘strait’). Nope, they don’t say it the French way and, although it’s physically possible to say “amk,” that’s not an English set of sounds. So it’s “ham-tram-ick.” Which means it has become one of those uncommon words with a vowel that is said but not written, sticking in there like a little city in the middle of a much bigger city.