Gołąbki and factories and rock & roll may be among the most universally familiar aspects of Hamtramck's history. But one old tradition being revived this weekend might be a new (soaking wet) sight for Detroiters to witness.
The yacht club canoe race is perhaps the most unusual attraction of the annual Labor Day weekend festival that takes place in Hamtramck, Mich, a small, ethnically-diverse burg neighboring the city of Detroit. Competitors pilot "boats" (actually wheeled push-carts that resemble canoes) ponsored by local bars in a race down Joseph Campau Street. The race takes place at noon on Labor Day and precedes the city's annual Polish Day parade.
Overseeing the annual race is announcer Sean Kowalski who is also a co-owner of Cafe 1923, a popular Hamtramck coffee shop. The Huffington Post spoke with Kowalski to get a better feel for the unusual competition, to learn more about the highlights of this year's festival and to discuss how Hamtramck banded together to save yearly fest from catastrophe.
Describe the yacht race for folks who aren't familiar with it
It's very long tradition that sort of died out. The local bars put together what, for all intents and purposes, are soap-box derby cars, but they're shaped more like canoes and they've got handles in the back. Years ago the bars started by racing each other up and down Campau for this annual championship and about three years ago someone found one of the old yachts at a garage somewhere and decided to revive the tradition. So three years ago we started again by hosting these races and actually the cool part about it, the new tradition, is the crowd's encouraged to throw water balloons, buckets of water, use hoses and other things to try and distract the racers. Its a little raceway down and back Jos. Campau. The street's closed because the parade follows at 1 o'clock, so its a lot of fun.
Are any teams favored to win?
No. It's always a very close race. It all depends how much depends how much people drink the night before and the day of and how accurate people are with their water balloons. It's a real handicappers nightmare.
Are there any other highlights of the festival that people should know about?
Absolutely. It all kind of relates to the competition aspect of it. It used to be the pierogi-eating contest, which seems kind of benign when you think about it -- eating a bunch of dumplings. But now this year, we're unveiling the kielbasa-eating contest. It's going to be kind of like coney island -- a little bit better -- with the nice spicy polish sausages being crammed down by people.
Any there any particular bands you're looking forward to seeing?
Yeah. Lots of them. The tone of the festival kind of takes on the personalities of the people who run it, so It's kind of chameleon-like. It changes a lot. Some years it's a lot of international stuff, a lot of polka stuff. Other years it was more bigger name acts. This year, it's going to be a lot of local bands. A lot of people that you've heard of, a lot of people from Metro Times, Real Detroit are going to be around -- a lot more grassroots local bands and stuff. ... Of course we're going to have the Polish Muslims and the polka bands and some of the European stuff, but featuring a lot more local stuff.
What do you think the festival means to Hamtramck?
It's huge. It's huge. Not only for the tradition, but just for what it would mean if we didn't have it. To not have it would be admitting things have slipped pretty far. But being able to get it together -- you know a lot of these things.. Arts Beats and Eats, Detroit Jazz Festival. They have a huge corporate sponsorship...This is people. This is one hundred percent people-powered. If it were not for Shannon Lowell [who co-owns Cafe 1923], Konrad Maziarz, this thing wouldn't have happened.
When the city came to those guys, came to the DDA (Downtown Development Authority), and said listen we don't have enough money to do it, it would have been really easy for them to say, "Ok. Well it's not happening."
But instead they took the bull by the horns. They found some ways to cut some corners. They saved some money, [used] some creative financing, and I mean that in only the best way. We got some of the big vendors to actually finance the festival. So they'll get their cut back at the back end, which, in hindsight, was brilliant.
Don't forgot this festival started when we lost a huge auto plant, when Dodge Main closed. This festival was designed to lift the spirits of the community. And this year, in spite of the difficulties we've had economically, the bad news that's been coming out of City Hall.. The fact they pulled together flies in the face of that. It shows we can do things. It shows that we can have fun. We can be that cool, little, hip city that we pride ourselves on being.
Hamtamck has had a rough year with the closing of the American Axle plant and the city government's financial troubles. Any thoughts about people trying to pull together for some of these larger issues?
Hamtramck's a weird place. It's a lot like a family. Everybody cares with every fiber of their being, and sometimes that doesn't lend itself to compromise. What happens a lot [is] that people believe that their position is the absolute right position, and it comes from a good place. It comes from a sincere desire to do what they think is best, but it sometimes slows down compromise. it sometimes slows down looking for other solutions.
This festival, in past years, was handicapped by that same sort of ideology. You had to do it this way or we're not going to do. This year we thought outside the box, were given a little more liberty.. without micromanaging. I think that would sort of serve City Hall well too, if people backed up a little bit from these past positions and came up with a compromise. But, you know, Hamtramck always makes it. Hamtramck somehow always manages to muddle through. It's not always easy and not always pretty, but we all manage to make it.
Any other thoughts about the Labor Day Festival?
Come down. It's going to be a great time and we've got transportation this year, a shuttle bus running between Art Beats and Eats, the Jazz Festival and our festival. So don't sell yourself short. Go to all three. See a little bit of everything.
The 32nd Annual Hamtramck Labor Day Festival takes place September First, Second and Third. For more information a schedule of events, visit hamtownfest.com
Check out photos from Hamtramck's Labor Day Festival below.
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