“A Touch of Europe in America,” reads the sign approaching Hamtramck (www.hamtramck.com ). A Polish stronghold since World War I, its residents have stubbornly withstood annexation. Thus, Hamtramck survives as a “city within a city,” 2.5 square miles completely within Detroit  city limits.
Named for a German-French Canadian colonel who served during the post-Revolutionary Indian Wars, the strange-sounding hamlet was settled as a village of mostly German farms in 1901, but a new Dodge auto factory and its promise of jobs swelled the population from 3,589 to 45,615 between 1910 and 1920—the largest increase anywhere in the United States.
Many were Polish immigrants, earning Hamtramck the nickname “Little Poland.” Today, the auto plant is closed and the Polish population has dropped from 90 percent to about 40 percent (the slack is taken up by Albanians and African Americans), but the nickname and culture remain.
Drive along Joseph Campau Street, Hamtramck’s main drag, and you’ll find Polish bakeries, Polish bookstores, Polish clubs, and shops hawking Polish sausage. There’s even a tribute at the corner of Belmont and Joseph Campau Streets to the Polish pope, John Paul II, who visited this ethnic enclave in the mid-1980s. Stop at the Polish Art Center for unusual goods such as folk art rugs, leaded glass, Ukrainian-decorated eggs, and szopkas, intricate nativity scenes made of tinfoil.
Hamtramck’s quirky 1930s flair and cheap rents have attracted artists such as potter/jeweler Marcia Hovland and filmmakers Chuck Cirgenski and Janine Menlove. Hollywood-backed Polish Wedding, a movie starring Lena Olin, was filmed here in late 1996. With the new wave of artists and filmmakers have come urbane coffeehouses, late-night alternative-music cafés, and colorful studios and shops that add a new hipness to this old-world enclave.
Well known locally, Hamtramck can be hard to find for the visitor. To get there, take I-75 to the Caniff exit, Exit 55, about 1.5 miles north of I-94.