Customers line up at the New Palace Bakery, on Fat Tuesday in Hamtramck, Michigan. Image Credit: NYT

HAMTRAMCK, Michigan: It was 5:45am and 10 degrees — before the sunrise, before the first call to prayer sounded from the city’s mosques — and already the Fat Tuesday line had spilled out the bakery’s doors, onto the street, past the pizzeria, around the corner.

The reward at the end of the frigid wait: a box of paczki (pronounced “PAWN-chkee”), the doughy Polish pastries filled with custard or fruit or, for the less tradition-bound, Cocoa Puffs cereal.

Paczki Day has been a pastime in Hamtramck for generations, dating to when most residents were from Polish families who came to this roughly 2-square-mile enclave, which is almost completely encircled by Detroit, seeking jobs in the auto industry and a place to speak their native language.

Hamtramck’s transformation in recent decades is well documented and obvious. Storefronts now display signs in Arabic or Bengali. A main road was given an honorary name, “Bangladesh Avenue.” And after the 2015 election, Hamtramck’s City Council became the country’s first with a Muslim majority, a milestone that drew critical social media posts from ex-residents who left decades ago.

Through all the change, Paczki Day has only grown in visibility, becoming an all-day event (one famous bakery opens at 3am) during which local businesses serve paczki burgers. Even a Yemeni-owned grocery store, which was formerly a Polish market, sells the pastries.

Attendees cheer during a paczki eating contest, on Fat Tuesday in Hamtramck, Michigan. Image Credit: NYT

For those who never moved away from Hamtramck (pronounced “Ham-tram-ick”), and for residents who have arrived more recently, the day has become far more than a chance to indulge in sweets before the Christian Lenten season. Paczki Day, they say, is also a tangible counterpoint to depictions of a city divided beyond reconciliation or changed beyond recognition.

“If folks couldn’t deal with it, they’ve left for the suburbs by now,” said Mayor Karen Majewski, who is Polish-American, as every other mayor of the city has been. She added: “People complain sometimes. In the same breath, they’ll say that they’ll get along with their neighbours. I really don’t worry about it.”

Hamtramck’s transition from a place with a Polish-language radio station to one where hijabs are displayed in store windows played out in the national eye, starting in 2004 when a mosque received permission to broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers. Majewski, a Democrat who at the time was a councilwoman, pushed for the approval.

She said she was shocked when some residents objected, and when news crews started arriving from around the country to tell the story. As the call to prayer became part of the city’s soundtrack, Hamtramck’s Muslim residents — who came from different countries with distinct languages, cultures and cuisines — said the moment was a turning point.

“It made people feel a sense of home, a sense of ‘you belong,’” said Anam Miah, now the mayor pro tem, who emigrated from Bangladesh as a boy in the late 1980s.

Over more than three decades, demographic shifts have been pronounced. New immigrants arrived, especially from Bangladesh and Yemen. Polish people moved away. And as downtown Detroit boomed in the last several years, young adults of many backgrounds moved in, seeking cheaper housing and bringing hip coffee shops with them.

By 2017, only about 7 per cent of residents claimed Polish ancestry, according to the Census Bureau, though visitors can still tour the Polish Art Centre, eat pierogi at the Polonia restaurant or watch the paczki-eating contest at the Polish Legion of American Veterans post, where the winning competitor last week wolfed down 8 1/4 pastries.

In 2015, the winner ate 23.

“It’s a fascinating theatre of life here,” said Greg Kowalski, 68, a Polish-American who remained in Hamtramck and helps run the local museum, where newly painted murals depict the city’s immigrant groups, from the Poles and Ukrainians of the early and mid-20th century to the Bosnians, Yemenis and Bangladeshis of more recent decades.

Baking paczki at the New Martha Washington Bakery, on Fat Tuesday in Hamtramck, Michigan. Image Credit: NYT

Cultural misunderstandings and clashes have cropped up over the years. Some residents complained about other groups’ trash disposal practices, or the volume of a nearby mosque’s call to prayer, or what they say is a dearth of Muslim city workers.

But the more pervasive grievance, the one that seems to cut across all Hamtramck’s varied groups, is frustration with how the city is perceived and portrayed from the outside.

“The only thing that really, really hurts me,” said Naz Huda, 36, who emigrated from Bangladesh, is when people say Hamtramck is “a Muslim-run city. I hate that. They’re Americans. They won elections.” The election of a majority-Muslim City Council, which several people in Hamtramck said they were unaware of until reporters brought it to their attention, brought a fresh round of global attention to the city.

Without question, Hamtramck has its problems. Half of its 22,000 residents live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. Municipal finances are a perpetual mess. And the General Motors plant that straddles the city’s border is scheduled to close in January, meaning a major loss in tax revenue in a place where government services have been stretched so thin that frustrated volunteers sometimes fill potholes.

But around Paczki Day, when most every parking spot was claimed and polka music emanated from bars, there was a sense of optimism, too. Those who have stayed said they had learnt to live together, to get along, to see the parallels in the stories of the Polish immigrants who came decades ago and those of the newer arrivals from the Middle East and Asia.

“I haven’t seen Hamtramck’s identity really change in 100 years,” Majewski said. “We’re an immigrant city.”

She added, “I don’t think that that’s going to change. I think just the balance and the numbers are going to change.”