By Nick Watt and Jason Kravarik, CNN
Hamtramck, Michigan (CNN)For decades, Hamtramck was known as Michigan’s “Little Warsaw,” a city of just two square miles of tightly-packed houses and factories, spitting distance from downtown Detroit.
The Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla visited once, back in 1969, before he became Pope. A statue of Wojtyla, arms outstretched, still casts a shadow over what’s now called Pope Park, where a huge mural of Polish folk dancers stretches almost an entire city block.
In the 99 years since its incorporation, every mayor of Hamtramck has been Polish American. That ends January 2, in Hamtramck’s centenary year, when Amer Ghalib will be inaugurated, along with an entirely Muslim city council.
Hamtramck will become the first known city in the US with a government made up entirely of Muslims, according to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which says it has no record of any other such administration.
Mayor-elect Ghalib was born in Yemen and came to the United States alone as a young man, with a smattering of broken English and little else. He’s now 42, works in the medical field and is studying to become a doctor.
Hamtramck’s heyday had apparently passed. The city was decaying. Many factories had closed. Many second and third-generation Polish Americans had moved to the Detroit suburbs and beyond in the past two decades. Immigrants, largely from Yemen and Bangladesh, took their place and Hamtramck, locals say, is now majority Muslim.
Hamtramck is a palimpsest — where new immigrants have laid layers of culture and society on top of what was already there. You can enjoy a sizzling Yemeni foul — a spicy bean stew — and flatbread for breakfast, and still find a kielbasa or a pierogi for lunch. And Hamtramck is now back on the rise, one of the fastest growing cities in Michigan, census figures show. The new immigrants are fixing up dilapidated houses, opening stores and restaurants, putting down roots. And what could be more American than diving into local politics?
“Tonight is a real example that the American Dream is alive and well in the land of opportunity,” Ghalib told the excitable crowd, gathered to celebrate his landslide victory in the early-November election. He defeated the incumbent, Karen Majewski, who had held the post for 16 years.
There is just one American-born member on the new council: Amanda Jaczkowski, a lifelong Michigander. Her Polish American family has worshiped for five generations at the same nearby Catholic Church. She converted to Islam in 2012.
“One of the big things that people are worried about is that we’re gonna get rid of the bars. We can’t get rid of the bars,” Jaczkowski told us. She and her fellow councilors do not want to get rid of the bars, she says, as Islam outlaws alcohol for adherents of the faith, but no one else.
“They’re not necessarily bad places that we would ban because they [non-Muslims] aren’t expected to live under the same rules that we’re expected to live under,” she said of bars and their patrons.
That view was echoed by the mayor-elect.
“We are Muslims,” Ghalib said, sitting in the council chamber at city hall where he will soon preside. “We are proud of our beliefs and values. But we are not going to try and impose them on others.”
Jaczkowski added: “We’re gonna take an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States. And the Constitution of the United States includes the separation of church and state.”