HAMTRAMCK, Mich. -- In late July, a group of friends filled a few of Hamtramck’s notorious potholes themselves.
A storm of media attention followed. So did thousands of dollars in donations.
Suddenly it was on them to see how far they could go.
“I think we sort of pledged ourselves to that initial vision of covering all the pivotal streets,” said Jonathan Weier, one of the six friends who helped fill potholes on that first weekend. “It’s not something you can really back out of.”
Their efforts struck a chord in a state with some of the bumpiest roads in the country. Though 38% of the state’s roads were thought to be in poor shape, and steadily getting worse, Michigan’s lawmakers have tried and so far failed to find the money for a long-term fix.
But the group – whose members dubbed themselves the Hamtramck Guerrilla Road Crew – showed that some residents will go to shocking lengths to fix what their city hasn’t.
“The biggest thing we’ve learned from this is don’t be a one-hit wonder,” said Jeff Salazar, one of the original friends who started the effort. “Do something for the benefit of all, instead of just getting your 15 minutes of fame.”
After five weekends, when all was said and done, the crew covered 41 residential blocks – which is roughly one third of all the blocks in the city’s 2 square miles. They and dozens of volunteers laid down 36 tons of cold patch, thanks to $4,410 donated through a GoFundMe account.
Maritza Garibay, 25, explains how she and neighbors are solving the pothole problem in their streets.
“We didn't think we were going to get any press,” Maritza Garibay said. “And then it blew up into this thing we couldn’t control.”
The plan began as half-serious. A few of the friends merely floated the idea over drinks at one of the city’s dive bars.
But a couple days later, on a Saturday, they bought bags of cold patch and spent a few hours putting the material into the ground on Lumpkin between Caniff and Casmere.
Then one media report followed another. Weier said he got a call from someone with NPR’s All Things Considered. The effort briefly became a meme, and earlier this month, the story even appeared on Glenn Beck’s official Facebook page.
State Sen. Bert Johnson even congratulated the crew when he visited Hamtramck as part of a regular visit.
As the idea snowballed, the friends were concerned they might get reprimanded. They were, after all, circumventing the work normally done by the city.
But they were relieved when Hamtramck’s mayor, Karen Majewski, effectively gave the group the go-ahead when interviewed by media.
Garibay said that Hamtramck’s City Manager, Katrina Powell, sent the group a list with a few major roads that they needed to avoid because the city is working to repair them soon.
The rest of the roads were fair game.
For the next few Saturdays, after the media storm died down, 15 or more volunteers consistently kept showing up. They rode across the tiny city with bags of cold patch and tampers, and tracked their progress with an updating tool through Google Maps.
The road-repair sessions would usually end with a barbecue party — and the food was free.
So many volunteers kept showing up that the work would be finished within an hour or two. Salazar noted that jobs went so fast, “Every week people were surprised. Like, ‘That’s it?’”
Hamtramck’s roads have been notorious for potholes, and the cash-strapped city has struggled to repair them. But this is also not the first attempt to fix the situation, or at least comment on it. A few months prior, resident Paige Breithart and her friend Josh Gaudette planted 50 flowers in potholes around the city.
And Majewski, the city’s mayor, says that about 10 years ago, a neighbor began filling the potholes on her own street as well.
It’s not clear how long these newest resident-led repairs will last. The cold patch they used has a range between one and three years. Garibay hopes that figure ends up being closer to three, but it’s hard to know for sure. She added, “Winters are so brutal.”
But the effort has certainly brought them local recognition. Garibay said that strangers still sometimes exclaim, “You’re the pothole girl!”
And Salazar said the experience made him want to run for Hamtramck city council in the hopes of producing more positive change.
“We do what we gotta do in Hamtramck, and I think people are proud of that,” Majewski said.