General Motors at the end of last year announced it would shut down its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, otherwise known as GM Poletown. The plant opened in 1985 following the employment of a dicey eminent domain action and gubnut giveaway that eradicated an existing residential neighborhood known as Poletown. The expense of the action also contributed mightily to Detroit’s downward fiscal spiral.
In slash-and-burn economic models, land and plants are used up and abandoned. The old Detroit Dodge Main facilities were functionally obsolete due to their inability to be converted to build the next-generation BFI-type vehicles, which were originally scheduled to debut in the 1985 model year. The smaller, old facilities were torn down and the larger Poletown plant was built to replace it on land seized from Poletown residential neighborhoods. Wash, rinse, repeat. Twenty-five years later, the Poletown plant is shuttered, leaving more urban blight.
In the aerial images provide below, you can see that the GM plant razed housing of 4,200 residents, who were displaced when 465 acres of the northern half of the Poletown neighborhood were bulldozed for the facility. Furthermore, it was dropped into the fabric of the remaining Hamtramck and south Poletown neighborhood, giving the wider area an incompatible, blighted industrial feel. This slash-and-burn pattern was repeated all over the Detroit region.
In 1980, Poletown held 144 small businesses, 16 churches, two schools and a hospital. Chene Street was the neighborhood’s busiest corridor. The average home price at the time was $9,000. It’s generally recognized that the community was under-compensated and effectively scammed during the eminent domain process.
The city of Detroit agreed to acquire the land for $200 million (not including expensive debt financing). It then sold the land to GM for $8 million. Additionally, GM was given a 12-year tax abatement worth $60 million, all so that GM would retain 6,000 automotive jobs already in the city. But by the time the plant opened, GM executed an arbitrary escape clause and revised the job tally down to 3,000. Outside of GM, 9,000 existing area jobs disappeared within the Poletown community.
During the 1950s and ’60s, freeway construction and urban renewal projects cut through and altered the neighborhood. Two interstate skewerings are visible on the images, to the west and the south. Afterward, the makeup of Poletown neighborhoods had become about 50/50 split between black and Polish residents, with most of the Poles the elderly.
Prior to freeway construction, according to “Poletown: Community Betrayed” author Jeanie Wylie, “Poles live and retain their customs to such an extent that the whole region more nearly resembles a fraction of Poland than a part of a city in the heart of America.”
GM executives met with then-Mayor the corrupto Coleman Young, who gave the auto company what they needed: the land, plus more for landscaping and parking, to accommodate a fully modernized facility.
The land grab was close to freeways. It had low housing values. Its residents were vulnerable, poor and could be easily moved. Poletown was a done deal. What surprised everyone was how quickly the deal was done, and how residents were kept out of the loop until the last minute.
GM mandated the city of Detroit to provide land within 10 months or else the automaker would approach another city. In those 10 months, State of Michigan lawmakers rewrote its eminent domain law to “authorize the taking of private property in order to encourage commercial development,” a clause not previously written into the law. But as the law was already written, residents would find it “impossible” to protect their homes against any kind of eminent domain.
Critics stated that Young could have chosen other areas for the plant, and yet he chose one of the final remaining working-class white areas of Detroit. Young had criticized the destruction of a functioning, black, working-class neighborhood, called the Black Bottom, through eminent domain. Black Bottom was bulldozed when Interstate 75 went in. The second photo shows interstate construction severing the heart of that neighborhood. Once the road construction was finished, several surrounding blocks became blighted, and the blight spread like cancer.
Back in Poletown, the regional Catholic Archdiocese threw the community under the bus and supported the relocation. It had already agreed to sell its two Catholic churches that were in the area.
However, Joseph Karasiewicz, the priest at one of the parishes, defied his archbishop and fought to keep his building from being sold.
The Archdiocese stood firm in its support of the sale.
Following the last Mass at Immaculate Conception Church, which drew an estimated 1,500 worshipers, a couple dozen holdouts maintained a round-the-clock vigil to protect the church.
After 29 days, police SWAT teams were deployed to purge the church of the “little old Polish ladies” still praying the Hail Mary.
Among the videos below, the first one gives a sense of the still functioning Poletown neighborhood in 1981, before it came down.
Last video show the ghost town of Hamtramck and the surrounding area today. Note the large number of patchwork vacant lots, as decaying buildings have been leveled.