A block of shuttered two-story buildings
As late as the 1990s, several of the old businesses remained in nearby areas GM had left untouched. But today, the area is little more than a grid of streets laid over a barren landscape that on some blocks feels almost rural. Library of Congress

The 33-year-old GM Detroit-Hamtramck plant was renovated less than five years ago. But now that it’s shutting down, some residents are hoping to right a wrong.

General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, one of only two auto plants remaining in the Motor City, takes its official name from its location straddling the border between Detroit and the enclave city of Hamtramck. But to GM’s eternal annoyance, neighbors, the media, and employees have always called the plant “GM Poletown,” after the Detroit neighborhood—1,500 homes, 144 businesses, 16 churches—that was bulldozed to build it.

It’s a legacy that the automaker, which in 1980 persuaded Detroit and Hamtramck to use eminent domain to seize the land on its behalf, might be happy to forget—especially last month, when it announced the plant’s impending shutdown. The news has local officials agonizing over the potential loss of some 1,500 jobs and millions of dollars in property taxes. Meanwhile, Detroiters old enough to remember are asking once again whether the destruction of Poletown was worth it.

“You don’t have to have had family or connections,” says Karen Majewski, the current mayor of Hamtramck, which was once a Polish-majority city culturally contiguous with Detroit’s vanished Poletown. “What happened is still on people’s minds. There’s a general feeling of resentment, a sense of unfairness and a raw deal.”

In 1980, General Motors approached Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, whose city was struggling to compete with its suburbs and facing declining population and tax revenues. GM hoped to build a new plant in Detroit, the first in decades—but the automaker noted that it could easily go elsewhere if Detroit didn’t make things easy. It’s unclear to this day whether it was the city or the corporation that identified Poletown as the best site, but according to journalist Jeanie Wylie’s 1989 postmortem Poletown: Community Betrayed, when the arrangement was announced as a done deal in June of 1980 it came as a surprise to the neighborhood. (Wylie also worked on the documentary Poletown Lives!)

Poletown had been a destination for Polish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it was also home to African Americans and more recent immigrants from Albania, Yugoslavia, Yemen, and the Philippines. By all accounts everyone got along surprisingly well, and Poletown had largely escaped damage during the 1967 unrest. But the neighborhood was poor, and the housing stock had become shabby. Consistent with a city-wide trend, those who could had already moved to the suburbs, and some whose homes were to be seized welcomed the opportunity to follow. Many others, however, were angry.

“This is America, not Russia,” raged retiree Josephine Jakubowski at a public meeting the city held to explain how the neighborhood’s 4,200 residents were to be relocated. “We’re not going to let you do this. We’re going to fight like hell.”

Recalling the neighborhood’s experience with labor actions in the 1930s, Poletown residents staged demonstrations outside City Hall, organized postcard campaigns, and appealed to their elected representatives. Consumer advocate (and GM’s nemesis) Ralph Nader showed up, helping the protesters appeal to the national media.

But their efforts were stymied by a Michigan law that had gone into effect just two months before the plant was announced. The Uniform Condemnation Procedures Act, which ostensibly aimed to help cities clear blight, allowed for the use of eminent domain not only for public projects, but to encourage commercial growth. Worse, it allowed municipalities to seize and destroy property before legal challenges were settled.

A group of Poletown residents won a temporary injunction when they challenged the law’s constitutionality, but the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in March 1981 that the “quick take” provision was valid. Meanwhile, some residents had already taken the city’s relocation money—averaging about $13,000 for each house, plus moving expenses—and left. Arson fires became epidemic, and looters stripped fixtures from vacant buildings. Demolition crews did their work. The police ignored a surging crime wave. The United Automobile Workers, city council, local press and even the Archdiocese of Detroit sided with GM.

As the neighborhood emptied out, protesters focused on saving the historic Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which sat at the edge of GM’s future parking lot. But a 29-day sit-in ended early the morning of July 14, 1981, when SWAT teams raided the church and arrested twelve people, including elderly women and a journalist. Two days later, Immaculate Conception was razed and the fight for Poletown was over.

When the plant went online in 1985, it represented the state-of-the-art in automotive assembly, a robot-heavy operation designed to compete with nimbler Japanese automakers. But the automation meant that the plant would employ just 3,000 people, half what GM originally promised. The plant itself, with 4.1 million square feet of floor space, was surrounded by a sea of surface parking and extensive landscaping. All that remained of the old neighborhood was a historic Jewish cemetery on the Hamtramck side, which it turned out was easier for GM to envelope than to move.

In 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed its 1981 decision, invalidating the “quick take” law that had allowed the city to bulldoze Poletown in just over a year (and to seize land in 1987 for Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant, the only other auto plant still standing in Detroit today). But while the decision means the specifics of Poletown’s demise are unlikely to recur, the saga offers a larger lesson for cities about sacrifice on the altar of economic development (indeed, some Detroiters have recently expressed relief that the city was not able to woo Amazon’s second headquarters with a generous corporate welfare package). In exchange for what amounted to a few thousand jobs, which may have gone mostly to suburbanites, Detroit, Hamtramck, and the federal government wound up spending some $300 million to lure GM with tax breaks and to prepare the “greenfield” site GM had demanded. And that’s in addition to the intangibles—history, culture, community—lost with the razing of Poletown.

Marian Krzyzowski, a retired University of Michigan history lecturer, lived on Lyman Place in Poletown after his family immigrated from war-torn Poland in 1951. (The location of his boyhood home is “part of GM’s parking lot now,” he notes.) Krzyzowski, who led the assembly of a thorough oral history of the area during his time at U-M, recalls a vibrant business district with hardware stores, restaurants and theaters, where his family shopped even after they moved out of the neighborhood a few years later.

As late as the 1990s, several of the old businesses remained along the portion of once bustling Chene Street that GM had left untouched. Krzyzowski had a particular fondness for People’s Bookstore, where alongside socialist political tracts you could find Polish greeting cards and opłatek, traditional Christmas wafers. The store had been in the same family for generations, but it eventually closed and then burned down, twice.

“Part of the problem when the plant went in was that it cut the connection between Detroit and Hamtramck, and everything south of it dried up,” Krzyzowski says.

Today, the area is little more than a grid of streets laid over a barren landscape that on some blocks feels almost rural. A few holdouts include the Raven Lounge, which still hosts live jazz on weekend nights, and Ivanhoe Cafe, known to locals as the “Polish Yacht Club,” which has been owned by the same family since it opened in 1909 and serves lunch to a packed house four days a week, plus dinner on Fridays.

“We’re the only building left in a two-block radius,” notes Bill Galen, who runs the Joseph Campau Avenue restaurant with his wife, Patti. He chalks up the business’s survival to its fine food (“We challenge anyone to try our fish—it’s the best in the city”) but admits that things have changed. “I wasn’t here in the heyday, but I’ve been told that back then people were three deep on a Friday.”

Hamtramck fared better in the original deal than Detroit. The land it contributed to the GM plant was occupied not by homes and shops but by a smaller, shuttered Chrysler factory which Majewski, the mayor, says would have cost millions to tear down. Since then, the city has thrived thanks largely to new waves of immigration from Yemen and Bangladesh. But if GM does close Detroit-Hamtramck, it could mean the loss of $1 million in property taxes, a sixteenth of the city’s annual budget.

“We’re holding our breath and waiting to see what happens,” Majewski says. “We want to make sure Hamtramck doesn’t get left out in the cold.”

Meanwhile, she has been talking with constituents about what they envision for plant’s site. Adaptive reuse seems plausible—after all, the plant is only 33 years old, and GM spent $121 million to renovate it less than five years ago. But some residents would prefer to right a long ago wrong.

“I posted on Facebook about it, and one of the most common suggestions was, ‘Put back the neighborhood. Re-grid the streets,’” Majewski says. Reconnecting Hamtramck with downtown Detroit via a resurrected Poletown could help the entire area share in a renaissance that is already spreading through some of Detroit’s other old neighborhoods, she says. “I think it makes a lot of sense.”

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