General Motor’s announcement that it’s cutting thousands of jobs and closing several plants has met intense criticism because the company was the beneficiary of a $50 billion government bailout in 2009—which wound up costing taxpayers $11 billion—even as the government awarded the United Auto Workers’ health-care fund a 17.5 percent stake in the restructured company. Like many big American companies, GM has been the recipient of government-subsidized largesse over several decades. One particular piece of this history is especially noteworthy now. Nearly 40 years ago, in one of the most egregious cases of eminent domain abuse in American history, GM built a plant on land seized from homeowners and businesses in Detroit, obliterating a multi-ethnic neighborhood known as Poletown—all for a plant that will now be shuttered so that GM can invest somewhere else in new manufacturing facilities.
Beset by foreign competition, America’s automakers began retrenching in the late 1970s, closing manufacturing facilities in and around Detroit even as the city struggled to rebound from the riots of 1967. Dodge had closed a giant plant in Hamtramck, a suburb that adjoins the Poletown neighborhood, and when GM announced that it wanted to build a new plant somewhere in America with modern industrial technology—though it was closing plants elsewhere—Detroit officials pleaded for an opportunity to find a site for the new facility. Mayor Coleman Young came up with a plan: seize some 1,500 homes and 144 businesses in Poletown, a low-income community of 3,500 where Polish immigrants had once settled. By the early 1980s, Poletown was a more diverse neighborhood, housing older Poles but also more recent immigrants and black Detroit residents. As the city deteriorated, Poletown remained relatively stable. “There is no place for us to go, no place we want to go,” two elderly residents told the New York Times in 1980, to no avail. To Detroit officials, Poletown’s appeal was its proximity to the Dodge site, providing some 465 acres for GM—if officials could just move out those inconveniently located businesses and people. To help make it happen, in April 1980 the Michigan legislature passed its infamous “quick-take” law, providing that government agencies could seize land deemed necessary for a “public purpose” and determine later how much to compensate the private landowners. That law accelerated the process of clearing out Poletown.
The neighborhood did not go down without a fight, however. Homeowners and their advocates mounted legal challenges, refused government offers, and hunkered down. Some patrolled their property, brandishing weapons and daring the government to come in and take their property. What happened next was chilling. To “encourage” homeowners to leave, Detroit began withdrawing city services. The city had managed to empty out some buildings, such as apartment houses, by paying off renters, who had little stake in the neighborhood. A few elderly residents took the money for their homes and moved on, creating a landscape dotted with abandoned buildings marked with a blue X—a prescription for chaos, which quickly ensued. Looters moved in and, in a strategy that became all too familiar in the 1970s in places like the South Bronx and Bushwick, they proceed to strip the buildings of sinks, wiring, pipes, furnaces—and then burn them. “There was virtually no trash pickup, no police presence, and before long the once-quiet neighborhood was a jumble of looters and demolition crews during the day and arsonists and fire trucks by night,” wrote filmmaker George Cosetti, who witnessed the neighborhood’s last days while filming the documentary Poletown Lives! “The night air was always smoke-filled and people slept with guns nearby.”
Residents sought to have the quick-take law declared unconstitutional, but the Michigan Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that taking private property and handing it over to a business to provide jobs for the unemployed and taxes to pay for city services qualified as a legitimate public purpose. One dissenting judge did warn that justifying government seizure of land in order to create jobs was an extension of eminent domain that “seriously jeopardized the security of all private property ownership.” Even then, however, some residents hung on, forming a redoubt in Immaculate Conception church, a focal point of much of the resistance, until police arrived to cart away the group, which included a handful of elderly Polish women.
General Motors opened the new plant, Detroit-Hamtramck, in 1985. It employed some 4,500 workers, about 70 percent of the original projection of 6,500 jobs. But the plant fell far short of the claims that city officials used to justify the property seizures. They had envisioned Poletown as a crucial step in a Detroit renaissance—the plant would attract other carmakers and auto-accessories manufacturers to the area, they believed, and spark a jobs boom. These scenarios never materialized. Detroit’s economy continued to decline, people fled the city, and today Detroit, with some 670,000 residents, is about half its size in 1980.
In 2004, Michigan’s Supreme Court overturned the “quick-take” provision that allowed the state to seize Poletown before demonstrating a public purpose for the land. General Motors got 34 years out of the plant, thanks to a $200 million government subsidy (what it cost Detroit to clear Poletown). No one can say whether Poletown, which had existed as a vibrant neighborhood for more than 100 years, would have endured longer, serving as at least one bulwark against the decline of the city, had GM not moved in. But neighborhoods have a way of outlasting manufacturing plants. That’s one reason we shouldn’t destroy them willy-nilly for the sake of a few jobs—or even a few thousand.
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