Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of General Motors’ Notorious Eminent Domain Battle in Michigan
We All Live in Poletown Now
By BRIAN McKENNA
“You wanna run all the people out
This what you’re all about
Treat poor people just like trash
Turn around and make big cash”
Open Letter (to a Landlord) by Living Color
Twenty five years ago this March 4th, Poletown Michigan made CBS national news as the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to consider whether or not Detroit could demolish a vibrant multi-cultural neighborhood to build a General Motors Cadillac plant.
Under pressure from GM, the City of Detroit had declared in 1981 that it could take private property and transfer it to a profit making corporation under the U.S. Constitution’s 5th Amendment, which said that land should be taken for “public use.” Traditionally the eminent domain clause had been interpreted to mean using sovereign power to build a public good like a road, a library or school, not a Fortune 500 corporation. Poletown residents fought back fiercely, but the MI Supreme Court gave Detroit/GM the green light.
Lost were 4,200 people, 1,500 homes, 144 businesses, 16 churches, a school and a hospital. Father Joseph Karasiewicz, the 59 year old pastor of Poletown’s Immaculate Conception Church, was removed from power by the Catholic Archdiocese for resisting the bulldozers. He died suddenly of a heart attack a few months after his church was demolished. Many parishioners believed it was due to all the stress.
Today citizen homeowner fights are taking place all over the country. In places like Norwood, Ohio (contesting a shopping complex), Long Beach, New Jersey (contesting condominiums) and in Rivera Beach, Florida where a mostly black, blue collar community of 6,000 is fighting an eminent domain attempt to destroy their homes to build a yachting and upper-scale residential complex.
Welcome to Poletown USA, where no one’s home is protected from capital’s destructive winds.
Taken for a Ride
In a mammoth reversal of fortunes, General Motors has sunk near the edges of bankruptcy. In November 2005, GM announced 30,000 layoffs across North America as its market share continued to plummet. In January, Ford Motor Company announced another 30,000 jobs. On the chopping block is its Wixom assembly plant in suburban Detroit. Media portrayed workers crying and in despair. It’s an eerie replay of Flint Michigan (which lost 30,000 in the 1980s after GM abandoned the city), much of Michigan is reeling from its own shock and awe.
As GM goes so does the local economy. Detroit’s Wayne County ended January with 3,364 homes in active foreclosure, the highest of any U.S. county by more than 1,000, according to Foreclosure.com of Boca Raton, Florida. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, at 6.7%, Michigan has doubled its foreclosures over the past two years. In the country as a whole there were three million foreclosures over the past five years.
Detroit may be the bellwether for many regions of the country as the U.S. gallops towards a tipping point.
But with bad news in the offing, Detroit and the nation’s corporate culture decided to do the only reasonable thing. . . . throw a party!
Super Bowl Sunday in Detroit
Detroit hosted Super Bowl XL in February amidst a city staggering with nearly 50,000 abandoned houses and a 14.1% unemployment rate. Police swept homeless off the streets to project a goodly image to the world. The Romans might have thrown the homeless to the lions, but the Detroit Lions, a perennial loser, were nowhere in sight.
The Motor City’s celebration at Ford Field featured the 2007 Cadillac Escalade, a glimmering black SUV that was awarded to the Super Bowl MVP. The “Escalade,” a French term which means “to climb up or over (as in a wall)” was manufactured in Mexico, symbolically climbing over the grave of Poletown for that cheaper labor.
The GM/Poletown factory is located just a few miles from Ford stadium. In 1981 Poletown was billed as Detroit’s salvation. GM promised 6,500 jobs and feeder factories that surrounded the complex, creating plenty of more jobs. That scenario never materialized. Today the “Poletown” plant employs around 3,000 workers. Much of the 650 acres of the Poletown plant is dedicated to sprawling parking lots and neatly landscaped greenspace. Only 14 of the land is used by the company. There is no sign of the ferocious battle that took place there.
The 1981 Detroit/GM battle against the people of Poletown was captured in an award winning film, “Poletown Lives” by George Corsetti, a grassroots lawyer. He documented the struggle from inception to conclusion. Made on a shoestring budget of $5,000 the film depicts demonstrations, police SWAT teams, gun toting residents, elderly Polish women getting arrested and a city aflame from arsonists. Ralph Nader sent five staff people to fight the GM project and they stayed for three months working 12 hour days. But most politicians refused to meet with the Poletown Neighborhood Organization which fought bravely to save their homeland.
Poletown Lives Again
In January 26, 2006 Poletown Lives was placed on the top 50 Corporate Crime Movies of all time, in a list assembled by Corporate Crime reporter after years of inquiries from high school and college professors. It joins Erin Brockovitch, A Civil Action and Harlan County USA that won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1976.
Poletown sprang into the national spotlight again in 2004 when the Michigan Supreme Court reversed its 1981 opinion! A unanimous court wrote, “We must overrule Poletown in order to vindicate our Constitution, protect the people’s property rights, and preserve the legitimacy of the judicial branch as the expositor – not creator – of fundamental law.”
But in June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court trumped the MI
Supreme Court, affirming property seizures in a 5-4 decision. Writing in dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that small property owners now have little room to maneuver. “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
The issue alarms both the left and the right. The right fears that the decision could conceivably create the legitimacy for a community to condemn a corporation if they successfully argue that a company no longer serves a public use. That’s a very fecund idea!
Corsetti has long thought about doing an update to the film and has taken additional footage in the ensuing years. He thinks that a retrospective look at the legacy of the Poletown decision would be very useful. On the 25th anniversary, Corsetti says, “We need to ask, was this a wise decision?”
“We also need to look at the media. They control the information that we use to make our decisions. They severely restrict the information we need, so we make dumb decisions.”
Trading a Mythical Spectacle for the Real One
What would a new Poletown film look like? Mass culture dumbs down reality, but paradoxically the seeds of truth exists within the rituals begging to be analyzed. One could begin with Detroit’s Super Bowl itself.
In comedienne George Carlin’s famous bit “Baseball and Football,” Carlin likens football to an aggressive struggle over land use.
“With short bullet passes and long bombs, [the quarterback or field general] marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.”
The essence of football is the strategic and violent struggle for monopoly control of land, with the winner taking all. Poletown’s epic struggle is a real life enactment of this mythical spectacle. It is also a beacon of hope offering ideas for resistance in a dangerous world.
Meanwhile with its new found popularity, “Poletown Lives” should be required viewing in all the high schools and colleges in the USA. Corsetti’s film does for the Super Bowl what West Side Story did to Romeo and Juliet. It is an important media corrective.
The film reveals how the Motor City’s celebration of football and cars took place against a backdrop of human and environmental tragedy. It offers a glimpse of the price of victory.
“I just got a request for “Poletown Lives” from a community in Ardmore, PA. They are fighting an eminent domain attempt to take over main street.”
Up to 20 state legislatures are considering how to reign in eminent domain. Still, Corsetti is not hopeful in the short term. “It’s unrestrained capitalism,” he said. “I believe that Detroit would do the same thing today.”
Remaking Poletown: After the Deluge
An update would bring the story fuller circle, adding important historical contexts.
One episode sticks in my mind. At one demonstration Teofilo Lucero, an American Indian and Poletown resident held a sign that said, “GM murders senior citizens,” as reported in Jean Wylie’s 1990 Poletown, A Community Betrayed. “Now you know what it’s like to be relocated. It is a trail of tears,” he told neighbors.
In fact the conquest of Michigan was a relocation nightmare for the Anishnabeg – who’d thrived there for more than 7,000 years – as they were soon cast onto reserves, surrounded by hostile neighbors and “subject to intense indoctrination.” Anthropologist Charles Cleland, in his definitive “Rites of Conquest, The History and Culture of Michigan’s Native Americans” (1992), concluded that the tragic “acts of ethnocide can only be described [as] imperial aggression.”
Today, because of the federal government’s Toxic Release Inventory, we know that the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck “Poletown” assembly center is among the “dirtiest/worst facilities in the U.S.” Between 1988 and 2002, the time period for which data is available, the “Poletown” factory emitted 17,632,569 pounds of air pollution. The top cancer risk is from benzene. It is ranked seventh worse in the state of Michigan for “suspected cardiovascular or blood toxicants to air.”
Added to that are the untold tons of pollution coming out of the vehicle exhausts of the Cadillac cars once they hit the street. In 1995 the U.S. Justice Department recalled almost half a million Cadillacs and fined GM nearly $45 million for intentionally overriding emissions controls in the car’s catalytic converters which resulted in an additional 100,000 tons of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.
A total accounting of the health and environmental damages from the Poletown plant would involve everything from traffic accidents and vehicle disposal to highway construction and sprawl.
In Detroit the playoffs are real. Millions of Michigan’s citizens are looking for a “Hail Mary” to avoid “sudden death.”
Brian McKenna can be reached at: MCKENNA193@aol.com