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Poletown Becomes Just a Memory : GM Plant Opens, Replacing Old Detroit Neighborhood

September 18, 1985|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Four years after the bulldozers swept away much of Poletown, the furious residents are long gone, the prayer vigils and the protests are over and the Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile luxury cars are finally starting to roll off the assembly line.

Where the rows of old narrow streets in the long-decaying Polish neighborhood in Detroit's inner city once stood, General Motors has built one of the largest and most highly automated car plants in the nation, one that will eventually employ 4,500 workers and 260 robots to spew out 60 of GM's most expensive models every hour.

The Poletown plant, the first new assembly facility to be built in Detroit in more than 50 years, will finally reach full production on one shift sometime within the next few weeks.

And while the plant isn't likely to employ quite as many workers as initially promised because of its increased use of robots, and while only one of the many supplier plants expected to cluster around it has so far moved in, the city and GM have still lived up to their commitment to place one of the nation's biggest industrial projects in one of the country's most desolate inner cities.

That simple fact, officials of both GM and Detroit hope, should bring to an end the controversy that has swirled around the Poletown project since it was launched in 1980.

Everyone Uses New Name

Now, GM has christened the new facility the "Detroit-Hamtramck" plant (it straddles the border between the two cities) and is hoping that Poletown, its more widely used name and one fused with emotion here, fades from the public's consciousness.

"Everyone here in the plant calls it Detroit-Hamtramck, not Poletown," plant spokeswoman Robin Pannecouk insists.

Father Joseph Grzyb, the Polish immigrant pastor of the struggling St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, located on the edge of the neighborhood that wasn't razed for GM, can attest that Poletown, the neighborhood, has already been reduced to little more than a memory. The 68-year-old priest says that the GM plant has not yet helped reduce crime in the area or reversed the rapid loss of population that Poletown has suffered. The daily influx of the plant's current work force of 3,000 has had little visible economic effect on the area beyond the factory's security fences.

"At least half of my parishioners now come from the suburbs," he says. "They all used to live here, and want to stay with the church, but they have moved out of the city. You can buy a relatively decent house down the block from my church for $2,000 or $3,000, because nobody wants them. Anyone who can afford to move out to a safer area does so."

Still, it was the promise of thousands of jobs and a revitalized economy for a city in the midst of a devastating recession that prompted Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young to arrange for the city to buy up 1,500 homes, businesses and churches and relocate 3,400 people to make room for GM.

The new plant was to be the replacement for Cadillac's ancient Clark Avenue plant on the other side of Detroit, the only other GM assembly plant in the city, and Young wanted to make sure that Detroit didn't lose yet another major employer to the suburbs or the Sun Belt when the Clark Avenue operation shut down. The Poletown location would also make use of the razed site of Chrysler's old Dodge Main assembly plant, which had employed many of Poletown's residents before it closed in 1980.

But the GM plant needed much more land than did the old Dodge facility, and the neighborhood that once housed so many Dodge workers had to come down.

So the city invoked its right of eminent domain over the Poletown neighborhood by declaring that building the plant and creating jobs in Detroit was in the public interest, and it began to buy out the residents and raze their homes.

Elderly Residents Fought

But Young hadn't reckoned on the fierce battle that many of the elderly residents would wage in an effort to save their beloved Poletown. Although most of the younger Polish families had long since moved out and the area was fast becoming a dangerous slum, many first- and second-generation Polish-Americans had spent most of their lives there, raised their families there, worshiped in the Catholic churches there and wanted to die in their homes there.

Soon, with the help of staffers from Ralph Nader's Washington office, a few dozen of the older residents began to hold protest meetings, picket GM, file lawsuits against the city and gain nationwide attention for their cause.

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