An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Our signal in Bonners Ferry and Omak is seriously impaired due to weather— Learn more here.

Before GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Plant, There Was The Poletown Neighborhood


One of the factories where GM is ending production is the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant. It straddles the border of Detroit and the city of Hamtramck, and it has a complicated history with both, a history that goes back to the early '80s, when General Motors wanted to build a plant and settled on a densely populated, working-class neighborhood. That neighborhood was bulldozed. As Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said yesterday, we moved thousands of people out, hundreds of businesses, six churches and a hospital to create that assembly plant. He called the decision to shut it three decades later extremely disappointing. Duggan was quoted in the Detroit Free Press.

And to pick up the story, we are joined by a former reporter for the paper, Bill McGraw. Bill McGraw, welcome.

BILL MCGRAW: Thank you.

KELLY: So this neighborhood that was bulldozed was called Poletown. Tell me a little bit more about it, what it looked like back around, say, 1980.

MCGRAW: Well, the neighborhood was about 2 1/2 miles northeast of downtown. It was an old industrial neighborhood. And by the early 1980s, it was about half African-American and half white. And most of the whites were first-in-generation Poles. But there were also Albanians, people from the former Yugoslavia and Yemenis. And frankly, it was a pretty unusual neighborhood, for Detroit at that time, in its diversity. It was a declining neighborhood - there's no doubt about that - because it was both a working-class neighborhood and kind of a working-poor neighborhood.

KELLY: Now, the people who lived there in Poletown were not happy about this, to put it mildly. This huge fight breaks out between the city and the neighborhood residents, which I gather peaked in the summer of 1981 with a sit-in at a church. What happened?

MCGRAW: Well, the protests were emotional, dramatic, and there were many of them. And so by the summer of 1981, they were at Immaculate Conception Church, which became sort of the headquarters for the protests. The image that was broadcast at that time were elderly Polish ladies in sensible shoes. There was 12 or 13 of them in the church doing a sit-in. And the police showed up at 5:30 in the morning. They escorted the ladies to a paddy wagon. And almost before the women were released from the police station, the bulldozers had moved in...

KELLY: Oh, wow.

MCGRAW: ...To knock over the church, which the city had paid the archdiocese $1.2 million for.

KELLY: How has it turned out from an employment point of view? I mean, did the plant fulfill the promise that it was going to bring a lot of jobs to Detroit - and good jobs to Detroit?

MCGRAW: There were good jobs. There was never as many jobs as was promised at the outset. Over the years, the workforce declined, and that was one of the complaints. It never really fulfilled the predictions of both GM and the city.

KELLY: Yeah. I was just reading in your old paper, in the Free Press that there are something like 1,500 people currently employed at the plant.

MCGRAW: Right. And they also said that it was going to do a lot for the declining neighborhood, and that did not happen. What is left of the neighborhood now, it's a very poor neighborhood. And the main street in that area, Shane Street, is basically inert when, even in the '80s, it still was filled with restaurants and stores mainly catering to the Polish clientele.

KELLY: Are there any lessons here for other neighborhoods, other cities that make sacrifices for a big company that wants to roll into town and says it's going to promise jobs?

MCGRAW: Well, if there are lessons, they haven't been learned in Detroit and many other cities if you look at the Amazon drama. There is a lot of development going on in downtown Detroit and Midtown Detroit these days. The city continues to offer breaks of many sorts to people who want to build in it.

KELLY: So I quoted Mayor Duggan, just his reaction to the news of GM saying it's going to shut the plant. He called it extremely disappointing. What's just an average man on the street saying in Detroit?

MCGRAW: You know, the auto industry is such a volatile industry. And over the years, there's been so many ups and downs. Aside from the people who might be losing their jobs, I think, as usual, Detroiters are a little bit apprehensive but kind of taking this as it comes.

KELLY: Bill McGraw - he used to be a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, and he edited a book on the city's history called "The Detroit Almanac."

Bill McGraw, thank you.

MCGRAW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.