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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Poletown, Michigan: A Victim

In 1913, the parents of Anna and Mary Constanti moved into an eight room house in an East Detroit neighborhood called Poletown. Anna, now 73 years old, and Mary, now 69, still live in the same house. They have kept their home in good physical repair and the back yard is filled with 60 rose bushes waiting for the spring bloom.

The City of Detroit is offering the sisters $8,000 for their property.

Mrs. Josephine Krajewski also lives in Poletown and attends the Church of the Immaculate Conception there every Sunday, as she has for the past 57 years.

The City of Detroit wants to tear down both the church and her home.

These three citizens are not alone. The city wants to buy out about 3,500 residents of Poletown. The area in Poletown being condemned contains 1,500 households, 117 commercial and industrial buildings, 12 churches, a 278-bed hospital and several schools. Everyone has to go, says the city, so that the 465-acre area can be razed and prepared for a General Motors Cadillac plant. The new factory will replace two existing plants in the Detroit area.

General Motors is staying behind the scenes to avoid facing directly the questions of the distressed but indignant Poletown residents. The world’s second largest industrial corporation, with annual revenues totaling nearly $90 billion, might find it difficult to explain why it cannot build its plant elsewhere in the Detroit area. Or why 100 acres of the area to be bulldozed have been earmarked for surface parking lots. Or how the recently retired chairman of General Motors, Thomas Murphy, a supposedly pious man, has become party to a massive taxpayers subsidy for General Motors that will destroy historic churches.

The stage for this GM rip off of Detroit was set by a combination of GM’s powerful greed and the high rate of unemployment among auto workers, largely a result of the industry’s own management failures and its consequent inability to meet foreign competition. Suffering from layoffs by Chrysler, Ford and GM, Detroit was ripe for GM’s brand of blackmail.

GM is bringing a city and a community to their knees through simple strategy. GM announced it needed to build more modern plants. Murphy declared that the corporation would be willing to consolidate two of its Detroit-area plants into one new facility if the site and package were sufficiently attractive. Otherwise, GM would consider moving out of the city or state to build elsewhere.

After extensive private discussions with city of­ficials, GM got its package. The city would obtain federal and other government grants, loans and guarantees to clear out the residents and businesses in the 465-acre area and prepare the site for General Motors. The official estimate of this subsidy for GM is about $200 million. But, according to a Detroit in­dustrial engineer, Donald Ludwig, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that site preparation will cost between $750,000 and $1 million per acre or about twice the city’s estimate.

GM also is demanding a tax abatement for 12 years, a handout worth $120 million. GM otherwise would have had to pay these badly needed taxes to the city during that period.

In return for this largesse, Murphy wrote Detroit Mayor Coleman Young in an October 8, 1980 letter that if its conditions are met by May 1981, GM will build an automotive assembly plant that will employ ap­proximately 6,000 people. GM did not legally bind itself to do this; the letter was a non-binding message. At any time, GM can turn away and build the plant in Kansas or not build it at all.

The people of Poletown do not want to be dispossessed. But they cannot even get top General Motors officials to come to their community to discuss the matter. The new GM chairman, Roger B. Smith, wants to let city officials handle the public relations problems.

Meanwhile, the city is trying to bulldoze its own way through many procedural safeguards involved in this kind of corporate welfare project. In December, the Michigan Environmental Review Board, a state agency, raised serious questions about the project. The board stated that the “environmental impact statement is incomplete, indefensible and misleading. The impacts on the elderly resulting from the forced displacement is the most serious social problem. The lack of any firm commitments for the majority of federal funds necessary for the relocation and site preparation processes is also important.”

Other questions need to be answered. For example, how many jobs could this huge city subsidy generate through alternative investments? How heavily does GM intend to robotize the proposed plant, in effect displacing many of the 6,000 promised jobs? Why cannot GM find a suitable site elsewhere in the metropolitan Detroit area, including its own land, for constructing its factory? Is it because, in that case, the huge taxpayer subsidy would not be available to this supposed model of private enterprise?