Driving Them Down
Father Joseph Karasiewicz, pastor of the beautiful Immaculate Conception Church in eastern Detroit, is wondering how this could happen in America.
An entire neighborhood of 3,500 people—houses, small businesses, schools, a hospital and 16 churches—is under siege. General Motors is demanding that the city of Detroit buy the 365-acre area (with federal funds, of course), demolish this historic Polish-American community and prepare the site for a General Motors Cadillac plant.
Every day his parishioners bring him news of vandalism, arson and inadequate police protection. The community in desperation has appealed to Gov. William Milliken to send in the state police to protect the citizens living in the neighborhood who are fighting to save their homes.
Recently, the city is sending in bulldozers to pick out and destroy various vacant houses, whose titles now are controlled by the city, as a signal to other residents to pack up and move out. In response, on April 14, 1981, the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation sent a telegram to the city charging a violation of the agreement between them which could jeopardize the project’s federal funding.
This official urban terrorism is going on even while a federal court is hearing cases brought by residents to challenge such cruel dispossession and to propose an alternative site for the factory right nearby which would save the neighborhood.
The people of Poletown, as the area has been called, just want to coexist. But GM and its city hall minions respect nothing—neither the federal judge whose authority is being affronted by the bulldozing nor the rights of private property being mauled for the private-property profit of General Motors.
Every week one elderly man comes back to his vacant house and sits on the front porch weeping. He is sad because he
remembers. Settled by Polish immigrants in 1872, Poletown since has become an integrated, lower-middle-income neighborhood. It has a solidarity, a spirit, a tapestry of custom and culture that affluent neighborhoods would envy. In one interview, a Poletown woman said, “We are neighbors, we help and love each other. I’ll bet those General Motors executives don’t have neighbors who love them.”
It takes less than 30 minutes for a bulldozer to knock down each wood-frame house. For what? For surrender to the ghastly arrogance of General Motors and its boss, Roger Smith, who want federal, state and local taxpayers to prepare a lucrative industrial site where these peaceful, hardworking Americans now are living. As one Poletown resident put it: “GM is using my taxes to evict me.”
What makes this battle for Poletown survival important to other Americans is that the misuse of eminent domain in this case can spread quickly. Indeed, General Motors has said that what is happening in Poletown should happen in other cities if cities want to retain factories within their limits.
One Michigan Supreme Court justice, John Fitzgerald, joined by Justice James Ryan, wrote last month that under the court’s majority opinion, “There is virtually no limit to the use of condemnation to aid private businesses…no homeowner’s, merchant’s or manufacturer’s property, however productive or valuable to its owner, is immune from condemnation.” Fitzgerald and Ryan strongly condemned the power of eminent domain to take private property for private use.
To make matters worse, General Motors is not financially obligated to build the plant even if Poletown is destroyed. The city of Detroit has not obtained the full subsidy package from Washington to prepare the site and is unlikely to obtain the sums it wants from the Department of Commerce and two other government agencies. Even the total federal package is, in the view of close observers, inadequate to pay for the site conditions laid down by GM.
In the federal court proceeding under. way, architects and urban planners testified that the GM Cadillac plant could be built on industrial land next to Poletown.
Meanwhile, Father Karasiewicz presides over his parish during the Easter religious ceremonies and prays that they will not be the last in his beloved church. He wonders why 10 churches and several hundred homes in this corner of Poletown have to be demolished just for a GM parking lot. He wonders if anyone around the country cares enough to help.
His address for those who do care is: The Immaculate Conception Church, 3414 Trombly St., Detroit, Mich. 48211.