The once proud neighborhood was a skeletal wreck. Many residents had already messed up, pockets filled with big gains from the city. Since then, their homes have been destroyed by demolition bullets. Structures still standing were cleaned by looters or gnawed by arson. In the late spring of 1981, the Poletown district of Detroit, a working-class network located to the north of the city, known to be a hub for immigrants and Polish culture, had been reduced to a real battlefield .
The cause of the deterioration was municipal progress. The auto giant, General Motors, wanted Poletown to rise to an area of 200 hectares (265 hectares) for a new plant straddling the line between Detroit and the nearby city of Hamtramck. The mayor of Detroit, Coleman A. Young Jr., was on hand and proposed to use a new law on the estate to seize 1,500 homes and hundreds of businesses. Automobile unions were also at stake. Even the Catholic Archdiocese of the city supported the project by proposing to sell Immaculate Conception Church, a neighborhood parish where Mass was still held in English and Polish.
But the neighbors did not have it. Led by Reverend Joseph Karasiewicz, silent and humble priest of the Immaculate Conception, an informal coalition fought against the plant this spring. Defying his own cardinal, Karasiewicz and his allies worked day and night from metal desks located in the basement of the church, looking for a way to save Poletown.
"It's a mistake to cooperate in any way with this type of law," Karasiewicz told the Washington Post in June 1981. "No one is safe except the man who has the money, for Speak frankly.
The confrontation in Poletown would be a historic battle between the inhabitants and the American industrial power. The controversy landed under national limelight, triggered a legal battle and finally ended with a spectacular SWAT raid on Immaculate Conception to eliminate the resistance.
Although the neighborhood has long since disappeared, the legacy left in Poletown has suddenly been rekindled as a result of the dramatic announcement that GM plans to close five factories and lay off 15,000 workers. in North America. The Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant will cease production, endangering 1,540 workers, the Detroit Free Press reported.
It is interesting to note that the fate of the factory and the neighborhood destroyed at its expense depends on the same question: what is the real cost of the privileged agreements between local governments and the industry in the long term?
"They destroyed houses, churches and local businesses, all to build this factory," Karen Majewski, mayor of Hamtramck, told Reuters on Monday. "Now that the plant is going to close, people will be wondering why this neighborhood had to be sacrificed in the first place."
The proposal for the new plant in the early 1980s was launched as Detroit began slipping from the peak of its post-war manufacturing power. As the Detroit News reported in 2000, in 1980, auto plants were starting to close in the area. The GM plant in the Poletown area was designed to replace a former Cadillac plant. This proposal would maintain 6,000 jobs within the city limits. This would be the first construction of a new GM plant in Motor City for decades.
Poletown was also beginning to experience seismic changes. Originally settled by Polish immigrants in the 1870s, the district exploded in the 1920s and 1930s with Polish workers arriving at the Detroit auto factories. In the 1980s, the original Polish population was grayer and dwindling, and the neighborhood was now home to a mix of Albanians, Slavs, Filipinos and African-Americans, reported the newspaper.
When Detroit offered residents the chance to buy the GM project for the first time, many took the opportunity to move to more beautiful suburbs outside the city. As The Post reported in 1981, the city paid up to $ 12,000 for older housing units ($ 34,289 in today's currency), plus a $ 15,000 relocation fee ( $ 42,861 today). But the reluctant had little choice: under the law on the field, they were forced to sell. In total, the project threatened to uproot more than 4,000 people.
The locals who did not want to go there were uncomfortable.
"We are fighting against the UAW, against GM, against the city government, against the state government and against the church," said a resident of Poletown at the Post. "We are fighting against the power structure in this city. It's a difficult battle. "
The David vs Goliath show attracted a colorful assortment of players. John Saber, a retired photographer who has lived at home for 46 years, has refused the city's $ 15,000 bid for his property, the newspaper reported. Instead, he began building a wall around his house and always patrolled the front yard with a .22 caliber rifle to scare the looters. He finally sued the city for $ 15 million.
"As his own lawyer, he claimed damages, including for destroying a miraculous apparition on his window sill, his" award-winning "cats being eaten by dogs abandoned by departing neighbors and a studio of 39; artist that he would have built on the empty ground next door, "wrote the News.
The clash also appeared on the radar of Ralph Nader, the crusade's lawyer who had competed with automakers like GM for the safety of their products. As James T. Bennett has documented in his book "Corporate Welfare: A Simplistic Capitalism That Enriches the Rich," Nader has sent volunteers and lawyers to Detroit to help neighbors deal with their various legal challenges. He saw in this proposal an example of vampire capitalism that blew American communities.
"Now, even the wealthiest multinational corporations like General Motors are preparing a prospectus for the construction of a plant, and then waiting for it in front of different municipalities and states to determine the extent of the subsidy that taxpayers will be required to provide. 'They want the factory in their area,' Nader wrote at the time.
But Reverend Karasiewicz of Immaculate Conception was really the public face of the fight. A 59-year-old Detroit native and son of a Ford Motor Company janitor, the priest openly expressed his indignation when his devoted herd was kicked out of their hard-earned place.
"It's worse than the Communists in Poland," said the priest, according to Bennett's book. "To come to a very basic definition of theft, it is simply to take the property of others against their will, and it has been taken away from the people against their will."
Karasiewicz's position opposes it to the church authorities. The archdiocese wanted the GM plant to be built. "The general good of the city is achieved by cutting some part," said a church official. "When you try to grow something, you prune."
In the end, the Michigan Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit against the use of a prominent estate filed by residents.
Poletown was actually finished, but Immaculate Conception would be the site of the last booth in the neighborhood.
Religious authorities told Karasiewicz that the final Mass would be held on May 10, 1981. According to Bennett's book, 1,500 worshipers filled the benches. Karasiewicz was ordered to leave the property on June 17. He obeyed but refused to hand over the church records, The Post reported.
After the priest's release, a number of people remained inside the Immaculate Conception, occupying the final touchstone of Poletown as the ultimate act of defiance. The sit-in lasted 29 days.
Then, on the morning of July 14, at dawn, the SWAT teams gathered in front of the church while the Detroit police closed the empty residential streets nearby. Informed by sympathetic officers of the raid, protesters inside locked the doors and started ringing the church bells. The police hung the door on a tow truck to break the blockade. Sixty officers stormed the church. According to Bennett, twenty protesters were expelled, including several elderly women murmuring the Hail Mary.
Immaculate Conception was destroyed soon after and construction of the GM plant began. Sader, the firearms officer, was forcibly evicted in March 1982. The first car in the facility – a Cadillac Eldorado – left the assembly line at 12:05 pm February 4, 1985. In the decades that followed, the US auto industry had its ups and downs, a long cumulative slide that continued with Monday's bleak announcement.
Karasiewicz ended up as a sad coda for the Poletown fight. Five months after the destruction of his church, the priest fell dead from a heart attack.