JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBERS 1 AND 2
B O O K R E V I E W
Poletown: Community Destroyed
Poletown: Community Betrayed tells the story of how one lower middle-class ethnic neighborhood of 4,200 in Detroit was physically destroyed in the name of economic progress. The tale is emblematic of the 1980s: Reagan's decade of urban neglect and corporate greed.
The story is told boldly by an activist, not an academic. Jeanie Wylie, editor of the diocesan newspaper for the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, covered the political struggle to save the neighborhood known as Poletown, and also co-produced an award- winning documentary, "Poletown Lives," shown on many PBS stations. The book can be read as a story of good vs. evil--of local heroes fighting corporate and city hall villains--but it is also a tragic example of the decline of U.S. urban communities.
Although she was, through her advocacy journalism, an active participant in the effort to save Poletown from destruction, Wylie's book is not hortatory; rather, it is a compelling narrative, well-researched, fast-paced and clearly written. It is only Wylie's concluding analysis of the "lessons" of Poletown that lacks depth and sophistication.
What happened in Poletown?
The facts are straightforward and not in great dispute. The world's largest automobile maker and Detroit's most powerful economic actor, General Motors, wanted to build a new plant and chose a 465 acre neighborhood which included hundreds of homes, 12 churches, 16 schools, 143 small businesses and a hospital as a location for the expansion. In order to obtain the real estate, GM needed the city government to invoke the legal power of eminent domain, a doctrine which allows governmental bodies to take, for a "fair" price, private property for a "public purpose," traditionally construed to mean such uses as building schools and constructing highways.
In this case, however, the purported public purpose was to be jobs at the GM plant for Detroit residents. Mayor Coleman Young, a former socialist and civil rights activist, fully supported condemning the neighborhood by using the state's new "quick take" law, passed by the state legislature at the request of the city and GM. The "quick take" law permitted the state to take title to private property at once, without having to wait for the judicial resolution of legal challenges. Young organized a package of over $350 million in local, state and federal subsidies as an enticement for GM to locate the new plant within city limits. Negotiations between city hall and GM were initially concealed. When the plans were finally revealed to the public, community opposition arose, stirred in part by Ralph Nader, who sent a support team into the community to help organize resistance to the project. Mayor Young and his staff vilified opponents of the plant, including a local parish priest, Father Joseph Karasiewicz, members of Nader's team and city councilman Ken Cockrel, who tried to promote an alternative site for the plant that would have saved most of the neighborhood from bulldozing.
The cavalier attitude expressed by Mayor Young and by GM President Roger Smith about the destruction of such community institutions as churches was reminiscent of Stalin's wanton razing of Russian churches and the attitude of U.S. policymakers towards Vietnamese villages. ("We had to destroy it, in order to save it.")
Other powerful institutions were complicit in the community's destruction. The United Auto Workers, the hierarchy of the Catholic church and the local media supported, or refused to actively oppose, the city and GM's actions.
Lacking support from any powerful interest group, Poletown's inhabitants looked to the courts for protection. A local progressive attorney, Ron Reosti, challenged the city's proposed action, but the state Supreme Court upheld the "quick take" law.
The integrated population of Poles and blacks that made up Poletown refused to acquiesce in a decision to bulldoze the neighborhood in which they had deep roots, however. They attended public meetings, organized rallies and protests and became experienced at courting the national media.
When their efforts to preserve the community failed, the residents attempted to at least save Father Karasiewicz's Immaculate Conception Church, a community centerpiece. When their legal initiatives failed there too, dozens of residents, including many elderly women, occupied the church. They were eventually arrested, and the church, like the rest of Poletown, was razed.
Wylie subtitles her book "Community Betrayed" and writes in her preface that the "book shares the experience of a community shattered by a decision made by a corporation, a city, a union, a church and an unquestioning public." She talks about the "brutal mechanics of betrayal ... a betrayal that is being acted out in cities around the nation, where poor neighborhoods are routinely sacrificed for commercial development projects." In Wylie's view, however, the "betrayers" include virtually everybody except for a few individuals like Ralph Nader, Father Karasiewicz, Ken Cockrel and Ron Reosti. Is it really betrayal at work or simply the logic of three decades of urban policy being carried out in yet another community?
What are the lessons of Poletown?
One can draw the conclusion from Wylie's study that the benefits of large commercial projects such as the GM plant are routinely exaggerated by their private promoters and public backers, and the costs to the city government and to the community are grossly underestimated. In the case of the Poletown plant, GM "promised" it would provide 6,000 full-time pbs and the city estimated that another 24,000 spinoff jobs would be created. In fact, by 1989, there were only 3,400 jobs at the plant, and GM continued to make cutbacks at its other plants in the Detroit region.
City officials, as well as local activists, need to be more skeptical of claims made for private developments and more willing to analyze the likely outcomes in terms of costs and benefits. However, to do this requires not only technical abilities but a political willingness. One of the political failures of the Democratic Party in the post World War II era has been its inability to develop an urban policy and an urban politics that meshes community with economic growth.
Wylie's book tells the story of only one of many viable lower-class, urban neighborhoods destroyed in the past three decades by city governments' use of eminent domain and by the "logic" of economic growth and economic progress. This has been a commonplace occurrence--it is policy, not betrayal. Detroit's problems are not simply that it has an autocratic mayor and that a powerful corporation dominates local politics. The roots lie much deeper in the U.S. political and economic soil. Detroit had been losing population and jobs for decades due to a combination of economic trends and national policies that promote suburban growth at the expense of central city residents. The Poletown plant was, in fact, a desperate and largely unsuccessful attempt by the city to reverse these trends. In most central cities, plant expansion or the construction of a new manufacturing plant is not even an issue; the corporations are building their new plants in the suburbs, in rural, "union-free" locales in the South and in low-wage, Third World countries.
Urban America and its residents need a federal government that cares enough to offer new economic development, housing, education, transportation and health policies and to fund them adequately. Perhaps, with the Cold War finally coming to an end, there will be resources available in the federal budget for new urban initiatives. Winning the allocation of these resources, however, will require both grassroots political movements and national political leaders who can make the case for revitalizing the central cities.
This book shows us the consequences of political failure, not simply betrayal. Jeanie Wylie makes the case in human terms of who loses when we have no national commitment to our cities. Without a new national resolve, other Poletowns in other cities will continue to be decimated by de-industrialization, drugs, arson and abandonment; a bulldozer won't even be necessary. By bringing alive the people who still reside in central city neighborhoods, Wylie's book can play a part in inspiring activists and policymakers to face up to U.S. urban reality and to do what is necessary to promote economic growth that revitalizes communities, not destroys them.
Derek Shearer is Director of Public Policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He has advised Democratic Presidential candidates on urban policy matters.