JULY 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 7
Poletown: A Neighborhood that Was
Poletown Lives!, a new award-winning first documentary by three Detroit activists - and the first film on Poletown produced by local citizens - tells the story of middle class homeowners who gradually realized that the city of Detroit was selling them down the river to General Motors (GM). But the title is not entirely true because Poletown, or the century-old ethic community as it was known, is dead. A total of 1,500 homes 16 churches, 144 businesses and 2 schools in this Detroit enclave are now a parking lot and surrounding landscape for a General Motors Cadillac plant - a plant whose construction has been delayed because production is down for GM.
The film focuses on the human cost of corporate power to control investment of capital and to transport that capital at will. It also demonstrates the need for some mechanism of corporate/government accountability to the will and needs of citizens who must bear the brunt of their decisions.
Although one GM executive in the film justifies destroying the neighborhood in the name of free-enterprise, what emerges is a case study of "corporate socialism:" state and federal subsidies for corporate expansion through tax rebates (which will reduce GM's city tax by at least 50%, totalling over $300 million in value to General Motors), HUD grants, and money from state block grants. The bulk of the city's expense accrued by one of the world's richest corporations is being absorbed by taxpayers.
In a string of interviews with the cloth-coated middle-aged Poletowners, one citizen after another despairs before the camera: "They're taking from the poor to give to the rich"; "aren't we 'the people'? The people are supposed to make these kinds of decisions;" and "there is no democracy. You have democracy just as long as you don't tangle with the power structure." Poletown, unfortunately, had to learn "political science" the hard way.
Interspersed with scenes of the angry, anguished homeowners are interviews with Mayor Coleman Young, who defends selling the Poletown land because the GM plant will create jobs. But opponents of the plant reveal that the new factory will be highly automated, ultimately eliminating jobs, not creating new ones and that it could have been built close by on available, uninhabited- land.
Other scenes document heated city council meetings, the floor packed with frustrated citizens and the podium controlled largely by the smug, self-righteous council members who all, save one, side with the mayor and GM against the passionately argued opposition from the community.
Not only was the corporate-federal-municipal deck stacked against them, community organizers could not even garner support from the UAW (Doug Fraser "wasn't in" according to one organizer), Congress, or other neighboring community activist groups. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese pulled the rug out from under the struggle by not only selling to the city some revered church buildings, but also by stripping the local priest, Joseph Karaciewicz, a leader of the opposition, of much of his pastoral authority.
Despite the viciousness with which GM and friends rode roughshod over the rights of the Poletown people, their fierce struggle lends some optimism to this otherwise bleak scenario. They picket GM shareholders meetings, occupy a church, and get hauled off in paddy wagons. In one scene culminating Poletown's frustrated defiance, protesters take turns smashing an old GM auto with an iron bar.
Though consumer activist leader Ralph Nader and 6 organizers from the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Accountability Research Group committed themselves to the Poletown struggle, their combined efforts amounted to too little too late. The film shows a wrecking ball, like a pendulum marking the end of a area, swinging into the side of father Karaciewicz' landmark church-the last symbol of resistance to fall in this David and Goliath saga, in which Goliath wins.
The filmmakers conclude by asking several of the Poletown victims what, in hindsight, they might have done differently. But their replies, mainly along the lines of "begin organizing earlier," do little to alleviate the hopelessness Poletown Lives! conveys. If there were strategic moments when the right tactic might have been effective, they were unfortunately left unexplored. Yet despite its pessimistic vein, the strength of the film lies in its articulation of one of the most urgent political challenges we face: how can citizens translate political consciousness into an agenda for counter-strategy against corporate power. Because the Poletown story is not unique, but actually a microcosm of the human cost of unregulated control of capital investment, a closer look at what has worked in other struggles, instead of only what has failed, would no doubt have increased this film's potency as an organizing tool.
Deborah Smith, a freelance film reviewer, is on the staff of the Institute of Policy Studies.
Distributed by Information Factory, 3512 Courville, Detroit, Michigan 48224. (313) 885-4685. 16mm: $900; $185 rental. Video: $400; $100 rental. Discounts available for low-income groups.