GM’s Poletown Plant
Born And Dies
By Robert Strybel
WARSAW/DETROIT –This reporter has received a number of emails from Stateside friends about GM’s decision to close its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant located in what is known as Poletown. And that’s not surprising. For a variety of reasons, the facility has been surrounded by controversy ever since its inception.
To appreciate the full human impact of GM’s decision, a closer look at the general area is in order. The Chene (pronounced Shane) Street area of east side Detroit was the city’s original, historic Polish hub. Starting in the 1870s, it became known for its Cathedral-like churches, parochial schools, businesses and residential side streets lined by modest clapboard houses. I remember driving my grandmother Katarzyna Kupczyńska to the Chene and Ferry (streets) farmer’s market for czernina (duck soup) fixings, good Polish bread and farm-fresh produce. The Chene Street area’s ever expanding Polish population began spilling over into the neighboring locality of Hamtramck after the Dodge Brothers built their car factory there prior to World War I. The facility attracted job-seekers from around the metropolitan area and beyond. By leaps and bounds, the formerly rural Hamtramck township evolved into a true Polish-American urban stronghold.
Hamtramck’s populace worshipped at four Roman Catholic parishes and one Polish National Catholic Church and bade its loved ones farewell through the Skupny Krot and Kaczorowski funeral parlors. Joseph Campau Avenue, the town’s main business street, revealed neon signs announcing Witkowski Men’s Wear, Polish Art Center, Mróz Hats, Cieszkowski Dry Goods and Galonzka Music Center. “Paczki do Polski” (Parcels to Poland) signs were displayed by the Amerpol Travel Agency and a “Polska Apteka” (Polish Pharmacy) placard identified Radziszewski Drugs. The Jaworski, Kowalski and Środek sausage shops and several Polish bakeries could have done without neons, as their tantalizing aromas wafted into the streets.
Fast forward to 1981. Eager to gain jobs for his mainly Afro-American electorate, Detroit’s Mayor Coleman Young jumped at the opportunity when General Motors announced plans to build a $500 million industrial complex on the city’s east side. It would straddle the Detroit-Hamtramck border including the site of the Dodge Main factory abandoned by Chrysler Corporation in 1979. GM was offered generous tax breaks and public funds totaling more than $300 million. The concept of “public domain” was bent and stretched as the Michigan Supreme Court allowed the city to seize and tear down some 1,500 homes, more than 140 businesses and even a hospital. More than 4,200 people, mainly Polish Americans, lost their homes as a result.
Over the past 33 years, the Poletown Plant has turned out some four million vehicles, but that was much below GM’s expectations. And sales of the Chevrolet Volt, with which the corporation had hoped to revitalize the facility, have been disappointing. As part of its North American cost-cutting program on November 26, 2018, GM announced that the plant would be “unallocated” in 2019.
GM’s Detroit-Hamtarmck Assembly plant was born after destroying the homes of thousands of people. It is ending its career by destroying thousands of jobs and leaving behind an industrial wasteland. How, when and whether the abandoned 460-acre inner-city site will be redeveloped is now still anyone’s guess.