A neighborhood torn down - Eminent domain brought down Detroit's Poletown enclave in 1981 to make way for a GM plant, but the justification is under fire elsewhere.
February 20, 2005
By Gail Gibson, Baltimore Sun National Staff.
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Detroit, Michigan - It has been almost a generation since the Poletown neighborhood here was demolished to make room for a General Motors Cadillac plant, and in the sprawling factory's vast parking lots and neatly landscaped campus there are no signs of the 1,300 houses, 140 businesses and six churches that were razed or the pitched battle to save one of the city's oldest ethnic enclaves.
The memory of Detroit's Poletown has cropped up instead in communities across the country over the past 20 years, as dozens of municipalities and courts in at least 10 states have relied on a landmark ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court in that fight to justify using the powers of eminent domain for economic revitalization.
But as the U.S. Supreme Court considers this week a case from New London, Connecticut, where property owners are challenging the taking of their homes for private development, the history of the high-profile Poletown case has been rewritten.
In a rare reversal of precedent, the Michigan court overturned last summer its two-decade-old ruling that allowed government to seize land for private development.
unanimous court wrote: "We must overrule Poletown in order to
vindicate our Constitution, protect the people's property rights,
and preserve the legitimacy of the judicial branch as the expositor
-- not creator -- of fundamental law."
than 30 years ago is often pointed to as a widely successful example
of that process, and the city has filed a friend of the court brief
supporting local officials in the New London case before the Supreme
A 2003 study by the Institute for Justice found that from 1998 through 2002, state and local governments seized or threatened to take more than 10,000 homes and small businesses for private development projects, many with dubious public benefit.
The study mentioned one instance in West Palm Beach County, Florida, where a family's home was condemned so the manager of a planned golf course could live in it.
In another case from Lakewood, Ohio, officials designated a neighborhood of colonial homes as "blighted" -- one step to begin condemnation proceedings -- because the homes had small yards and lacked two-car garages. New plans for the neighborhood called for upscale condominiums and retail shops.
The study singled out Maryland, along with California, Kansas, Michigan and Ohio, as leading other states in the number of private-use condemnations filed in public records.
Among cities, Detroit took first place.
Under then-Mayor Coleman Young, the city persuaded GM in 1980 to build a $500 million Cadillac plant in Detroit by promising to seize the land needed for the roughly 465-acre operation. The site included a shuttered Dodge plant and a swath of one of the city's oldest ethnic neighborhoods, Poletown.
In the late 1970s, Thomas J. Olechowski, now 61, led the Poletown Neighborhood Council, which was trying to rebuild the declining neighborhood's commercial corridor and attract tourists to the area, much like Detroit's well-known Greektown neighborhood. Plans for the Cadillac plant cut that short.
"They lost a really viable community," Olechowski said last week as he drove through the area, the city blocks near the plant pocked by vacant houses and empty lots. "It was an old, adapted neighborhood, in the sense that many of the people didn't live there because they were trapped there -- they could have moved if they wanted to -- but there was a real sense of community there."
Many in that community tried to fight back against the widespread condemnation needed for the GM plant, filing lawsuits and staging protests.
The battle drew national attention when activist Ralph Nader joined the cause and when parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church staged a 29-day sit-in to try to save their church.
"It was their lifetime crucible for a lot of these people," said Alan Ackerman, a lawyer in suburban Detroit who represented small businesses in the Poletown condemnation process and represented the plaintiffs in the case in which the Michigan Supreme Court overturned its Poletown decision.
Parts of the Poletown neighborhood still exist, but its once-healthy commercial street is a stretch of vacant and burned-out buildings, and the blocks of tidy frame houses that marked the area twenty-four years ago are gone.
Leon Pastalan, a University of Michigan researcher who studied the relocated families in the first few years after the Poletown condemnations, said that most of the displaced homeowners settled into nicer, suburban homes, although they missed the social aspects of their old neighborhood.
"It really is a dilemma," Pastalan said. "People were employed in the factory -- and they still are -- and people were generally satisfied with the relocation. But I always thought it was a real shame."
Norman C. Ankers was a young attorney, fresh out of law school, when he worked for the city of Detroit on the Poletown case. Now a partner with the law firm of Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn in Detroit, Ankers said that many retellings of the Poletown story ignore a basic point -- the neighborhood was in bad shape by the late 1970s, and jobs brought by the Cadillac plant were sorely needed.
"The Poletown case arose in a very interesting context -- it arose in the context of an economy that was really hurting here in Detroit," Ankers said last week. "I'm here to tell you ... that was a blighted area, and most of the people that had made that a healthy, vibrant community had long since left."
Many of the relocated homeowners from Poletown were elderly in 1981, and most were no longer living when the news came that the decision in their case was overturned, said Ackerman.
The new decision came in a case involving efforts by neighboring Wayne County to promote economic development by building a business park near the Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport.
After county officials had assembled all but 40 acres of a 1,300-acre site needed for the project, they sued in 2001 to take the remaining parcels under eminent domain and transfer the properties to private developers.
In its ruling last July, the Michigan Supreme Court sided firmly with the property owners. The court said that it rejected the idea that "a private entity's pursuit of profit was a 'public use' for constitutional takings purposes simply because one entity's profit maximization contributed to the health of the general economy."
"My sense of what's going to happen here is the Supreme Court may find it pretty repulsive what's going on, and they may think the system is missing a few pistons, but their job isn't to determine fairness -- their job is to determine constitutionality," said Ackerman, who represented businesses and homeowners in the Wayne County case.
Olechowski, the former neighborhood council president who still lives nearby in a green stucco bungalow he bought 10 years before the Poletown fight began, said he wonders whether the court's ruling could open the door to a lawsuit over damages suffered by the neighborhood in the past two decades.
That is doubtful, he figures. But the recent ruling, he said, "at least is some measure of comfort. At least it says clearly that the decision 20 years ago was one of raw, naked power and not a law of principle."
Copyright 2005, The Baltimore Sun.