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Can Poletown Come Back After a General Motors Shutdown?

The 33-year-old GM Detroit-Hamtramck plant was renovated less than five years ago. But now that it’s shutting down, some residents are hoping to right a wrong.
As late as the 1990s, several of the old businesses remained in nearby areas GM had left untouched. But today, the area is little more than a grid of streets laid over a barren landscape that on some blocks feels almost rural.
As late as the 1990s, several of the old businesses remained in nearby areas GM had left untouched. But today, the area is little more than a grid of streets laid over a barren landscape that on some blocks feels almost rural.Library of Congress

General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, one of only two auto plants remaining in the Motor City, takes its official name from its location straddling the border between Detroit and the enclave city of Hamtramck. But to GM’s eternal annoyance, neighbors, the media, and employees have always called the plant “GM Poletown,” after the Detroit neighborhood—1,500 homes, 144 businesses, 16 churches—that was bulldozed to build it.

It’s a legacy that the automaker, which in 1980 persuaded Detroit and Hamtramck to use eminent domain to seize the land on its behalf, might be happy to forget—especially last month, when it announced the plant’s impending shutdown. The news has local officials agonizing over the potential loss of some 1,500 jobs and millions of dollars in property taxes. Meanwhile, Detroiters old enough to remember are asking once again whether the destruction of Poletown was worth it.