The narrow, one-way streets of Poletown, the century-old Polish immigrant community at the edge of the Edsel Ford Expressway, now resemble a war zone. For block after block the two-story brick houses and corner stores, once neat and well kept, stand abandoned and gutted. And as always in war zones, the scavengers arrive daily to prowl in the remains, prying doors and aluminum siding off the vacant homes.
For the remaining Poletowners, the war zone analogy is painfully appropriate. This dwindling handful of immigrants and second-generation Poles has hunkered down in a kind of siege mentality, waiting for the inevitable final assault in their losing battle against General Motors Corp.
The basement of Immaculate Conception Church on Trombly Street resembles a barracks. The walls are plastered with newspaper clippings and photographs of the "enemy" -- GM board chairman Roger B. Smith. From gray metal desks arranged into makeshift offices, members of the Poletown Neighborhood Council and Ralph Nader's Poletown Support Team coordinate their strategy for a last ditch offensive, led by the Rev. Joseph Karasiewicz. Karasiewicz, the frail, bespectacled pastor of Immaculate Conception, considers himself anything but a fighter. Yet he is staying in his church -- sold out from under him by the archdiocese -- leading a dwindling band of parishioners; fighting, he says, against "an evil."
But with almost all the legal appeals exhausted, most of the few remaining Poletowners have put their last hope in a miracle. "If there were most people praying, I think it would help," said Mary Karteczka.
Only God, it appears, can stop General Motors now. GM, a staple in Detroit's economic diet, is offering this blighted metropolis a new Cadillac assembly plant in the heart of the depressed inner city. The 465-acre plant, to replace the aging downtown Cadillac facility, would preserve 6,000 auto jobs in Detroit when the city is reeling from plant closings.
The Poletown battle raises questions with implications far beyond the borders of this small ethnic community. The outcome could set wide-ranging legal and ethical precedents regarding the right of governments, in their quest for economic development, to confiscate private property for a private corporation.
The Poletown case also illuminates fundamental ethnic changes in many older industrial cities, as once-dominant European and predominantly Catholic immigrants lose power to the newer urban immigrants, blacks.
When the auto maker unveiled the plant project in last June 1980, city officials and boosters welcomed the proposal as Detroit's saving grace. Mayor Coleman A. Young Jr. immediately invoked the city's newly passed eminent-domain law -- otherwise known as the quick-take act -- to allow the city to make offers and confiscate the estimated 1,500 homes in the plant area. The United Auto Workers supported the project. The city council voted to approve it. And the archdiocese of Detroit quickly sold its two church properties in the area to the city.
"We're fighting the UAW, we're fighting GM, we're fighting the city government, we're fighting the state government, and we're fighting the church," said Poletowner Walter Jakubowski, who so far has refused to move from his home on Kanter Street. "We're fighting the power structure in this city. It's an uphill battle."
In the face of all those project supporters, most of the Poletowners moved out quickly. Many of them were anxious to leave anyway, and others simply took advantage of the city's generous cash offers -- as high as $12,000 for some of the old houses, plus a $15,000 relocation fee for those eligible. But a handful of Poletowners have stayed on.
"We're the diehards," said Kris Biernacki. "It's the principle of the thing. I don't like to be told what to do."
For Barbara Sokol, one of the three or four remaining residents in the 3300 block of Trombly, there is no principle to be defended by defiance. She just doesn't have anywhere to go.
"I've been looking and looking, and it's so hard to find something at a reasonable price," she said. The city has offered $10,000 for her six-room house, and she could qualify for added relocation assistance. But that, she said, isn't enough. "For new houses now, you need at least 35,000."
The stubbornness of the remaining Poletowners, who have been given until midsummer before the wrecking ball comes, is symbolized by Karasiewicz, whose church was sold by the former head of the Detroit archdiocese, Cardinal John Dearden, who stepped down two weeks ago.
Karasiewicz is hardly the image of the renegade priest who would stand up in open rebellion against his superior. But when Deaerden sold Immaculate Conception, closed the parish and ordered Karasiewicz to turn over the church records -- the last offical act when a parish is closed -- the priest refused, thus causing the current standoff and bringing media attention to the plisht of Poletown.
"I'm not a fighter," Karasiewicz said almost apologetically. "But it's a basic thing. It's wrong to cooperate with this type of law in any sort of way. We're fighting the quick-take law behind it all.This is an evil law and we have to fight it. This is the first time it was ever applied on this scale."
Poletowners who want to stay, he said, are being forced out "by hook and by crook -- a crooked law, crooked judges, a crooked city, and to a certain extent, a crooked cardinal. You can't establish some kind of crooked law and then say you did it legally. This has national implications and national scope. It sets a bad precedent. No one is safe except the man who has the money, to put it bluntly."
Immaculate Conception is an old, ornate, dome-ceilinged, inner-city church that could once pack hundreds into its pews for masses in English and Polish. But with declining church enrollment and the move of many parishioners out to suburbia, Immaculate Conception is now lucky to get 50 persons on a pleasant Sunday morning.
In a dramatic series of last-minute reversals recently General Motors offered to move the church to a new location, giving Poletown parishioners a major victory. But just a few hours later, Cardinal Dearden, in his last official act as head of the Detroit archdiocese, vetoed the move, saying dwindling membership made it uneconomical to keep the church open.
Karasiewicz countered, "We're able to support ourselves. We've never been subsidized in 62 years." He said his church has a $155,000 surplus on hand.
Karasiewicz and the Poletowners have put their last slim hope on Detroit's new archbishiop, the Rev. Edmund C. Szoka. Szoka initially said he would uphold Dearden's decision to close the church, but he has been meeting regularly with Karasiewicz, who hopes to change the mind of a fellow Pole.
Parishioner Mary Karteczka said of Szoka, "this is Polish, and he is Polish. He understands these people."
Karasiewicz said that if he fails with Szoka, he will take his case all the way to the Vatican, where he could get the ear of another Pole, Pope John Paul II.
The church has become the center of attention here, but the Poletown battle is being waged on several fronts and for a variety of causes.
At the center of the debate is the eminent domain law, which was upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court in March. Consumer advocate Nader, who sent his workers into Poletown, argues that the government has no right to take away private property to turn over to a private corporation -- in this case, General Motors.
The larger question, being repeated in several cities, is how far local governments should go in trying to lure business back into the inner cities. More than a few big-city mayors see business investment as the key to reversing the trend of urban deterioration. They have used incentives like tax breaks, and some local lawmakers -- in the District of Columbia, for example -- are toying with economic enterprise zones, where such business restrictions as zoning laws could be lifted in a designated area.
There is also a largely unspoken racial aspect in the Poletown plight -- a white, ethnic minority feeling trampled by the post-1967 black majority government here. In the 1950s and '60s, many blacks in neighborhoods like Black Bottom on the near east side were displaced to make way for a massive freeway infrastucture, and few whites rallied to their support. "It's regrettable that the black people who once went through this themselves voted for the [General Motors] project," said holdout Jakubowski.
But most remaining Poletowners see their fight in simple terms. They are being told to leave their homes, and they just don't want to go.
"I think the whole thing stinks," said diehard Biernacki. "I just don't believe it happened. It's breathtaking. We didn't have a voice in it -- not a voice. We didn't want to move. We were literally forced to move out. We were just told to go."
William Fabirkiewicz, who recently moved, returned to visit his old neighborhood. He said, "I went so far, and then when I saw it was a losing battle, I backed off. What could I do? We were going to fix these homes up. This is where we lived and this is where we were going to die. Unfortunately, Mayor Young and General Motors had different ideas."
Fabirkiewicz added: "All money talks. Everybody knows that. Money is power."