A Documentary Looks Back at GM’s History in Detroit’s Poletown

In 1981, Detroit lawyer and activist George Corsetti decided he would capture the demise of Poletown on video, directing the documentary film, Poletown Lives!

“They were up against the giants,” Corsetti told One Detroit last week, “General Motors, the city of Detroit, the Archdiocese, the UAW, probably Wall Street too and my sense was that they weren’t going to do too well.”

Poletown Lives! captured efforts by some Detroit east side residents to keep their homes as General Motors and the City of Detroit used eminent domain to take their property and build what would become the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant.

That plant made news late last month with the announcement it might close as the automaker restructures its operations.

Thirty-seven years ago Corsetti followed residents as they searched for ways to stop their removal and displacement. Thousands were displaced along with more than one hundred businesses, several churches and a hospital.

Poletown Lives! shows the wrecking ball leveling the Immaculate Conception Church, the centerpiece of Poletown’s Polish Catholic community.

“These people responsible for this are worse than the communists in Poland,” Father Joseph Karasiewicz said in the film. Someone asked him, “Including the Archdiocese, Father?”

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Karasiewicz said, “because it’s a criminal act. You go down to a very basic definition of stealing, that’s simply taking somebody else’s property against their will, that’s all it is.”

“It was clearly over when the church went down.” Corsetti recalled.

Karasiewicz would die of a heart attack six months after his church was leveled.

This post originally appeared on DetroitPBS.org. This week, One Detroit tells the Poletown story through filmmaker George Corsetti’s eyes, airing Thursday at 7:30pm on Detroit Public Television.

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