The most bitterly controversial use of eminent domain in Michigan was, without doubt, the famous Poletown case.
Back in 1981, the Michigan Supreme Court allowed the City of Detroit to tear down an entire neighborhood so that General Motors could build a new assembly plant. Most of the area was in Detroit, but a small part was in the ethnically Polish enclave town of Hamtramck. Churches, businesses and homes were bulldozed. I still remember the tearful, defiant residents. To many, including me at the time, it seemed a horrible abuse of state power.
Last year, our state’s highest court revisited the case. And said, whoops, we were wrong! “We overrule Poletown,” the unanimous decision said, “in order to vindicate our constitution,” and protect people’s property rights, said the mostly Republican judges.
Then this year, the U. S. Supreme Court, said taking private land for private use was fine and dandy.
That made me wonder, whatever happened to poor Poletown? I called Greg Kowalski, an editor and historian who has written several books on Hamtramck. What he said startled me. “Without the Poletown decision, Hamtramck might not be here today. The bottom line was because of that, Hamtramck was able to replace the tax revenue it lost with the closing of Dodge Main.”
“As a rule, I strongly support property rights. As a historian I deeply regret the loss of the old Poletown neighborhood.
“But that project was the salvation of Hamtramck, even though that was not its intent,” said Kowalski, who has lived in Hamtramck his entire life. What’s the moral of this story? Simply this: It’s as H. L. Mencken used to say. For every complex problem, including that of eminent domain, there is a solution that is simple, easy . . . and wrong.