DETROIT — DETROIT - 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, Conn., 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. A 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."
The decision has no binding effect outside Michigan, and it cannot undo the changes to Poletown. But it was a major victory for property rights advocates nationwide who argue that local governments increasingly have abused their eminent domain powers by seizing small businesses and homes in the name of economic development, jobs and tax dollars.
"Certainly, it tells the U.S. Supreme Court that other courts are worried about what's going on," said Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Washington-based Institute for Justice, which is representing the homeowners in New London. "It shows that state courts have begun to realize that things have gotten completely out of hand."
The U.S. and most state constitutions allow government to condemn property for "public use" as long as the landowner is compensated. Historically, eminent domain was used primarily for obvious public projects that required large, connected tracts - building highways and railroads, or schools and parks.
But eminent domain has also been employed for major economic development projects in which the seized land is turned over to private developers to enhance local tax bases and economies. The redevelopment of Baltimore's Inner Harbor more 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 Court.
"If cities are prohibited from using the power of eminent domain to stimulate economic development, then cities will not develop," City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler III wrote in the brief filed last month. "And if cities do not develop, if they do not adapt to changing times and changing economic circumstances, city residents suffer."
Attorney Daniel J. Krisch, who represents New London in the case, said eminent domain is one way for Northeastern cities to compete for new industry that would otherwise be likely to locate in more land-rich states in the South or West.
"If you're in a city, what are you going to do?" Krisch said.
Critics counter that municipalities have overstepped their eminent domain powers and subverted the process into a huge corporate giveaway. 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, Fla., 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.
Visibility and conflict
Since the 1960s, poverty-troubled Detroit has struggled to rebuild its economy and has frequently turned to eminent domain as a redevelopment tool, most recently for a refurbished downtown theater and new baseball and football stadiums. But no project has come with as much visibility and conflict as in the case of Poletown.
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, 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.
Emotions ran high
"The emotions for the residents ran pretty high," Ackerman recounted. "For a lot of these first-generation immigrants, their sense of [American] property rights just went right out the window."
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 20 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."
To the high court
Attorneys on both sides are unsure that the reversal of the Poletown case will have broader implications or influence the U.S. Supreme Court. One key issue before the high court is whether questions about the proper use of eminent domain should be decided by state legislatures, and not by the courts.
"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."
About eminent domain
Eminent domain is the right granted to government under the Constitution's Fifth Amendment to take private property for a "public use" and with compensation to the owner.
In Baltimore: The city used its eminent domain powers broadly to redevelop the Inner Harbor and in the continuing west-side revitalization efforts.
At the Supreme Court: In New London, Conn., seven property owners are challenging that city's efforts to seize their homes for a development project that includes a waterfront hotel and conference center, and office buildings.
In Michigan: The state supreme court in 1981 allowed the demolition of Detroit's Poletown neighborhood to pave the way for a new General Motors plant. The same court overturned that often-cited decision last year.