Detroit's Poletown neighborhood demolished in 1981 to make way for an automotive plant is being commemorated by Woodward Throwbacks through a one-of-a-kind furniture piece.
Recovering remnants of Poletown
When Kyle and Bo were contacted for an opportunity to salvage items from a Hamtramck home being cleared out prior to going on the market, they didn’t know much about the family’s direct connection to Detroit’s legendary Poletown neighborhood. While looking through the attic, they caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a distressed billboard with yellow and red hand lettering tucked into a dark corner. It was in rough shape, but enough of the bright paint was peeking through for them to be intrigued.
Kyle and Patrick returned a few days later to pick up the dust-covered sign, along with some antique doors, a couple furniture pieces including this Poletown Bar, and a few other relics.
Once back at the shop, the team gently cleared away the dust on the sign using soap and water, careful to not chip or wear away any more of the fading paint. This alone made the bright canary yellow and crimson red lettering and lines pop against the painted black wood surface.
We later learned from the seller that it likely would have been used as a tabletop by the family’s former funeral home, one of over 144 businesses impacted by the demolition of Poletown by the city of Detroit to make way for a General Motors plant in 1981. As a table, the piece was not in great condition, but the hand painted business names were actually in excellent condition to be preserved with a clear top coat.
Mid-restoration while cleaning with soap and water. We don't know the exact age of the piece, but based on the use of seven digit letter and number phone numbers, believe it likely dates between 1947 and 1959.
The sign features eleven local businesses on Chene, McDougall, St. Aubin, Harper, and Dubois streets. Notably, the Chene St. Commercial District was also once the second largest shopping district in the state. If you have any more information to share about any of these businesses, we'd love to talk with you:
- Jos. M. Kulwicki Funeral Home (The homeowner’s former family business.)
- AJ Lipke Hardware Co.
- Garfield Recreation (Pictured below.)
- Frederick J. Grewe Registered Optometrist
- Joseph F. Temrowski Real Estate Exchange
- Chene-Trombly Bar B Q
- Antoni Zaremba Groceries
- Independent Warsaw Bakery
- Cohen’s Jewelry Co.
- Palley Hardware Co.
- Modern Bakery
Photo Credit: Library of Congress | Hand lettering on wooden surfaces was common in advertisement from 1880s to 1950s. Similar styles are shown in the above two images decorating the Poletown shopping district.
If you’re not familiar with the significance of Poletown, pull up a seat.
An immigrant and Black community erased.
Going into the 20th century, Poletown became home to thousands of Polish and German immigrants and, in the years to follow, grew into a diverse community with immigrants from a dozen other countries. By the 1960s, Poletown also became home to many Black Detroit residents, many of whom had been displaced from the nearby Black Bottom neighborhood amidst an urban redevelopment project and freeway construction.
Photo Credit: Craig Kwiatkowski | Craig Kwiatkowski’s Uncle Wally Baczkowski and friends pose in front of Garfield Recreation likely around the 1930s. Garfield Recreation is one of the local businesses included in the recovered sign.
Poletown started with no real borders, but generally existed alongside Hamtramck, between John R, Gratiot, I-94, and Vandyke. A much smaller portion of Poletown, Poletown East, still exists today between I-94 and Eastern Market.
Side by side map comparisons of Poletown 1961, 1981, and 1997.
Woodward Throwbacks stopped by the Hamtramck Historical Museum to meet with Greg Kowalski, Chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission, who grew up in the area and worked for The Citizen Newspaper when they broke the story of Poletown’s decided fate in 1980.
Kowalski describes Poletown’s early days as a welcoming place for Polish and German immigrants to plant roots beginning around the 1850s. The area was made up of churches that served as cultural centers and undeveloped land consisting of farms and swamps. In 1910, that all began to change when the Dodge Brothers came to Hamtramck to build a factory. The call for autoworkers and access to railways led to unprecedented population growth. By 1915, the surrounding region, including Hamtramck, was growing at a rate fifty times greater than the rest of the country.
Photo Credit: Scott Calleja, Creative Commons | An historic marker can still be viewed outside of St. Albertus church, which was at the heart of the neighborhood and is one of the very first Polish churches to be built.
Photo Credit: Bruce Harkness, Hamtramck Historical Museum. | Residences in Poletown August 27, 1981.
Over time, jobs began to decrease due to automation and workers also started moving to suburbs. A struggling auto industry amidst increased foreign competition, rising utility costs, and a recession led to Dodge Main's closure after operating since 1910. The final shutdown in January 1980 left thousands of area residents unemployed. The neighborhood started to deteriorate, but many residents, old and new, were not ready to leave their homes or community.
News of General Motors purchasing the closed plant should have been viewed as a celebrated path forward, and to some, including full support of the United Auto Workers (U.A.W.), it was.
The former Dodge Main buildings, some of which designed by renowned Detroit architect, Albert Kahn between 1910-1914, were no longer a good fit for an industry being retooled for single-story assembly lines. Beyond that, in order to meet GM’s much larger development needs, it required bulldozing not only the smaller mostly vertical Dodge footprint, but also 16 churches, 144 businesses, a hospital, and 1,500 homes.
Dodge Main display at the Hamtramck Historical Museum.
Photo Credit: Santa Fabio | Demolition of the 8-story Dodge Main Factory Building. A wrecking ball on a crane can be seen in the background beside the partially demolished plant. A sign on a chain link fence in the foreground reads "Adamo Wrecking, Industrial, Commercial, Demolition Engineers". Dated March 1981.
One of the original bricks from the Dodge Main Factory displayed at the Hamtramck Historical Museum.
The forced move out of Poletown’s 4,200 residents marked an unprecedented use of eminent domain power being demonstrated by a city, taking private property to give to a for-profit company. Eminent domain had only previously been for critical infrastructure improvements, as had been done 20 years prior in the Black Bottom neighborhood.
Headlines, documentaries, and books often portray the Poletown neighborhood demolition as big industry destroying a community, while also directly targeting low-income Detroit residents. Though many individuals were offered move-out packages, the Detroit Historical Society cites it as “the most number of people ever moved in the shortest amount of time in the United States”. The controversial extension of eminent domain power beyond public projects to those for commercial growth was reversed by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2004.
Photo Credit: Santa Fabio | Boy on bike riding past bulldozer parked next to a home.
Many protested the forced sale of homes, churches, and businesses; some even refused to leave churches as wrecking crews started to level the 465 acres.
GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center moved ahead and officially opened in 1985. GM provided only half of the promised 6,000 jobs followed by a full shutdown of operations in 2018 -- leaving some to wonder, was it worth it?
Perhaps a bright future is still to come for the grounds, in which a protected Jewish cemetery still occupies. In 2020, GM announced the site will be re-tooled and re-opened late 2021 for its first all-electric vehicles plant. The plant, named Factory ZERO, will create over 2,200 new jobs and bring GM’s global promise of an all-electric future of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion closer to a reality for the masses.
Our mission to create furniture that stands the test of time.
Because each of the eleven business listings in the sign had a clean border around its name and details, almost a precursor to today’s Google listings, we thought it would make an amazing credenza with custom-fitted drawers and doors.
Before making any cuts, we applied five coats of commercial-grade polyurethane to help encapsulate the fading and chipping paint. Each drawer and door is push-to-open, as hardware would compete with the restored art. The wood used for the base is from bleachers salvaged from West Bloomfield High School. The light colors provide a nice contrast to the richer paint colors on the facade.
Our hope in carefully restoring the tabletop art by incorporating it into a modern handcrafted credenza is to keep the memory of the Poletown community and small businesses alive for decades to come.
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Woodward Throwbacks is a Detroit-based manufacturer and retailer of furniture and home furnishings. Through woodworking and restoration, the passion project turned small business recycles salvaged materials and antiques to create one-of-a-kind furniture and decor. Their preservation process gives new life to wood and metals through pieces that will live on, while also keeping quality materials out of landfills.