The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit Rich Feldman

This week’s LFC

The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit

A review by Rich Feldman

December 10-17 2011

Rich Feldman, an auto worker and union activist at the Ford truck plant for 30 years, is a member of the BCNCL board (Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership).

In this mind-opening book University of Michigan Architecture Professor Andrew Herscher shows us in words and photos how Detroit’s “massive devaluation of real estate has made space available for other value systems unreal from the perspective of the market economy.”

For more than 5 years I have been telling this story in the tours I give local residents and visitors from across the country and the world. Local residents have included members of the Riverfront Eastside Congregational Initiative (RECI). Visitors have been mainly news and film makers, including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, and social activists attending the annual Bioneers and Allied Media Conferences.

My tour is about time, history, and our challenge to leave old ideas behind. It is my way to show that we have moved from the first half of the 20th century which was committed to “growing our Economy” to the first decades of the 21st Century as we embark on the journey to “Grow our Souls.”

I begin my tour with a visit to the Packard Motor Plant and the GM Hamtramck Assembly Plant (Poletown).


The Packard Motor Plant, designed by Albert Kahn, began production in 1906 and was the first building in this country to use reinforced concrete. This complex is the size of seven Cobo Halls, 47 buildings on 38 acres. In peacetime it produced luxury automobiles. During WWII it produced Rolls Royce Fighter Plane Engines.

During the 1943 race riots white Packard workers went on strike to protest working with African Americans. When production ended in 1956, it had expanded to 74 buildings covering 80 acres,

Today it is difficult to imagine that these ruins once represented the American Dream, a vision of hope, progress and success to generations of Americans who came to the big city from the small towns and farms of the south and upstate.

The Packard Plant embodied the conviction that industrial jobs and automobiles were the solution. It was the era when unions were born. When we close our eyes , we can imagine 10,000-15,000 workers walking to and from the plant.

At the time more than 85,000 people worked at the Ford Rouge Plan alone. Today, altogether , there are fewer than 100,000 GM, Ford and Chrysler autoworkers in the UAW.

Today these remains, these ruins represent the end of the old American Dream . They also remind us of the cost to our humanity of that dream. We sold our souls for the chance to make the dollar, to become cogs in a machine.

From the graffiti to the abandoned boats, to the doorless and windowless façades of cement and brick, where all the copper and steel has been removed by scavengers, the Packard Plant is a reminder of the pain, obsolescence and soullessness of 20th century production and its dream of consumption.

I then drive less than a mile to the current home of the GM Volt and the electric car at the Hamtramck Assembly Plant (Poletown) which was built in 1980. In the parking lot we can see the solar panels and the 21st century automobile.

I pull out a copy of Poletown: Community Betrayed by Jeanie Wylie and tell the story of this space and this plant.

This was once an African American and Polish neighborhood covering 465 acres with 4200 residents, 1500 homes, 12 churches, 16 schools, 143 small business and a hospital. In the 1940s my wife’s mother drove here from Flint to buy her wedding dress.

In those days people believed “a job was the answer” to all our problems. It was an idea deeply rooted in the founding of our nation when Europeans believed that economic/ technological advancement was the road to progress and success . So, in the name of progress. we massacred Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, stole land from Mexico and destroyed the Earth.

Old ideas die slowly.

Following the urban rebellions of the 1960s and the historic election of African American Mayor Coleman Young, people continued to believe that the old industrial model based upon mass production was going to save Detroit. Young, a friend of labor and of radicals, believed in mass production, the power of unions, and the economic American Dream.

So, despite the opposition of residents, he supported the demolition of the community to build the Poletown plant because he thought that a new GM plant would save Detroit. He joined with the UAW and GM to support more than 350 million in tax abatements and used eminent domain (i.e. the public removal of human beings from their homes, businesses , community for corporate profit and economic growth). The Poletown plant represented the conviction that jobs are more important, more real, than community.


Today, in Andrew Herscher’s Unreal Estate Guide, we see new unrealities emerging, challenging us to re-imagine our city, to see critical connections, place- based organizations and commitment to community with no market value, as more real and valuable than well-paying jobs.

This is our city, this is our history. It can help us create our future.