It’s been more than 30 years since the eyes of the nation – and even the world – turned to Detroit and Hamtramck as a whole neighborhood was demolished to make way for an auto factory.
The place was known as Poletown, and for more than a century it formed the core of an ethnic neighborhood that stretched from Gratiot in Detroit to the southern border of Hamtramck. Primarily Polish, it changed through the decades as it aged and became more diverse.
But no one anticipated what was to come. In 1980 General Motors proposed building a huge manufacturing plant on 465 acres located just north of the East I-94 Freeway. This entailed the acquisition by the City of Detroit of more than 1,500 Poletown houses, churches and businesses, which were to be demolished.
The uproar the proposal generated reverberated around the world, as journalists from as far as England and Germany came here to see what was happening.
And no one had a better view than photographer Bruce Harkness. At the time, he was a master of fine arts candidate in the Art Department of Wayne State University. During 1980-81 Harkness visited the area more than 90 times and took some 550 photos of the architecture, street scenes, residents and panoramic views of the area.
The result was an incisive photo essay of a neighborhood undergoing a wrenching transformation.
To this day, the photos remain powerful. See for yourself at the “Poletown 1981” exhibit of 50 photos by Harkness that will be on display July 23 through August 30 at the Hamtramck Historical Museum, 9525 Jos. Campau.
Harkness takes an intimate look at this once thriving ethnic neighborhood through the penetrating lens of his camera. It’s revealing and just as powerful today as it was 30 years ago as that portion of the city literally disappeared around him.
In addition, Harkness will present a program on his photos at the monthly Hungry for History program sponsored by the museum on Thursday, Aug. 27. A sitdown dinner is offered for $12 ($5 is tax deductible) at 5:30 p.m. The program is at 7 p.m. and is free. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for dinner; 6:45 p.m. for the program.
For dinner reservations and more information, call (313) 893-5027 or (313) 574-9758 and visit the museum website at www.hamtramckhistory.org.