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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

March 10, 2010


NY TIMES - Even though more than 50 years have passed since Sallie Sanders was a confused little girl wondering why her family was kicked out of their house for being on the wrong side of the color line here, the pain seems fresh.

"Just abruptly, we had to end up staying with relatives and friends," said Ms. Sanders, a retired state worker who is black and who, at age 60, still has trouble recounting the ordeal without breaking into tears. "It was kind of devastating. My parents tried to protect us quite a bit, but I knew something was wrong."

And something was. In 1971, a federal judge found that this old manufacturing town, five miles from downtown Detroit, had purposefully used urban renewal projects throughout the 1950s and '60s to obliterate black areas from its two square miles, forcing the displacement of hundreds of families.

Although the judge, Damon J. Keith, ordered a remedy, and Hamtramck agreed to build new housing, it did not. For decades.

Now, though, in a time of deep recession and a housing slump in one of the most economically depressed states in the country, Hamtramck is at last fulfilling its legal - and what officials now call moral - obligation to provide affordable housing to the mostly poor families who were dislodged generations ago. And if the plaintiffs in the original class-action lawsuit are no longer living, as in Ms. Sanders's case, children and grandchildren are eligible.

About 100 houses have been completed for rent or sale, and another 100 are on the way, paid for by a mix of local and state money.

In the last five years, the town, population 23,000, began building the new houses, but the project stalled because of the recession. It is only now approaching the final stages of construction, thanks to a recent increase in federal stimulus money. The homes cost $140,000 to $160,000, and subsidies can drive the price down to $100,000; most rentals are in the $400-a-month range, after government assistance.

But beyond the building, Hamtramck has changed in another way, too. It is now Michigan's most international and diverse city, having evolved from a town that was 90 percent Polish just 40 years ago. . .

The home building is also what experts call a bittersweet finale to one of the longest-running housing discrimination suits to weave its way through court, having begun in the civil rights era. Beyond its age, the case is also distinctive in that it happened at all. While Hamtramck may be an extreme example, experts said housing discrimination against blacks in the mid-1900s was common, but class-action lawsuits were rare because of their expense and complexity.

Some contend that urban renewal projects were routinely used to demolish black areas, and that most of the housing was never replaced.

Michael Barnhart, an expert on fair-housing law and the lead lawyer in the Hamtramck case, agreed. "This kind of discrimination happened all over the country," Mr. Barnhart said, citing Chicago, Detroit and other cities.

I was sent [by my editor] to interview a woman who was refusing to move out of her house in the Southwest urban renewal area. Hundreds of acres had been leveled around her [in the 1950s] and still she clung on like a survivor of the Dresden carpet bombing.

The project, the largest in the nation, had begun in April 1954 and five years later some 550 acres had been cleared. Only 300 families remained to be relocated. More than 20,000 people and 800 businesses had been kicked out to make way for the plan. Some 80% of the latter never went back into operation.

The design was hailed by planners and liberals; a 1955 report for the District was titled No Slums in Ten Years. Not everyone was so sanguine, however. In a 1959 report of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rt. Rev. Msg. John O'Grady said, "It is sad. It is not urban renewal; it is a means of making a few people rich. Instead of improving housing conditions, it is shifting people around from one slum to another."

The Supreme Court disagreed. In 1954 it had upheld the underlying law and in a decision written by none other than William O. Douglas, declared:

"It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled . . . The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole."


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