by Rhodri C. Williams
Yesterday’s New York Times reports on a case of restitution in response to a discriminatory pattern of wrongful evictions carried out beginning in the 1950s and 60s. Lake Bogoria, Kenya? Northern Iraq? Nope. Hamtramck (“pronounced ham-TRAM-eck”), Michigan, just outside Detroit.
By the Times’ account, Hamtramck is a rather independent little place that refused incorporation with the metropolis that now fully surrounds it. It is also a former Polish enclave, which now, despite having become one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the Detroit area, is still busy counting down to this year’s “Paczki Day”, featuring “polka music from Misty Blues, traditional Polish dancers, the Paczki Toss, the “Paczki Express” Historic Bus Tour, a visit from the Detroit Tigers’ mascot, Paws, and much more.”
Finally, it is also one of many American cities that used urban renewal and highway construction as a means of obliterating black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s, atomizing communities, fueling the cynical practice of racial “block-busting” and ultimately driving white flight to the suburbs.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, another mid-western burgh, I grew up in the safety of the ‘burbs without ever considering the strangeness of the fact that the poor black neighborhood north of downtown went by the distinctly teutonic moniker of “Over the Rhine” or questioning why the entire western quadrant of central Cincinnati had been given over to a monstrous tangle of freeways.
It was only later, in college, when I bent my newly minted skills as an urban geography major to analysis of my hometown that I realized the design behind these seemingly random phenomena. The freeways had replaced the West End, a thriving mixed-income black neighborhood, whose uprooted residents were scattered as promised replacement housing fell far short of needs. The arrival of black families into neighborhoods like Over the Rhine was, in turn, used by real estate brokers to put greater urgency into the migration of fourth and fifth generation German immigrants and other whites to the suburban sprawl at the edge of town.
The cynicism and waste of it all was a revelation, as was the fact that my formative years had been spent in the midst of the resulting tensions and contradictions without me – or any of my peers that I can recall – having ever really questioned them. It was the late eighties then and we were still a few years shy of the great international bloom of what would eventually come to be known as transitional justice initiatives, but my experience with Over the Rhine helped to shape my own sense of the subtle but tenacious grip the past has on the present.
But back to Hamtramck: a remedy for black families displaced under the guise of urban renewal was ordered by a federal court in 1971. Despite a finding that the city had followed a clear strategy to remove blacks, the decision itself became the object of further politicking over the next two decades, according to an AP article published in January:
In 1971, after a three-week trial, a federal judge said Hamtramck had a clear strategy when it demolished housing in poor neighborhoods. Blacks were 14.5 percent of Hamtramck’s population in 1960, but only 8.5 percent six years later, noted Damon Keith, now a judge on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.It took until 1980 for all sides to agree to a solution: Two hundred family housing units, as well as 150 units for senior citizens, would be offered at below-market rates to black plaintiffs in the lawsuit. It didn’t take long to build the senior housing, but construction on the rest didn’t start until 2004.
“Attitudes, funds and skills were the three missing ingredients,” said Michael Barnhart, attorney for the victims. “The city was still fighting it. Secondly, they didn’t have the money. Hamtramck was in and out of state receivership.”
The city’s current lawyer, James Allen Sr., agreed.
“This litigation was used as a political wedge issue. The us-versus-them mentality kept people in political office,” he said.
That changed when Gary Zych became mayor in the late 1990s. He said resolving the discrimination case was a moral issue as well as a practical one. Hamtramck couldn’t develop vacant land for other purposes until it built the subsidized housing.
It has been a long time coming, but restitution is currently well underway in the teeth of the financial crisis, with 100 homes completed for rental or sale and the rest slated for completion within the year. The remedial program also follows a lot of what would elsewhere be called transitional justice best practices. For instance, where direct victims have died since the case was brought, their children and grand-children are entitled to move into the new housing in their stead. Implementation of the program has also been assisted through consultative processes brokered by civil society actors including fair housing advocates and local clergy. And, perhaps most important, delivery of the houses has been accompanied by genuine acknowledgment of the harm that was originally done through the clearances. As reported in the Times:
Just weeks ago, [displaced former resident] Ms. Sanders moved into a new ranch-style house on the same street where her family once lived, and Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm personally handed over the keys. As a young lawyer, Ms. Granholm was a clerk to Judge Keith [who issued the 1971 decision] in the late 1980s.
“We went full circle, and it’s pretty wonderful,” said Ms. Sanders, whose parents, now dead, were among the 250 plaintiffs who sued the city. “To acknowledge that, O.K., they were wrong, that gives me a little satisfaction because my parents were mistreated so. I just wish they were here to see it.”
Restitution in Hamtramck stands out both for the fact that it happened at all and for its isolation. Urban renewal and highway extensions were commonly used to clear black neighborhoods in the decades after World War II, but Hamtramck appears to represent the only judicial challenge to this practice that was brought to fruition. If it were to be taken as a nationwide precedent, the implications for municipal governments across a broad swathe of the midwest from Cincinnati to Syracuse would be significant (to say the least). From a legal perspective, the statutes of limitation for such suits have surely long since run, whatever arguments one might make about the capacity of the victim to bring suits at the time of the violations. Again, from the Times:
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.
However, from a social perspective, the Hamtramck decision, along with its belated acceptance and implementation, stand as another reminder of the fact that Americans, even in the age of Obama, still do not benefit from a completely level playing field. The opportunities of my white suburban classmates were shaped by the mobility their ancestors had enjoyed to move out of neighborhoods like Over the Rhine to suburban areas with well-funded schools and subsidized highways. Meanwhile, the opportunities of many black teenagers of my generation were crimped by policy decisions and commercial practices that destroyed the viable neighborhoods built by their grandparents and barred them access to better ones.
Given the American allergy to being described by the human rights concepts we were instrumental in developing, it wouldn’t do much good to talk about transitional justice. And anyone who turned up in Hamtramck with a copy of the Pinheiro Restitution Principles would probably end up at the wrong end of the annual Paczki Toss. So, in more American terms, it is at least satisfying to see justice done in Hamtramck and know that even if the settlement there will bring no material benefit to the thousands of families uprooted in other mid-western cities two generations ago, it may at least bring a degree of acknowledgment.