DETROIT— For decades, Detroit has been a poster child for the economic drain of decreased manufacturing across the Midwest. The city has lost hundreds of thousands of mostly Black residents and experienced bankruptcy.
Its East Canfield neighborhood hasn’t been spared — but in a rarity, its demise has been caused by industrial growth, not decline.
When Vivian Jackson first moved to East Canfield in the 1960s, leafy oak trees lined the streets. Their branches created a cocoon, protecting the community from the bustle produced by a Chrysler — now known as Stellantis — automotive construction plant down the road.
Under the green canopy, Jackson remembers how the neighborhood’s mothers would grace their porches every evening before dinner, yelling to their friends across the way as children played in the street. She wondered if that would be her one day.
But on an August evening this year, Jackson, now in her 80s, was the only woman adorning her porch. A few kids still rode bikes along the cracked sidewalks, all from the same family. Those “magical” oak trees were gone, too, lost to a fungal disease years ago.
Over the past three decades, most of the homes have been leveled and paved over during expansion of the Stellantis plant, which produces Jeep Grand Cherokees, including plug-in hybrid models. An entire neighborhood block — St. Jean Street — is now on plant property.
“It was really our own world, a community where everybody knew and was concerned with everybody. It was peaceful,” Jackson said. “Now, it’s Stellantis’ world.”
The company has operated in East Canfield since 1953, expanding in the 1970s, 1990s, and again in 2019. That most recent expansion — a $1.6 billion investment — came with the promise of 5,000 new jobs. The city and the state supported the project with roughly $400 million in subsidies. It marked a turning point in Detroit’s revitalization, the first new car manufacturing investment in three decades.
But in the years since, the number of jobs it has created for Detroiters has been disputed, and the company is now facing the largest autoworkers strike in a generation. Stellantis is among the Big Three automakers at odds with the United Auto Workers union, and its Toledo, Ohio, plant is among those currently affected by the work stoppage. The UAW has said the “Stand Up Strike” may soon expand to other locations, potentially impacting the East Canfield plant.
As Black culture and life have seeped from that neighborhood, poor health has become the norm. In the shadow of industry, residents here suffer from the respiratory illnesses of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at rates that are double and triple the U.S. average, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There have been talks of forcing Stellantis to extend buyout offers to the homeowners on its fence-line. However, for many remaining residents, preserving the history of the neighborhood that was built over a century ago trumps the hazards of ongoing industrial development in their backyards. Residents suggest a rare proposition: Send the industrial giant packing and let the little guys stay put.
The situation in East Canfield begs the question of whose lives matter the most, Jackson said. On paper, the growth of Stellantis is a boon for the city and the greater good. It provides jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue, and exemplifies the nation’s commitment to building low-emission vehicles with the goal of lowering transportation pollution.
But what about the harmful impact on the hundreds of families it has displaced or left struggling to breathe?
“Stellantis wants us to believe it’s for everyone’s benefit, that it is for us, but we aren’t gaining anything,” she said.
A history of violations
The industrial takeover hasn’t happened without a fight. After the community brought a civil rights complaint to the federal government, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened an investigation into Stellantis and the state of Michigan for racial discrimination following its most recent expansion. The investigation remains active.
The 2019 build-out helped the company grow its low-emission vehicle assembly capabilities, but it worsened air pollution in the Black neighborhood, with direct benefit to a white community. To get the expansion approved, Stellantis struck a deal with the state to cut pollution at a plant in a predominantly white neighborhood 7 miles away.
Stellantis has routinely denied that its production plant has caused harm to the neighboring community, but in 2020, the company did offer $15,000 home repair stipends to impacted residents. Residents that Capital B interviewed used the funds for cosmetic fixes, but also to protect themselves from air pollution by installing thicker windows and sealing their roofs.
In 2021, the company also committed to investing $1 million over three years to improve environmental infrastructure around the complex, including bike racks, a bat house, beehives, and a rain garden.
Last year, Capital B reported on the factory after it racked up its fourth air quality violation in a year. Around the same time, the state leveled a $60,000 fine against the plant for air pollution and required the facility to install a new pollution control device.
But in the year since the Capital B report, residents say little has changed despite numerous complaints to the state’s environmental regulator as the plant has exceeded approved pollution amounts four more times. According to reporting by Bridge Detroit, the facility, which was fined again in June, has submitted a permit to increase emissions even more.
In August, at a media presentation, Stellantis environmental manager Al Johnston said, “There was never a problem with the air in the community,” but also noted that the company “noticed an improvement” after installing the new device.
Despite the regular noxious fumes that leave residents old and young choking on air and the big rig trucks traveling their street that cause homes to rattle, for those families that persist, like Jimmie Perry and his 15 children and grandchildren, little could make them leave — even if it is now “Stellantis’ world.”
“They’ve closed us in here, but we’re not going anywhere,” Perry said.
They liken Stellantis’ treatment of the neighborhood to the fine-print in “sleazy” commercials on TV. Once every few months, the company may hold a community event concerning the air quality and how they’re going to lower pollution, Jackson said, but then nothing changes.
“I noticed a commercial on TV one day, and they were talking about health insurance coverage for $9.99 a month, but in small print, it stated coverage starts at $9.99 a month, and in even smaller print, it said for the first two months only,” said Jackson. “I thought to myself, ‘That is what Stellantis is doing to us.’”
While the company promised the first jobs created by its 2019 expansion would go to Detroiters, The Guardian recently reported that some of the “new” jobs were filled by transfers from other plants. Jackson said she knows at least four residents who applied for employment and fit all the requirements but were not offered a position.
When thinking about the impact of the plant on the neighborhood, some residents have begun calling for Stellantis to relocate it to a more rural area. Some data suggests this may be beneficial for both residents and the company. Since the 1990s, manufacturing plants in rural areas have been more productive, lasted longer, and have been more vital to the local economy than in urban areas.
But leaders within city government are advocating for the opposite, saying that Stellantis should stay put for revenue purposes and should alternatively offer buyouts to the homeowners. However, history shows that industrial buyouts exacerbate the racial wealth gap because Black homeowners are rarely offered fair values for their property, according to Rhiana Gunn-Wright, climate policy director at the Roosevelt Institute and a former employee in Detroit’s Department of Health.
“There’s a long history of Black homeowners being lowballed. It happened when I was in Detroit, working at the health department, where white homeowners were offered way more money than Black homeowners,” said Gunn-Wright. “Part of it was about the value of the property, but most of it was just discrimination.”
Saving a neighborhood
In East Canfield, a handful of residents won’t go outside without wearing a mask — and it has little to do with COVID, Jackson said.
About a year after Stellantis expanded, she began to experience shortness of breath. A visit to the hospital led to a COPD diagnosis, which her doctor attributed to air pollution, she said. Studies show that both short-term and long-term inhalation of industrial pollutants and particulate matter cause inflammation and weaken lung function.
Two years after the plant’s increased production, Perry had to get rid of his swimming pool, to the grandchildren’s objection. The water was regularly thickened and muddied by a yellow, paste-like substance, he said.
Robert Morris, a 45-year-old East Canfield resident, fears the long-term impacts. “The air quality is so bad,” he said, “I know it’s gonna affect me. … Sucking in this dirty air — it may take years — but as I’m older, I know I will feel it.”
Yet, facing overlapping environmental, health, and economic challenges, the stewards of this historic Black community say it’s important to hold on for future generations. They’ve seen what happens when private companies and city governments exert their power to build over Black neighborhoods — Oscarville in Georgia, Seneca Village in New York, and Norco in Louisiana — and they don’t want to join the list.
Perry said that the history of the neighborhood, which has remained majority-Black for nearly 80 years, is worth fighting for because it is a scarce reality in large American cities.
Stellantis and the Detroit City Council “will probably give us nothing just to push us on out over here so they could take over everything — our history, our wealth,” said Perry, standing on the street where his family has lived for 61 years. “They won’t care where we go; that we’ll be pushed into being renters somewhere; that we’ll lose the place where we all took our first steps.”
They’ve seen it before, hundreds of homes and businesses in their community gone, like they never existed in the first place, as a white, shiny warehouse took their place.
Perry, whose family just threw a party to bring in their seventh decade in East Canfield, wants his grandchildren to be nurtured by the city and the neighborhood like he was as a child. As he explained how the Stellantis fumes sometimes leave his throat tightened and airflow restricted, one of his granddaughters did three consecutive cartwheels on his lawn.
“This is why we need to stay here,” he said, referring to his grandchild. “Everybody in this neighborhood needs to hold it down. The plant and those fumes, that can go.”
Black American history is uniquely dependent on the generational passing down of stories. Time after time, history and communities are erased. Today is no different, as the teaching of Black history is under attack, which is why, Jackson said, it is imperative to make sure her neighborhood remains active.
“Sometimes I sit out here, and I see all of the vacant lots, and I think of the families that inhabited those houses,” she said. “I wonder who is remembering their lives.”