Chrysler plant upsets some Detroiters

The billion-dollar expansion and rennovation of an aging assembly plant on Detroit's east side may be good news to the city as a whole, but local residents and businessmen say they are worried where they will go when the bulldozers begin to roll. The first automobiles rolled out of Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue Assembly Line nearly 75 years ago, and even though the facility has been updated several times since then, its technology is too old and outdated to compete with more modern facilities.

For several years there had been speculation Chrysler would tear it down and move out of the city. But in October, board chairman Lee Iacocca announced the No. 3 automaker would spend about $1 billion to tear down most of the old factory, acquire about 240 acres of surrounding land, and rebuild the plant.

``We're putting Detroit's newest auto plant right over Detroit's oldest auto plant,'' Mr. Iacocca said to the acclaim of state and local politicians.

But his comments drew a different reaction from many within the community.

``The majority are vehemently opposed to it,'' says Mary Griffin, a social worker who lives near the factory but whose home now appears likely to be spared by the wrecking ball. ``They look at it the same way the pioneers treated the Indians. They gave them a few trinkets and transfered them to a reservation.''

In all, the plant project will affect about 280 homeowners, 530 apartment dwellers, and 118 businesses and organizations, including Shriver Paint and Glass Co., which has been located in the Jefferson-Chalmer neighborhood since 1929.

``We've got to move [and] we're going to lose a good portion of our business,'' says Roger Perry, Shriver's current owner. ``It may be good for the city, but it's going to cause an unnecessary inconvenience for us.''

As part of the expansion plan, the city has established a relocation program that will help residents - both homeowners and tenants - and local businesses to move. Besides moving and purchase expenses, that will provide homeowners a rehousing payment of up to $15,000, while tenants will get the difference between their current rent and the rent they will have to pay at a new apartment.

Still, many in the community are worried that they will not get a fair deal. Some are concerned that the takeover program will drag on, forcing them to invest money to repair their homes and apartments while they wait.

Some land speculators, meanwhile, have rushed into Jefferson-Chalmers hoping to buy property at a bargain rate, which they will then hold in hopes of forcing the city into a high-priced buyout.

At a meeting with city officials recently, angry residents recalled the controversy created five years ago when the city helped General Motors acquire much of another East Side neighborhood, known as Poletown, to make way for a new GM assembly plant. That project resulted in months of protests that created negative publicity for both General Motors and city officials.

Chrysler vice-chairman Gerald Greenwald insists that ``we are not creating another Poletown,'' and city officials agree.

``We learned a lot from Poletown. We're [giving residents] a much longer lead time on this one,'' says Mayor Coleman Young, adding ``this is a remarkable opportunity. We're wiping the slate clean and coming up with a new opportunity for everyone.''

Not everyone is upset at the prospect of leaving the neighborhood, an aging, dilapidated community dotted with burned-out and abandoned buildings.

Most homes are in need of extensive repairs. Broken apartment windows are often ``repaired'' by stuffing rags into the cracked glass. Litter dots the streets, and the clerks at corner grocery stores deal with customers through bars and bullet-proof, plexiglass windows.

Ada Thomas, who lives in a small house, says she's glad the city is buying the property. ``The neighborhood has really gone down.''

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