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Bruce L. Harkness Poletown Photographs

Identifier: WSAV002727

Scope and Content

The Bruce L. Harkness Poletown Photographs are a collection of 200 8”x10” silver gelatin, black-and-white photo prints that document the Poletown neighborhood of Detroit as it existed in February through October 1981. The inventory indicates subject and date of each photo, but researchers may find further identification on the back of each individual print.


  • 1981-02 - 1981-10


Language of Materials

Material entirely in English.


Collection is open for research.
Researchers may only access one folder at a time and are required to sit at a front table while using the collection in the Reuther Library Reading Room.


Refer to the Walter P. Reuther Library Rules for Use of Archival Materials.
For image reproduction, contact the AV Department.


Deriving its nickname from once being a primarily Polish immigrant neighborhood, the multi-ethnic, multi-racial urban area referred to as “Poletown” is a roughly rectangular area of land, extending from Gratiot Avenue northwest to the city of Hamtramck, and from the Detroit Medical Center (St. Antoine and Canfield Streets) northeast to Mt. Elliott Street (see map with this guide).

In June 1980, in the midst of a severe economic recession, the cities of Detroit and Hamtramck jointly offered the northern portion of the Poletown district as a site on which to build a new General Motors assembly plant. The area proposed for the plant—renamed Central Industrial Park—was bounded by I-94 on the south, Mt. Elliott Street on the east, St. Aubin Street on the west, and the former Dodge Main site on the north. Intended to ensure that the new plant would create thousands of jobs within the city, the offer to GM also meant the destruction of the Dodge Main plant and numerous other buildings, and the removal of thousands of residents and over a hundred businesses. Events during 1980 to 1981 fostered a sharp division among residents within the Central Industrial Park area, while demolition of the Dodge Main plant and other sites continued to take place.

From February through December 1981, Bruce L. Harkness set about photographing the neighborhood before and during the clearing of the Central Industrial Park area. Harkness took over 400 photographs, documenting neighborhood landmarks, panoramic views, residents, urban interiors and exteriors, as well as various intersections and street scenes. Through funding from the Michigan Council of the Humanities and a Humanist Grant-in-Aid won by WSU Professor of History John J. Bukowczyk, Harkness was able to print 200 of those photographs, with the understanding that the collection would be permanently stored and preserved at Wayne State University. The Harkness Poletown Photographs were donated to the WSU Folklore Archive’s Ethnic Archives Project. In October 1986, some forty photographs from Harkness’s Poletown documentation were chosen for exhibition at Wayne State University’s Purdy/Kresge Library.

Documentary photographer Bruce L. Harkness, of Dearborn, Michigan, received his BFA in photography at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and his MFA at Wayne State University. A veteran photographer of Detroit’s urban neighborhoods, Harkness has contributed photographs to several Michigan publications and has exhibited his work in numerous galleries around the Southeast Michigan area. He is an instructor of photography and a photographer for the City of Dearborn.


1 Linear Feet ((2 MB).)


Bruce Harkness photographed the area known as “Poletown,” a multi-ethnic, multi-racial urban area on Detroit’s East Side, from February to December 1981. These photographs document the hundreds of buildings and businesses that were demolished to make way for the construction of a General Motors assembly plant. In addition, Harkness captured vibrant urban exteriors and interiors, neighborhood landmarks, residents and street scenes. The collection is comprised of 200 8"x10" silver gelatin, black-and-white photo prints.


Arranged by sequential numbering system (1-201) imposed by the photographer.

Note: the Reuther Library never received photograph #47.

Other Access Aids

An index to locations depicted in the images is included with this guide.


The Bruce L. Harkness Poletown Photographs were transferred from the Wayne State University Folklore Archive by the Archive’s Director, Professor Janet Langlois, and placed in the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at the Walter P. Reuther Library in July 1999 as part of the audiovisual records of the Folklore Archive. Harkness owns and retains rights to the negatives.

Other Copies

Digital copies of some images may be found on the Reuther Library's website.

Related Materials

Folklore Archives Collections

Processing History

Processed and finding aid written by Lauren Kata in May 2000. Updated by Deborah Rice in December 2014.
Guide to the Bruce L. Harkness Poletown Photographs
Processed by Lauren Kata.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Walter P. Reuther Library Repository

5401 Cass Avenue
Detroit MI 48202 USA