Chene Street cuts through the east side of Detroit from the Detroit River to the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant at the Hamtramck border. Once one of the city’s most vibrant commercial corridors and home to hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses, many of them run by immigrant families and African Americans, this thoroughfare was the main artery for the neighborhoods that radiated along its length, as well as their link with each other. It was at the heart of family, work, and social life for thousands of Polish Catholic and European Jewish immigrants, as well as for African Americans migrating from the south. Many of them came to fill the 100,000 automotive industry jobs within walking distance of its neighborhoods. Today, virtually no signs of those neighborhoods remain. Chene Street and its surrounding blocks are among the most devastated and depopulated in the city.
The Chene Street project is developing a comprehensive social and commercial history of the neighborhood that conveys what it felt like to live and work there. To date, the project team at the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy (IRLEE) and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies has accumulated nearly three hundred oral histories from Polish, Jewish, and African American residents and business owners; scanned tens of thousands of photographs and other documents, including ethnic newspapers, church bulletins, personal papers, and other ephemera; and tracked individual real estate parcels to provide the foundation for a revealing and richly detailed portrait of Chene Street and its arterial residential and mixed use neighborhoods from 1890 to 1990.