Annals of Benton Harbor: Riots, Race, and Jack Nickalus

Jonathan Mahler, Mick Dumke, and Alex Kotlowitz: three writers on Benton Harbor, Michigan, its economic and social challenges, and the many attempts to address them.

Benton Harbor Michigan

 

The New York Times Magazine’s excellent cover story this week on Benton Harbor has been inescapable this week—for me, at least, since I roll with Rust Belt natives, urban planning/history nerds, and a considerable overlap of both. It’s about the depressed Michigan city’s attempt to rebuild itself around a lush, Jack Nickalus-designed golf course. I’ve read a great deal about the futility of relying on sports stadiums for economic development, but using a golf course to lift a city out of its long economic doldrums is new to me. And Benton Harbor is a mess: racking up $100k in overdraft fees every year, falling behind millions in debt to the IRS, and itself sitting on 20 percent of its residents’ bills in IOUs, very few of whom vote. Recently, control of the city was handed over to an emergency manager, making the city a flashpoint in national politics:

Benton Harbor has since become an unlikely cause for Rachel Maddow, who has railed repeatedly against the state’s seizure of the town — “Ground Zero for American politics,” as she calls it. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has taken up the cause, too, comparing Benton Harbor to Selma, circa 1965, because of the disenfranchisement of its largely black electorate. Stephen Colbert, for his part, offered a mock tribute to Harris: “I say good for him, because the people of Benton Harbor brought this on themselves. . . . Benton Harbor’s elected officials are incompetent, therefore, by electing them, the voters are incompetent. So they should lose their democracy.”

Benton Harbor isn’t Chicago—it’s more like Gary with a golf course—but it does make a good comparison on the subject of the fiscal and financial exchange between large corporations and local and state government bodies. Benton Harbor is a Whirlpool company town, which has led to tensions about the means and motives the company has employed with regards to its home. Here’s how Marcus Muhammad describes it, whom you might remember better as DePaul basketball star Marcus Singer:

According to this counternarrative, Whirlpool decided years ago to re-engineer the town for its own purposes and has since used a variety of local nonprofits to purchase land from the cash-starved city and to tap into the stream of federal and state grant money that flows into Benton Harbor. By this telling, the state was complicit in the plot, taking over Benton Harbor in what Muhammad calls “a coup d’état” not because of its financial condition — there are plenty of nearly broke towns in Michigan — but to ensure that Harbor Shores would proceed without any interference from the local government. “This was not a one-night stand,” Muhammad told me, referring to the takeover and redevelopment of Benton Harbor. “It was orchestrated, methodical.”

Jonathan Mahler does a great job outlining how the small city is representative of the social, political, and economic tensions America is dealing with in the new century.

Benton Harbor is no stranger to those tensions. It reminded me of a 2008 piece by the Reader’s Mick Dumke, who also wrote about the golf-course plan, the city’s troubled history, and prior failed attempts to re-engineer it:

Across the river there were numerous attempts to turn things around. In the mid-80s Michigan State University sent experts from its Center for Urban Affairs to work in the community and come up with solutions, but the effort fizzled. In 1986 the state began offering ten years of tax breaks to businesses that would set up shop in Benton Harbor; that helped slow the pace of decline but didn’t provoke any kind of major renewal. Whirlpool helped fund Cornerstone, a nonprofit development organization, starting in 1988, and a new arts district lured more outsiders downtown than anything in years. Private foundations and the state and federal governments offered millions of dollars in grants for schools, social services, and infrastructure.

But Benton Harbor’s tax base had eroded badly. There were times in the late 90s when low pay and chronic staff turnover left only three police officers patrolling the entire town of 11,000 at any given time. The Saint Joseph fire department began responding to calls in Benton Harbor because the Benton Harbor force was often short-staffed. The city commission, fractured by bitter political feuds, was simply unable to confront the town’s problems. Talented young people—including comedian Sinbad, several basketball stars, and countless top students—finished school and started their professional lives elsewhere, given few reasons to return.

Another reason for the failed attempts to fix Benton Harbor during the 1980s was, as Mahler points out, the fact that it became a mini-crack hub, based on its convenience to Chicago and Detroit, which fueled a rise in violence. In 2003, the city was shaken by a riot (the residents Dumke talked to downplay its scope). That’s the Benton Harbor Alex Kotlowitz found when he wrote his book The Other Side of the River and the essay “Colorblind”:

In 1992, I came across the story of a 16-year-old black boy, Eric McGinnis, whose body had been found a year earlier floating in the St. Joseph River in southwestern Michigan. The river flows between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, two small towns whose only connections are two bridges and a powerful undertow of contrasts.

[snip]

Eric, a high-school sophomore whose passion was dancing, was last seen at the Club, a teen-age nightspot in St. Joseph, where weeks earlier he had met and started dating a white girl. The night Eric disappeared, a white man said he caught the boy trying to break into his car and chased him – away from the river, past an off-duty white deputy sheriff. That was the last known moment he was seen alive, and it was then that the myths began.

I became obsessed with Eric’s death, and so for five years moved in and out of these two communities, searching for answers to both Eric’s disappearance and to matters of race. People would often ask which side of the river I was staying on, wanting to gauge my allegiance. And they would often ask about the secrets of those across the way or, looking for affirmation, repeat myths passed on from one generation to the next.

After writing The Other Side of the River, Kotlowitz came to focus on segregation in its relationship to Benton Harbor’s ongoing struggles:

If these three years left me with one thing it’s this: a stronger conviction that integration, true integration, is still the prize. Not because it’s the right thing to do. It is. Nor because it would help level the playing field. It would. But rather because without blacks and whites living and working amongst each other, without sharing those mundane yet essential parts of everyday life we will never find common ground.

Even McGinnis’s legacy was swept away in the economic and cultural tumult of Benton Harbor (PDF):

In 1998, the South Bend Tribune published an account of Eric McGinnis’s classmates in the Benton Harbor class of 1993. Within five years of high school graduation, reported staff writer Julie A. Swidwa, five of the 142 students surveyed had died violently: three from gunshot wounds, one from stab wounds, and another from a beating. Not a single 1993 Benton Harbor High School graduate lives in St. Joseph.

Reading from Kotlowitz to Dumke to Mahler, the significance of segregation seems to subside. Not race—segregation, noted explicitly as such, as a causual factor. Race, of course, is always there, lurking under the waters.

 

Photograph: kevin dooley (CC by 2.0)

Share

Advertisement

Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.