News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Benton Harbor, MI: the city on the bottom is looking up

These Parts



Drive around the city of Benton Harbor, in the southwestern part of Michigan where upscale Chicagoans now like to vacation, and the decay is obvious. The town looks like "four square miles going out the world backwards," as one local educator describes it.

Many houses, though of good stock, are run-down or boarded up; you can buy the finest residence in the city for $30,000. For every tree that's growing on the parkway, there's another that's dying or dead. Only about half the elegant old street signs survive, and in many spots the pavement is badly pocked.

The city recreation center, built only 15 years ago, has been closed for lack of funding. "There's nothing for kids to do," says Mike Green, an insurance agent and father of four. "After three or four o'clock in the afternoon, when school lets out, many kids are on the street clear until the next day."

The auto-related industries that once supported Benton Harbor's economy are gone. The unemployment rate among city residents is 35 percent. Sixty percent or more of the population in this predominantly black community of nearly 15,000 subsists on welfare.

"We have gangs and drug dealing," reports Mayor Bill Wolf. "Lots of people drive through in nice cars, buy crack, and then leave town." Last year Benton Harbor had nine homicides. So far this year there have been eight, six of them drug-related, according to city manager Steve Manning. And that homicide count does not include a controversial January incident in which a white police officer gunned down a young black man who was falsely identified, it's contended, as a murder suspect. The officer, a 29-year veteran, was fired and has been charged with manslaughter.

The downtown has lost the retail stores and restaurants that a generation ago marked Benton Harbor as a commercial hub. Empty lots abound--but that's an improvement, since up until recently the lots contained abandoned buildings crumbling on their foundations.

Every year Money magazine assesses 300 metropolitan areas, using nine parameters, on their livability. Last September the area centered around Benton Harbor, but including Saint Joseph and several other neighboring municipalities, fell from 298th place to dead last on the Money scale. Since the whole area was called "Benton Harbor" in Money, the town itself suddenly became known as America's armpit. The designation, which was news around the country, outraged locals.

Local leaders fault Money both for attributing Benton Harbor's admittedly dire statistics to the entire surrounding area and for not giving the town itself credit for recent advances. Elizabeth MacDonald, the Money reporter who filed from the scene, says the magazine's findings reflect the circumstances not only of Benton Harbor but of adjacent Saint Joseph and outlying townships--an area with 170,000 residents. Furthermore, MacDonald contends, whatever progress has been made by the city of Benton Harbor was overshadowed by poor showings on the indices of health care, housing, and culture. "[Benton Harbor] is bereft of most anything culturally," says MacDonald.

Perhaps. And yet the Money report did substantially neglect the beginnings of a resurgence in Benton Harbor.

"Everything here has not gone to hell," says Dr. Harzel Taylor, a 69- year-old dentist who has lived for years in a well-tended frame house in a now-crummy neighborhood on a hill overlooking the downtown. "Now, there are lots of negative things in Benton Harbor--I'm not going to snow you--but the situation is not insurmountable. We can overcome."

Benton Harbor and its twin city, Saint Joseph, developed at the point where two rivers--the Saint Joseph and the Paw Paw--empty into Lake Michigan. The cities were rival vacation spots earlier in this century, although Benton Harbor gained the upper hand through the House of David, a religious cult that operated a popular amusement park and beer garden east of town. Benton Harbor also emerged as the brawnier of the twins; though Whirlpool was located in Saint Joe, its sister city claimed foundries and parts manufacturers for the auto industry.

Benton Harbor always had some blacks. There were seven African Americans including Taylor in his graduating class of 400 at Benton Harbor High. But though Taylor led a relatively untroubled existence, there were racial tensions. The Ku Klux Klan was active in nearby Bridgman, Michigan; Taylor remembers a cross being burned in the 40s near the Benton Harbor downtown. (To this day blacks feel unwelcome in Saint Joe, which is largely white and middle-class. "When the average minority goes over there, he feels like he's being watched," says Taylor.)

During the 1960s, as happened in so many cities, fear drove the white middle class to sell their houses and leave Benton Harbor. In their place came blacks migrating from the south in search of jobs or healthier welfare checks. When the stores that anchored the downtown, Sears and J.C. Penney, relocated to a new mall out by the freeway, the smaller businesses soon followed. "Downtown went down to nothing," says Taylor. The huge farmer's market that had flourished for years on the flatland near the Saint Joseph River moved to a nearby township, never to regain its prominence.

Meanwhile, the foundries and parts suppliers that had been Benton Harbor's economic base were crippled by the auto industry's slowdown; over the last two decades, many firms either relocated or closed for good. To their credit some outfits stayed put, notably a company that makes molds and a die-casting business, both owned by a local family. In 1986, when the Whirlpool Corporation shuttered its washing-machine plant in Saint Joe and took its 600 jobs elsewhere, conditions in Benton Harbor worsened yet again. "There was nothing here but minorities and welfare," says Taylor.

As if in rebuke, Saint Joseph stood flourishing just to Benton Harbor's south. "Saint Joe had more foresight than Benton Harbor," says Taylor. "The city planned better. When they tore down the old courthouse, they built a new one. They did things in a systematic way; they kept abreast." Today downtown Saint Joseph boasts quaint streets alive with flowers. Buildings are fully rented. There are hotels and a couple of museums, and lots of boutiques and restaurants. By most accounts, Saint Joe has had an easier time keeping its industry; though the Whirlpool plant moved, Whirlpool headquarters are still there.

Several years ago, however, the tide began to turn for Benton Harbor.

In 1986, Michigan State University hosted a conference to examine the city's problems; from that conference came a task force to encourage citizen involvement. The most influential participant proved to be Virginia Nivens, a Chicago emigre (and author Bill Granger's mother-in-law) conditioned by Saul Alinsky-style organizing tactics as practiced in Hyde Park in the 1960s. "Virginia got some folks mad," says Green. "She'd look people in the eye and tell them what she thought of them. That didn't always go over, given her age [she was nearing 70] and that she was white."

Nonetheless, through the perseverance of Nivens and others there emerged the Neighborhood Information & Sharing Exchange (NISE), an interracial community group. NISE had its work cut out for it. "People were hesitant to join anything," says NISE executive director Richard Ray. "They weren't in the habit of knowing who their next-door neighbors were, much less speaking to them." An initial campaign to organize the city into neighborhood subgroups stumbled--only three of eight affiliates survive in any active form--and yet there have been successes.

NISE has initiated a summer parks program, a teen center, and after- school tutoring, all of which were pretty much lacking in Benton Harbor. It published a directory of local retailers, with the clear message that the citizenry could help rebuild the economy by shopping Benton Harbor. "More than anything," says Green, who became NISE president, "we established an accountable community organization that everybody could talk to."

At roughly the same time, Benton Harbor elected a new mayor, Wolf, who is in the boat-supply business. Though Wolf is white, he was able to beat the incumbent, Wilce Cook, and another hopeful by promising to end city hall's history of "crisis management." Taylor says that Cook, a nurse, is a nice man but was ineffective. "I voted for Wolf," he says. "I felt a change was necessary."

When Wolf assumed office at the end of 1987, the city government was a mess, or so current officials say. The police force consisted of 14 officers riding around in cars "that weren't usable," according to new city manager Manning. The fire department had two vehicles; one, the pumper, used a garden hose. If there was a fire, says Manning, there were only two fire fighters to handle it: "One guy would go to fight the fire, and the other guy would stay with the truck." Though there was regular garbage pickup, the city was strewn with trash. Uncollected water bills amounted to $1.3 million, and the municipal deficit was $900,000.

Today there are nearly double the number of cops, a brand-new fleet of police cars, three new fire trucks, and more fire fighters. The outstanding water bills come to only $200,000, and the $5.8 million city budget has edged into the black. The Benton Harbor waterworks were upgraded, and the city recently placed second in a statewide contest on water quality. The problems with trash have been greatly alleviated, though cosmetic problems remain. Dead trees are removed, for instance, only if they pose a hazard.

Shortly before Wolf became mayor, Benton Harbor was declared Michigan's first "enterprise zone," a designation that entitles new and expanding businesses to certain tax breaks. In part, the benefits helped to entice the Heathkit Company away from Saint Joe to a vacated K mart in Benton Harbor. The city also designated a dilapidated residential section in the northeast part of town as an industrial park, which now contains a Whirlpool warehouse, a joint U.S.-Japanese plating company, and other ventures. If the city needs any PR, it can rely on the Community Economic Development Corporation, a heavily funded promotional agency for the Saint Joe-Benton Harbor area spawned and partly supported by Whirlpool (guiltily, some point out) after it closed its plant.

The CEDC leases space in a former hotel in downtown Benton Harbor that has been spiffily renovated by the mayor's brother. But the most dramatic commitment to the downtown has been made by Ross Hadley, a developer who also owns a janitorial service. Over the last couple of years, Hadley has bought up two dozen downtown buildings at bargain prices and is in the process of renovating them. Already he has rented out space, at rates up to $8 a square foot, to advertising agencies, a hairdressing salon, printing companies, and government offices. "Eighty percent of the space available is leased," reports Hadley, a tough-talking man not known for his humility. "My cash flow is phenomenal, and why shouldn't it be? I had the balls and the guts to do something."

Main Street in Benton Harbor still has three abandoned movie theaters and no retail stores to speak of, but bright awnings now accent some building fronts. Ultimately, the CEDC foresees the reopening of a ship canal that was filled in for parking in the 50s. Boat slips will line the reopened canal, CEDC planning director Susan Lackey predicts, and on its banks will flower restaurants and a river walk. Nearby, Hadley has already developed something similar: he bought an old motel on the Saint Joseph River and has converted it into a time-share resort, with boat slips, a pool, and a restaurant. It's notable, however, that the resort's promotional video makes no mention of Benton Harbor. "We're marketing the Saint Joseph River and southwestern Michigan," Hadley explains.

Taylor, who once sat on the school board, says the schools in Benton Harbor are "down." "Who could expect more? You have an environment where there's great poverty, with no encouragement, no zip, no fortitude. You're talking about one generation just following another."

Eighty-five percent of the students in the Benton Harbor-area schools qualify for federally subsidized free lunches. Reading rates hang about a year below national norms, says Connie Ellington, assistant schools superintendent for instruction. But there are several promising developments. The school system runs some highly desirable magnet schools, busing in kids from nearby Coloma and Eau Claire under a court desegregation order. They've also started an "academic academy" for second- and third-graders who are struggling. Ellington and schools superintendent James Rudder have hired new administrators, beautified the schools, and more than tripled the system's state and federal grants.

"We're moving forward because we have so much to prove," says Ellington, "and so much to live down."

The stirrings of a renaissance in Benton Harbor have raised new concerns, however. In particular, who will get the jobs returning to the area? "The people here want to know, not what's happening downtown, but when am I going to get work and how am I going to support my family?" says Green. Community leaders are now circulating a manifesto calling on the city and the adjoining Benton Township to guarantee jobs, job training, and health care for their residents.

Though Virginia Nivens has moved to Sioux City, Iowa, Benton Harbor does not lack for believers. Prime among them is the 38-year-old Wolf. Benton Harbor has a strong city manager/weak mayor form of government, and Wolf earns a mere $60 a week for his labors. But that hardly cools his ardor. "He has this missionary attitude," observes Green, who also faults the mayor for being a one-man show.

In May, Wolf seemed to prove that accusation. After dropping off his cleaning at a notorious drug-distribution corner one afternoon, he took out a camera and started shooting pictures of the dealers. The subjects of Wolf's photo shoot responded by tossing bricks and rocks at him and bashing in the side of his car. Afterward, says Wolf, "People applauded me for taking a stand, although they said my actions didn't speak highly of my intelligence." Wolf says the altercation helped the city secure a two-year state grant for beat cops.

"Wolf's doing what he can," says Taylor. "Things are coming along."

Taylor is talking in the wood-paneled living room of his house. Outside, in the fenced, grassy side yard where his dogs run, is an American flag flying from a pole; below it flaps a banner from the University of Michigan, which his daughter attended. Taylor keeps his flagpole lit at night, out of pride.

"I love Benton Harbor," says Taylor. "I don't love the bad things that have happened to it, but I'm not going to run from it. The downtown isn't going to be what I remember--there'll be office buildings and ma- and-pa stores. But if more jobs return, if Hadley is successful and Whirlpool continues to help, then Benton Harbor will come back."

One piece of good news: in Money's 1990 livability survey, just out, Benton Harbor rebounded to 272nd place, one slot below the Rockford area. The region centered around Allentown and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, usurped Benton Harbor's position in the cellar.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

Add a comment