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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Testing a City's Limits

Benton Harbor, the site of a riot last year, has a history of malaise and anger. Its future may rest on blacks and whites rebuilding together.

June 19, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — The ancient oaks along Monroe Street are lush and green, nearly hiding the houses' sagging porches and peeling paint. Wild lavender peeks through the cracks of the worn sidewalks and broken blacktop.

Karl Cotton grew up here. Sitting on his stoop, the 44-year-old black man sees only decay and despair; he feels nothing but pessimism and futility.

One of every six buildings in Benton Harbor is abandoned or vacant. The median household income is $17,000. About 92% of the population here is black and half the 11,200 residents don't have a high school diploma. Unemployment hovers at 30%, but an estimated 42% of the town's adults have stopped even looking for work.

"I was born here, raised here, and I can't get out," said Cotton, who lives five blocks from where a racially charged riot erupted last June. "None of us can. It's only getting worse."

Tod Marsh just moved in across the street from Cotton. From the vantage of his porch, the 38-year-old white man sees only possibilities and promise.

"Why wouldn't you want to live here?" said Marsh, who opened a diner months after the riot and moved from nearby St. Joseph. "Houses are cheap, land is cheap and there are tons of opportunities."

Last year, after a black motorcyclist was killed in a high-speed police chase, angry residents spent two nights roaming the streets, throwing bricks and setting fire to more than two dozen buildings. Ten people were arrested.

The riot has had the most unlikely effect: Very slowly, whites are moving back into town. At the same time, economic progress is coming bit by bit.

But many blacks still see the improvements as out of their reach and believe those taking advantage of the opportunities are often outsiders -- and often white. As a result, the push for gentrification has fanned old racial tensions, misunderstandings and fears.

Benton Harbor remains littered with faded reminders of its past. Nestled on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, about 100 miles northeast of Chicago, its streets have miles of deserted homes.

Manufacturing jobs went overseas decades ago. Since then, the town's black residents have lived with a sense of hopelessness passed down from generation to generation. Many believe they will again be left behind.

"Things are changing, but it's happening so slow and so small that black folks just can't see it," said Mayor Wilce Cooke, who is black. "The changes just don't jump out at you."

Tod Marsh brought about one of those small changes. In the weeks after the riot, an evening drive took him down Main Street and past a small, shuttered cafe. He had been saving money, looking for a business opportunity. After peeling back the newspaper covering the windows, he found it. Marsh bought the building and last fall opened his dream restaurant, the All-American Diner. It brought 28 new jobs to town.

Other ventures also created a small number of jobs, after private investors spent millions renovating downtown buildings and financing small businesses. The potential for more jobs is real: Millions of dollars in federal and state financial aid has been designated for building low- and mixed-income homes. And developers are vying to build half-million-dollar homes along the waterfront. But construction on many of these projects is still months or years away.

The goal, say city officials, is to bring the town back to the glory days when jobs were plentiful and the harbor teemed with business.

"We're trying to rehab an entire town," said Jeff Noel, the president of Cornerstone Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the town's economy. "Baby steps are what you've got to have to maintain momentum."

After last June's riot, Karl Cotton drove out to the edge of Benton Harbor and briefly stared at a sign that greets visitors to this "port of opportunities."

The sign, Cotton said, is a symbol of his life. What once was a proclamation of hope and prosperity is surrounded by dozens of decrepit homes. The words themselves have worn nearly invisible from years of neglect and apathy. Faded graffiti mars its edges: "This is hell."

Cotton's parents, Annie and James, left Mississippi for a new start here in 1960, lured by jobs in the factories, at the ritzy hotels and in public works. Back then, Benton Harbor was a bustling middle-class town, where Chicagoans would flock to relax on the lakeshore and escape the muggy city. The town was about 75% white.

Cotton, one of seven children, remembers his mother saying, "I don't want you to be afraid of white people. I just want you to be leery of them."

By the early 1970s, manufacturing plants in Benton Harbor began shutting down, driven away by overseas competition. As jobs disappeared, thousands left town. James returned to Mississippi in 1973. Annie and the children stayed. She worked a variety of jobs to support her family, including housekeeping for wealthy families in St. Joseph and running a numbers game.

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