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Troubled City Looks to Build Homes, Hope

A plan by Habitat for Humanity to construct 20 houses is one of many steps aiming to improve this town torn by racial strife and scandal.

June 20, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — Tommy Ray sat on his stoop, sipping a soda, and cautiously watched construction crews Sunday haul stacks of wooden planks and building supplies down the street.

For years, his neighbors have fled Buss Avenue, leaving this economically depressed southwestern Michigan town to find work and opportunity elsewhere. Again and again, residents have picked up scrap wood to board up the empty buildings' windows and doors, less than two miles from where racial strife in 2003 attracted national attention to the town's plight.

Now, former President Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and an estimated 1,500 volunteers from Habitat for Humanity International have gathered to help Benton Harbor: In the next week, they plan to build 20 homes.

It's part of the organization's effort, which begins today, to finish about 230 houses throughout Michigan by Friday.

"We've come here to work. Let's work!" Carter, 80, told hundreds of cheering volunteers Sunday at an opening ceremony at Lake Michigan College's Mendel Center.

The houses are one of the many steps, some more modest, being taken to improve this town of about 11,200 people about 100 miles northeast of Chicago. But even as Benton Harbor is slowly coming back to life, residents such as Ray fear that improvements may be arriving too late.

In recent months, police in riot gear repeatedly have been called to break up fights and control unruly crowds.

The Benton Harbor government has wrestled with a scandal-tinged recall election to unseat a city commissioner. A judge ruled the results invalid because of voter manipulation. And an activist was arrested and charged with manipulating absentee ballots and paying residents $5 each to vote.

"I think the new houses are a great opportunity, and it makes the neighborhood look good," said Ray, 50, a city maintenance foreman. "But there's still so much happening that's wrong, and people are mad. I'm afraid things are going to be worse than they were in 2003."

Two years ago, after a black motorcyclist was killed in a police chase, angry residents spent two nights roaming the streets, throwing bricks and setting fire to more than two dozen buildings.

Simmering racial tension and mistrust of authorities have plagued this town since long before the 2003 uprising. Nestled on the shore of Lake Michigan, Benton Harbor and its "twin city" neighbor, St. Joseph, have for years had stark economic and racial divisions.

More than 90% of St. Joseph's 8,700 residents are white. Unemployment is less than 4%.

About 90% of the population in Benton Harbor is black, and half the town's residents don't have a high school diploma. Unemployment traditionally hovers at about 30%, according to local and state economists.

But the employment picture is slowly improving, the economists say. A survey by Manpower Inc. this year found that 37% of the companies in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph planned to hire this year.

The state launched a program to train local residents for high-tech and other skilled work and help draw private investments to boost business.

Along downtown's wide streets, volunteers have been collecting trash that litters dozens of empty lots. Artists, funded by the Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have begun work on four murals to be painted on brick building exteriors. One, a pastel-colored glimpse of Benton Harbor's past, is complete: A worker labors as boats and tourists arrive at its port.

Atlantic Automotive Components, which makes interior car parts, plans to expand its facilities and hire several dozen more workers. Ace Companies LLC, a scrap metal broker, is reopening a manufacturing facility and converting it back into an aluminum-smelting plant.

A home decor shop based in St. Joseph has transformed one of its brick warehouses in Benton Harbor into a high-end showroom. A Chicago landscape architect has bought a brick commercial building with plans to expand. Three new restaurants -- a Mexican cafe, a wine-tasting bistro and a microbrewery -- are set to open in the next few months.

Leslie Pickell, a management consultant from Chicago, has pooled her money with several partners to buy a 100-year-old livery stable. They began planning how to transform the building into a microbrewery three days before 27-year-old Terrance Shurn died in the June 2003 police chase.

"When the [riots] happened, it was real dramatic," said Pickell, co-owner of the Livery Brew Pub. "But I fell in love with the area. There was no way I was going to leave. Ever since then, it seems like things are slowly turning around."

Hoping to speed up that improvement is what attracted the Carters to the Benton Harbor area, said Paul Leonard, chief executive of Habitat for Humanity International. The Carters plan to split their time between Benton Harbor and Detroit this week.

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