Now That the Factories Are Closed, It’s Tee Time in Benton Harbor, Mich.
By JONATHAN MAHLER
On the northern edge of Benton Harbor, just beyond the grim grid of housing projects, shuttered storefronts, boarded-up homes and junk-laden yards that dominate much of the town, sits an emerald oasis known as Harbor Shores. As the name suggests, Harbor Shores is a resort development. At its heart is a pristine Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course that meanders along a river and creek; through woods and wetlands; and, most striking, across tall, white sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan.
The golf course was built largely on fallow, polluted land that was once crowded with factories: holes No. 4 and No. 5 were the slag pit for a company that made automobile brakes. Holes No. 14 and 15 were a former Superfund site once occupied by a company that used radium and mercury to manufacture components for fighter planes.
Metaphorically speaking, Harbor Shores is supposed to have a similarly salutary effect on the poor, overwhelmingly black town that surrounds it. No mere resort, it was envisioned by its developers as a “single, signature project to drive economic development and bring social change to Benton Harbor,” in the words of one promotional video.
In late August, I played the course with a foursome of hackers that included Marcus Robinson, who helped lead the effort to build the resort. A heavy African-American man, Robinson wore khaki shorts, an orange Harbor Shores golf shirt and matching Harbor Shores straw hat. It was a sticky day, and he guzzled Gatorade as he liberated large chunks of turf that on more than one occasion outflew his ball. “It’s such a beautiful property,” he said as he bent over to fill a large divot with grass seed. “It’s a shame to duff it up.”
Robinson is president of the Consortium for Community Development. The consortium is one of several local nonprofits partly financed by the Whirlpool Corporation, which is based in Benton Harbor, to help encourage the redevelopment of the town. He took up golf at the urging of his girlfriend two years ago, just after construction began on Harbor Shores. “She was like, ‘You don’t want to be out here on opening day and have the ball go two inches in front of you at the first tee,’ ” he told me. “Of course, that’s exactly what happened. On my first drive, the ball didn’t even go out of the tee box.”
Robinson, who is 53, went to graduate school for hypnotherapy, the art of inducing trances to change behavioral patterns, before becoming a corporate consultant in Rochester, N.Y. He was brought to Benton Harbor by Whirlpool as a “diversity consultant” in early 2001. His assignment was to work with community leaders, businesspeople and other local residents to come up with ways to address some of the ever-worsening problems — poverty, violence, white flight, racial strife — that had been plaguing the city for years and were making it increasingly difficult for Whirlpool to attract executive talent to the area. The discussions helped birth Harbor Shores, a notion that had been kicking around a long while.
Given Benton Harbor’s unfavorable history and demographics, no private developer would likely be willing to take on such an ambitious project there. But there was another way: Robinson’s group, along with other nonprofits supported by Whirlpool, could secure enough federal and state grant money to help remediate the land, build the golf course and at least get Harbor Shores off the ground. The project’s complicated financing deal closed in May 2008, right around the time that the national real-estate market crashed.
On the Thursday morning that we played Harbor Shores, the course looked virtually empty. The blueprints call for the 530-acre resort to include high-end hotels and shops and quaint marinas, but as of now it’s basically just a golf course. The first of hundreds of planned houses are going up on cul de sacs with names like Golden Bear Court.
Robinson stopped our cart in front of one half-finished development called the Hideaways. Like all of the homes in Harbor Shores, the houses under construction here are being built in an architectural style known as Coastal Shingle. The development will have its own swimming pool, fire pit and clubhouse. A sign advertised lots priced from the $300,000s to the $600,000s. Robinson told me that 27 of the Hideaways’ 58 sites have already been purchased, with the completed homes selling for as much as half a million dollars.
Watching carpenters hammer preweathered wood shingles onto homes that wouldn’t look out of place in East Hampton, Long Island, I felt almost as if I were at a resort in a third-world Caribbean country: beyond the boundaries of Harbor Shores is the poorest city in all of Michigan.
The contrast is deliberate, part of a strategy of social engineering that’s central to the plan to save Benton Harbor. “The intermingling that shifts a culture, makes it more upwardly mobile and creates more striving-type sensibilities naturally occurs when you bring people of different races and classes together,” Robinson said as we rode off toward the next tee. “It creates a mentality of inclusion.”
A few holes later, as Robinson vainly poked a 6-iron around in some tall grass beside the fairway looking for one of his balls, he conjured a vision of Benton Harbor’s future. “This could be a model for African-American towns,” he told me. “I want to see this turned into a great place to live, work and play and have it be predominantly black. A great place to play golf, go to the beach, with great schools, a place that turns out scholars, athletes and artists. A place that’s banging, as they say.”
During its heyday as a racially mixed, economically vibrant manufacturing center through the 1960s, Benton Harbor grew into a home to more than 20,000 people. Today its population is closer to 10,000, about 90 percent of whom are black. The per capita income of its residents is roughly $10,000; about 60 percent of its population is on some form of public assistance.
The scale of poverty in Benton Harbor is extreme, but in a general sense, the town’s woes are hardly unique for Michigan, which has been especially hard hit by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs in America. The state’s decline has been slow and steady. In the 1950s, its per capita income was 13 percent above the national average; today, it’s 7 percent below it. Michigan is the only state whose population has decreased since 2000. With the nation in the midst of a historic joblessness crisis that has left a record number of Americans living below the poverty line, only Nevada and California have higher rates of unemployment.
All over Michigan, counties are scrambling to find ways to reinvent their outdated economies. Two recurring themes in this effort have been attracting tourism and retaining corporations. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, a former venture capitalist, recently signed an overhaul of the state tax code that cuts business taxes by $1.7 billion, while committing $25 million to the “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign, which features local celebrities like Tim Allen urging people to visit the state.
In this context, the goings-on in Benton Harbor make a certain kind of sense — not just Harbor Shores, which was intended to lure weekenders from Chicago, roughly two hours away by car, but the other major construction project under way in town: a new, heavily tax-incentivized, $68 million, 270,000-square-foot corporate campus for Whirlpool.
The juxtaposition of Benton Harbor’s impoverished population and its two rising monuments to wealth — all wedged into a little more than four square miles — make it almost a caricature of economic disparity in America. But at the same time, it offers a window into one possible future for towns across the country, places that can no longer support their own economies or take care of their citizens and may ultimately have no choice but to turn their fate over to private industry and nonprofits. The way things are going, more and more states may start to look like Michigan, and more and more towns may start to look like Benton Harbor.
Benton Harbor’s City Hall, a sturdy-looking, red-brick structure on the fringe of its small downtown, was built by the federal government as part of a wave of public-works projects underwritten by the New Deal to help lift the country out of the Depression. A dedication plaque dated 1937 still hangs in the building’s small, sour-smelling lobby, surrounded by mundane symbols of the city’s decline: an “Out of Order” sign taped to a water fountain, an empty job-postings board, a case containing municipal-sports-league trophies, several of whose figurines are missing limbs.
I was greeted there one morning by the man who now runs Benton Harbor, a 67-year-old African-American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache named Joseph Harris. “Life is beautiful, isn’t it?” Harris said, smiling widely as he led me up the stairs to an empty office that he had just repossessed from the mayor.
Harris is Benton Harbor’s “emergency manager.” He was first sent to the town in April 2010 under a law that provided the state with limited authority to intervene in the financial affairs of failing cities. His power grew exponentially last spring when Governor Snyder and the state’s Republican Legislature passed Public Act 4, which allows emergency managers to renegotiate or terminate contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements, even dissolve local governments (subject to the governor’s approval). They have almost unfettered control over their respective cities. This approach to governing is still in its infancy, but if it proves successful in Benton Harbor and elsewhere, emergency managers could be dispatched to troubled municipalities across the state. Snyder has even made it clear that Detroit is a strong candidate for takeover.
There are emergency managers now ensconced in four cities and one school district in Michigan. All have taken some aggressive measures, but none have made as public an impact as Harris. He has fired numerous city administrators and employees and merged Benton Harbor’s police and fire departments. He didn’t just kick the mayor and city commissioners out of their offices; he also issued a directive prohibiting them from doing anything other than call meetings to order, record their minutes and adjourn them.
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.”
If all of this sounds like yet more negative attention for Benton Harbor, Harris, the former chief financial officer for the city of Detroit, doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by it. Blissfully free of the checks and balances of democratic governments, he is living the dream of every frustrated city administrator. “I believed I could fix Detroit,” Harris told me. “But almost every time I made a recommendation to the mayor, politics got in the way. Here, I don’t have to worry about whether the politicians or union leaders like what I’m doing. I have to worry about whether it’s the right thing to do. That’s the only thing that should matter. I love this job.”
Having neutered the city’s elected officials (“I am the mayor and the commission, and I don’t need them”), fired the city’s finance director (“I’d been told she was incompetent, but she really didn’t have a clue”) and city manager (“He was smart and articulate, but he just wasn’t doing anything that I couldn’t do”), Harris, a former accounting professor, is pretty much single-handedly running Benton Harbor. Small, balding and relentlessly upbeat, he balances the books, negotiates the contracts and cheerfully presides over sparsely attended Town Hall meetings, rolling out his latest cost-saving measures, his reading glasses invariably dangling around his neck. Over the summer, I saw him introduce Benton Harbor’s new “quick response vehicles” — essentially pickup trucks outfitted with fire-retardant-foam-releasing contraptions that require a lot less money and manpower to operate than traditional fire trucks.
After we talked for a while, Harris and I walked out for lunch. He was eager to show me around the Arts District, a quaint, upscale enclave several blocks from City Hall where he is renting a loft apartment in a converted warehouse. “You can’t fully appreciate what’s going on here until you look around,” he said as we crossed over into the neighborhood from Benton Harbor’s bleak downtown.
The contrast was stark. The streets and sidewalks were freshly paved and lined with trees, planters and retro lampposts, courtesy of $2.3 million in grant money and donations. The Arts District, which encompasses just a few blocks, abuts Harbor Shores; the city’s master plan, partly underwritten by Whirlpool a couple of years ago, calls for the two to eventually be connected via a series of footpaths.
After lunch in a crowded cafe, Harris bought a cup of vanilla-bean gelato to eat as he led me through some artists’ studios, prodding a jewelry maker to tell me about the revival of the neighborhood.
We left the Arts District, and City Hall came back into view, a state-subsidized high-rise — Harbor Towers — looming behind it. Poking his finger into a new planter to make sure it had been watered, Harris told me excitedly about his latest brainstorm: “I ♥ Benton Harbor” souvenirs, including T-shirts, bumper stickers and shot glasses. The idea, he explained, is to take advantage of Benton Harbor’s unflattering appearances on Rachel Maddow’s show and “The Colbert Report” — “to make lemonade out of lemons,” as he put it. “We have, as you know, some national notoriety now,” Harris said. “I want to take that notoriety and build on it. I want people to walk away from Benton Harbor saying, ‘I’ve been to Benton Harbor.’ ”
The merger of Benton Harbor’s police, building inspection and fire departments resulted in the creation of a single Department of Public Safety run by the city’s chief of police, Roger Lange. When I first met Lange, a big, barrel-chested man, he was speaking at one of Harris’s Town Hall meetings, assuring residents that their safety would not be compromised by the cost-saving measures being undertaken. “Benton Harbor is going to come back,” he told the small crowd. “We are coming back. Failure is not an option.”
Later that night, I rode around with Lange as he patrolled the city in a black Dodge Durango. He picked me up just after dark in front of City Hall, and we headed straight into Benton Harbor’s decaying residential neighborhoods. “I normally like to start by visiting one of our more problematic areas,” Lange said, pulling up in front of an abandoned wood-frame house at the intersection of a liquor-store parking lot and a narrow residential street. Before he had even slowed to a stop, the group of young men who were hanging out on the stoop spotted him and were scattering.
In many ways, Benton Harbor is a miniature version of Detroit, albeit one improbably located along a corridor of bucolic and generally much more affluent lakefront towns. It boomed during World War II, when local plants were transformed into F.D.R.’s so-called arsenal of democracy. (Whirlpool’s factories manufactured components for fighter planes.)
As was the case with Detroit, the job opportunities made Benton Harbor a popular destination for blacks coming north as part of what would become known as the Great Migration. For many years, the town was informally segregated, with most blacks crowding into an area of ramshackle homes known as the Flats. In the 1960s and ’70s, the jobs started disappearing, and the white flight to neighboring towns began, accelerated by the razing of the Flats, which drove many black residents into formerly white neighborhoods. By 1980, Benton Harbor was overwhelmingly black and poor, with a steadily rising crime rate. And that was before crack. Situated between Chicago and Detroit, Benton Harbor became a hub for the Midwest crack trade beginning in the mid-1980s.
During the 1990s, Benton Harbor was one of the most violent places in the state. Crime rates have ebbed and flowed since then. At least in terms of murders and assaults, the past year and a half has been relatively quiet, though break-ins have been on the rise lately. Harris’s budget cuts have cost Lange about a third of his full-time officers, reducing the total number to fewer than 20, though he has been able to replace them with nearly a dozen part-timers. (All of the city’s remaining full-time police officers are being cross-trained as firefighters.) The fire chief of the neighboring town of St. Joseph, whose population is a little bit smaller than Benton Harbor’s, recently expressed concern about the rising number of calls his men have had to make to the town to assist its firefighters.
Lange grew up in Benton Harbor. He worked a variety of jobs before deciding to become a police officer in his early 30s, when, he says, his ex-wife disappeared with their son and he spent eight months tracking them down in California. “After that investigation, I thought, You know, I think I can do this,” he told me.
After starting as a patrolman in Benton Harbor, Lange spent most of his career in the county sheriff’s office. He returned to Benton Harbor’s police force a couple of years ago after a corruption scandal further damaged the already fragile relationship between the town’s largely black population and its largely white police department. Two local police officers were ultimately sent to jail, including the head of the narcotics unit, for violating the civil rights of the town’s inhabitants by falsifying search warrants, stealing money and property from residents and embezzling from the department.
Benton Harbor’s recent success at curtailing violent crime is partly a tribute to Lange, who leaves the station at 8 o’clock every night after a full day of administrative work to patrol the streets until 2 or 3 in the morning with his deputy director, Robert O’Brien. He is basically carrying out his own version of the “broken windows” approach to policing, enforcing previously overlooked laws against quality-of-life crimes like loitering, gambling and public urination.
Over the course of the night, Lange circled the various hotspots — parks, parking lots, stoops — where people tend to collect to play dice or buy and sell drugs (generally crack, heroin or cocaine) and dispersed the gathering crowds. “I’ve found that this has cut down on a lot of the violent crime,” he told me. “When people gamble, they’re going to get mad.” He stopped frequently to move small children out of the streets and back into their homes: “How you doin’? Where’s your parents?”
It was a hot night, and scores of teenage boys — because of Benton Harbor’s high teenage-pregnancy rate, more than 35 percent of its population is under 18 — were riding around shirtless on bikes. (Nonprofits donate secondhand bikes to the city by the dozens.) “This house right here has caught fire twice now and was just condemned,” Lange said, pointing at the burned-out shell of a home, one of more than 100 houses and possibly an old hospital slated to be demolished with grant money from HUD.
Benton Harbor’s cityscape shifts from detached homes in serious disrepair — in some cases, all of the siding has been ripped off; in others, there are no windows, just bedsheets covering empty holes — to every sort of federally financed housing project imaginable, from high-rise towers to scatter-site homes to barracks-style apartment complexes. Failed attempts at urban renewal are everywhere, often to darkly comic effect. A sign in an empty, overgrown lot reads: “Project Funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” A new, HUD-subsidized housing development called Harbor Town — “The Future of Benton Harbor,” says a sign advertising property-tax-free lots for $7,500 — is a vast, empty site save for three side-by-side homes. There has been a strong push to encourage homeownership in Benton Harbor, an effort that has included generous grants from both the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and HUD, and a Habitat for Humanity building blitz supported by Jimmy Carter. Nevertheless, nearly 70 percent of its population are renters.
For the first couple of hours of Lange’s patrol, the grimness of the surroundings seemed endless. But as the night wore on, the streets started to become familiar. Unlike many areas of Detroit, where the decay spreads out for mile after mile across a sprawling metropolis, in Benton Harbor it’s relatively small and self-contained. A lot of grant money has always poured into Benton Harbor, and this is no doubt one of the reasons. Its small size makes its big-city problems seem somehow solvable. “Everybody thinks they know what to do with Benton Harbor, but not even anyone here knows what to do with Benton Harbor,” a veteran teacher at Benton Harbor High School told me.
Lange seemed at times like a small-town cop, an African-American Andy Griffith in a Mayberry turned upside-down. At one point, he bantered in a liquor-store parking lot with a local man he called Bulldog.
“Man, give me $2 for a drink,” Bulldog said.
“Bulldog,” Lange replied, “why would I support what I’m trying to get you out of?”
“I’m trying to keep your paperwork down, because if I don’t get that $2 I’m gonna go back to breaking into houses,” Bulldog said.
“You know what, Bulldog? If you break into houses, I’m gonna arrest you.”
“You’re not going to catch me. I’m a professional. I can get in there with a credit card — my food stamp card, as a matter of fact,” Bulldog said.
“Then I’ll make sure you lose your food stamps and lose your freedom,” Lange said.
Benton Harbor’s problems begin and end with the city’s chronic joblessness, which has not only crushed the spirit of generations of residents but also destroyed the town’s tax base. Delinquency is also a major issue in Benton Harbor: at least 20 percent of its residents can’t, or don’t, pay their city bills. Harris recently combined the town’s trash and water bills in the hope that residents will pay their garbage bills to avoid having their water shut off.
Making matters worse, two of the town’s key income sources are drying up. A state revenue-sharing program dating back to the 1930s is being decimated by ongoing state budget cuts, while a neighboring town that has long purchased its water from Benton Harbor — accounting for half of its water revenues — just finished building its own water-treatment facility. To offset the loss of at least some of these revenues, Harris is planning to raise water rates as much as 40 percent for Benton Harbor residents.
But the erosion of Benton Harbor’s underlying finances has been accompanied by a history of almost farcical mismanagement. Between 2000 and 2010, no fewer than five city administrators filed whistleblower lawsuits against the city, claiming that they had lost their jobs after raising questions about how the elected officials were running the government. Most were settled out of court, costing the city — or its insurers, anyway — a total of more than $2 million.
The latest plaintiff was Richard Marsh, Benton Harbor’s city manager from March 2008 to September 2009, who claimed that the city commission had declined to renew his contract after he went public with the findings of an independent internal audit and requested an F.B.I. investigation of the government’s management of the city. Marsh settled with Benton Harbor for $192,000, but the state subsequently sent its own financial review team to the town, which in turn led to Harris’s appointment in April 2010.
That the town’s finances were a mess when he arrived is beyond dispute. Benton Harbor was incurring overdraft fees of as much as $100,000 a year. It owed the Internal Revenue Service $678,000 in back taxes and HUD more than $1 million for a loan that had been distributed to three local businesses, all of which had gone bankrupt, leaving the city on the hook for the money.
Harris has paid off the I.R.S. and set up a payment plan with HUD, while cutting Benton Harbor’s annual expenses from $8 million to $6 million through a combination of layoffs, new contracts with the police and fire unions and the outsourcing of city services. Broadly speaking, his approach was ripped right from the pages of the conservative playbook: shrink the government and clear the path for private development. One of the first moves Harris made when the state enhanced his powers last spring was to reconfigure the city’s planning commission and the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, which oversee the development of the town. “The city government has got to provide essential services — clean the streets, keep the public safe,” he says. “But if we provide the essential services, and maybe fix up the streets, guess what, more revenue will come in because of the golf course and Whirlpool’s headquarters. Developers are going to come.”
One hundred years ago, an insurance salesman named Lou Upton took the blueprints for a manually operated washing machine to an uncle in Benton Harbor, who quickly figured out how to electrify it. The Upton Machine Company was soon supplying the first washing machines with “motorized agitation” to Sears, Roebuck & Company. Before long, this small family business would become the Whirlpool Corporation, the world’s largest producer of major home appliances.
For decades, Whirlpool did much of its manufacturing in Benton Harbor, but in the 1980s, it started closing its factories in the city to cut labor costs. The company shut down its last assembly plant in Benton Harbor in 1987. It still has some 4,000 employees in the area, but they are predominantly “knowledge workers” — executives, engineers, analysts.
In a sense, it’s surprising that Whirlpool hasn’t relocated these employees too. The closest international airports are in Grand Rapids and Chicago, both more than 80 miles away. (There is an old commuter airport in Benton Harbor, closed to commercial traffic for years, that can accommodate Whirlpool’s corporate jets.) Then there’s the problem of Benton Harbor itself. There can’t be too many major international corporations building $68 million campuses across the street from the site of a recently condemned and demolished low-rent motel.
Whirlpool says it is deeply committed to Benton Harbor. “We’re part of the community,” Jeffrey Noel, Whirlpool’s vice president for corporate communications, told me. “You can’t go to a school-board meeting, or a not-for-profit meeting, or a local Little League game where you don’t see Whirlpool employees volunteering.”
Whirlpool’s logo is affixed to signs all over Benton Harbor, from the Habitat for Humanity homes that its employees helped build to the construction site for a new Benton Harbor Boys and Girls Club that has received several hundred thousand dollars from the Whirlpool Foundation. Benton Harbor’s public school system has also been the beneficiary of Whirlpool largess. The Whirlpool Foundation and the foundations of two of the company’s former chief executives, including the Upton Foundation, have donated more than $1.5 million this year toward reforming the city’s schools, which are among the lowest-achieving in the state. “The goal is over 10 years to make this one of the premier school districts in the region,” Marcus Robinson of the Consortium for Community Development told me.
According to Noel, who also serves as the president of Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment, this is all part of a unified strategy to increase Benton Harbor’s ability to attract employers, tourists and new homeowners. Shortly before starting construction on the golf course, Harbor Shores issued a report detailing some of its proposals for bringing change to Benton Harbor. They included a free 10-week course, “Bridges Out of Poverty,” designed to prepare residents culturally to join the middle class. “Moving out of the culture of poverty requires more than an increase in financial means . . . and accepting achievement as the driving force in one’s life,” the course description read. “It will require one to learn and use middle-class language and behaviors.”
Of course, golf is integral to the plan. A national golf program for underprivileged youth will have a state-of-the-art training facility at Harbor Shores, and the high-school golf team is using Harbor Shores as its home course. (A member of the girls’ team hit one of the first holes-in-one there.) Harbor Shores will also host the 2012 and 2014 Senior P.G.A. Tour Championships, which are expected to bring 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a day to Benton Harbor. “Hopefully, when they get off the course, they’ll come over here and party with us,” a real-estate agent who sells Harbor Shores homes told me one afternoon in the Arts District.
The narrative of the redevelopment of Benton Harbor has been distilled into a multimedia exhibit in a sleek, modern-looking office on Main Street called the Transformation Center. There’s a scale model of Harbor Shores and photographs of a happy, diverse community in full bloom. A promotional video tells the story of Benton Harbor’s rebirth. “Leaving poverty behind, that’s what we’re going to do,” the narration concludes.
There’s no question that a transformation is under way in Benton Harbor. The city’s downtown may still be deserted, but the Arts District isn’t. At night, you can invariably find a large crowd gathered at the Livery, a microbrewery in a former stable.
“When we moved here, this area was a dump,” one of the Livery’s owners, Leslie Pickell, told me one evening at the bar. Along with two other friends, Pickell, who is 50, and her significant other, Michael Gardner — the two met at a Grateful Dead concert in California in the early 1990s — bought the vacant building for $25,000 in 2003. They closed on the property two weeks before Benton Harbor broke out into race riots (locals prefer the term “civil disturbance”). The microbrewery opened in August 2005, and business has grown steadily ever since.
It’s hard not to admire Pickell’s pioneering spirit. But it’s also hard not to wonder what the transformation of Benton Harbor will mean for the vast majority of the town’s population. You don’t see many black faces in the Arts District, and apart from high-school golfers, how many locals are going to be turning up at Harbor Shores — even with the discounted greens fees of $40 available to town residents who are up to date on their city bills?
Marcus Muhammad is a basketball legend in Benton Harbor. As a student at the high school in the early 1990s, he led his team to two straight appearances in the Michigan state finals. Photographs of him still line the wall outside the school gym, along with those of other local basketball greats, including Wilson Chandler, who played last year in the N.B.A.
Then known as Marcus Singer, Muhammad set the career 3-point scoring record at DePaul University and might have played professionally had his interest in basketball not been overtaken by his growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. After graduating from DePaul, he changed his last name and took a job teaching at the Nation of Islam’s school in Chicago.
Muhammad was drawn back to Benton Harbor in 2003, in the wake of the crack epidemic. “It was like a hurricane had blown through here,” he told me. “I could see the carnage, economically, politically, socially.”
Muhammad works as a counselor at the high school and coaches the varsity basketball team, which gives him the local stature of a high-school football coach in Texas. He is also one of the town’s nine city commissioners. At 6-foot-6, with the muscular build of an elite athlete, he cuts an unmistakable figure in Benton Harbor. He is always carrying a book — I saw him with a Bobby Fischer biography on one occasion and Robert A. Caro’s “Power Broker” on another — and dresses in French-cuffed shirts, three-piece suits and ties.
Inside his office at the high school, where a GQ magazine cover of President Obama is prominently displayed, I asked Muhammad what he thought about Harbor Shores. “You’re rebuilding and redeveloping Benton Harbor, but toward what end, what’s the aim?” he replied. “They’re going to have to show us that their ultimate goal isn’t gentrification.”
This is the competing narrative of what’s going on in Benton Harbor: It’s being converted into a resort town for wealthy weekenders and Whirlpool employees — that, when all is said and done, its struggling black population will either be driven out by the development or reduced to low-wage jobs cleaning hotel rooms, carrying golf bags or cutting grass.
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.”
Hearing Muhammad and others in Benton Harbor who share his point of view, it’s easy to feel as if you’re in the presence of conspiracy theorists. Still, there’s no doubt that the state, which put millions into Harbor Shores and is providing Whirlpool with as much as $19 million in tax credits to build its new campus on a brownfield site, has a lot invested in the redevelopment of Benton Harbor. In this sense at least, Benton Harbor is by no means just another struggling Michigan town.
To skeptics of the redevelopment of Benton Harbor, Whirlpool looks less like a good corporate citizen than another company manipulating the system, leveraging its power to maximize its tax breaks and taking advantage of the town’s access to federal and state grant money. (It’s worth noting that Whirlpool hasn’t paid any federal corporate income taxes in the United States for the last three years, partly, the company says, because of losses due to the recession.)
More to the point, imagine that you live in a city where generations of residents have struggled to find work, a city that has stubbornly resisted decades worth of attempts to reverse its fortunes. Then imagine being told, without a hint of irony, that the answer to your problems is a $500 million, high-end golf resort. Oh, and also, an unelected state appointee will be running your city until further notice.
Between the almost-delusional optimism of those who support the redevelopment of Benton Harbor and the almost-paranoid mistrust of those who don’t, spending time in the town can be a profoundly disorienting experience. If there is a single symbol of these colliding perspectives, a Benton Harbor Rorschach test, it’s holes 7 though 9 of Harbor Shores, which stretch out across the dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. They were built on the edge of 22 acres of a public beachfront park that Benton Harbor’s cash-strapped government agreed to lease to Harbor Shores for 105 years starting at $35,000 a year. Depending on your point of view, they represent either the constructive repurposing of a poorly maintained, underutilized stretch of lakefront property, or an unconscionable violation of the public trust.
One of the biggest challenges facing Benton Harbor is the city’s staggering level of political disengagement, which has made it almost impossible to know what residents want from their representatives. In last month’s citywide election, only about 1,400 of Benton Harbor’s citizens voted; in 2009, the turnout was less than half that. Democracy has now officially been suspended in Benton Harbor; unofficially, it was suspended years ago.
Benton Harbor’s elected city commissioners are unpaid. (The state’s emergency-manager act eliminated what had been a largely symbolic salary.) Most of them have full-time jobs and don’t spend much time in City Hall. The exception is Commissioner Dennis Knowles. Gaunt, manic and missing several teeth, Knowles, who is unemployed, can invariably be found behind an old desktop computer in a narrow, musty office in City Hall scrutinizing Harris’s actions.
Knowles is commissioner of Benton Harbor’s Fourth Ward, which, in addition to Harbor Shores, encompasses some of the town’s poorest streets. He was elected in 2009 with 84 votes. “This is a side note, but he sleeps in the building,” Harris told me one morning last summer at City Hall. “We have cameras so we can tell the times of day when he goes out to use the restroom.”
Harris now says Knowles no longer sleeps at City Hall. Knowles insi