Florida in Michigan? That’s Benton Harbor

Urban Renewal in the Twenty-First Century

Benton1Now that Detroit’s emergency manager has taken the axe to the city’s public services and pension programs, let’s take a little trip to the shores of Lake Michigan, directly across the water from Chicago. A handful of Compass members ended up here in 2012, after a visit to “the D.” Here’s some of the things we found out.

The largely white resort town of St Joseph is an elegant tourist destination with some chic little restaurants and bars, nice beaches, sailboats, promenades, an ugly Berrien county courthouse and a lot of Ku Klux Klan graffiti in the sketchier corners. As for Benton Harbor, its black and impoverished sister city, it’s the hometown of the Whirlpool corporation. It became a major industrial center during WWII, as part of FDR’s “arsenal of democracy.” Wash-machine workers made components for fighter jets, and the town’s industrial economy boomed. That was the era we now call “Fordism.”

Terrance-ShurnAlas, all good things come to an end and there is no more industry in Benton Harbor. Still the warmachine-washmachine complex has left some nasty things behind. Not only multiple Superfund sites where the factory workers once toiled, but also deep social problems due to longterm unemployment compounded by seething racism. The city is 85% African American and has around 10,000 inhabitants, down almost half from its peak in 1960. There were major riots here in 1966 and then again in 2003, when a young man name Terrance Shurn was killed in a chase by the police. A few years before those last events, Alex Kotlowitz published The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Death, and America’s Dilemma. As in his earlier book There Are No Children Here, on Chicago’s housing projects, Kotlowitz was exploring the unresolved problems of race relations in America.

Golf-Club-at-Harbor-Shores-in-Benton-Harbor-MichiganWhirlpool, too, had a dilemma. It wanted to keep its headquarters in Benton Harbor, and its leaders claim they wanted to do the right thing by the city. Whirlpool operates on a global scale, with $120 billion worth of business annually and about 71,000 employees. To keep its executives, engineers, designers, researchers and advertisers in Benton Harbor it needed a much more attractive environment. So it began looking for strategies to make that possible. Over the last several years, the corporation and its allies have attempted a massive post-industrial conversion through the installation of a golf course and a real-estate operation on land that had been deeded in perpetuity to the city as a public park. They have done this through the intermediary of a “civic organization” called the Cornerstone Alliance, in collaboration with the city, the state and private investors both big and small. The dunes have been partially flattened, houses have been built on swamp-front property turned into a tourist harbor, millionaire mansions have risen directly along the lakefront, and the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course has been installed on what was once Jean Klock Park. What’s more, the formerly industrial city now boasts an Arts District that’s trying hard to look like a little Gold Coast in a town whose people are living on the edge of destitution.

All of this has been underway for over a decade. At the culmination of the process, however, at the moment when these kinds of urban investments were threatened by the 2008 financial crisis, it became necessary to abrogate local democracy in Benton Harbor, by installing an emergency financial manager. Here’s the blow-by-blow according to Wikipedia:

The Michigan Treasury Department in 2009 sent a team to look into the city’s finances. The team’s report was a long list of mismanagement to the point that budgets were “effectively meaningless as a financial management tool.” The city was $10 million under-funded in its pension fund and increasing budget deficits. In April 2010, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Joseph Harris as Emergency Financial Manager. City staff has been reduced by 30 to 70. Harris was given expanded powers under a new law signed in March 2011 by Republican Governor Rick Snyder. On April 14, 2011, Harris suspended the decision-making powers of Benton Harbor’s elected city officials, who can hold meetings but are not allowed to govern. The Michigan AFL-CIO president called the move “sad news for democracy in Michigan,” but at least one city official, City Commissioner Bryan Joseph, was in favor of it, saying the city had been mismanaged for decades.

A majority of post-industrial cities – including Chicago – have massively underfunded pension obligations. Since they were able to borrow huge amounts of money through bond issues during the bubble years of the 2000s, those problems were put off for a future reckoning. Judgement Day came first for Benton Harbor, it has come now for Detroit, and there is every chance that it will come for Chicago. What kinds of plans will be realized amidst the opportunities represented by a major budgetary crisis? That’s the open question.

Jack Nicklaus in Benton Harbor 2010In Benton Harbor we can see the “neoliberal urban agenda” in its miniature golf course version. This poor lakeside city exemplifies what’s happening across the country as elites double down in response to the financial crisis they created. The essence of the operation is that it appears to have gained the consent of large numbers of people, while silencing or mainly just ignoring everyone else. Occupy PGA did not succeed in closing down the 2012 golf tournament.

You can easily visit Benton Harbor, as we’ve now done a couple of times with folks from the Compass group, and there is lots to read on the Internet. Among the articles and videos – including, for example, the story of local activist Reverend Pinkney who was sent to prison for quoting Deuteronomy – some of the most interesting things have to do with a guy named Marcus Robinson. He’s president of the “Consortium for Community Development,” which is lodged in the purely ideological “Transformation Center” that includes and subsumes the local chapter of the NAACP. What you see in there is the urban development model on display for executives, professionals, investors, golfers and above all, potential home buyers. Read what Jonathan Mahler says about Marcus Robinson in a New York Times Magazine article:

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.

Robinson’s hypnotic mantra is something he calls “world-class communities.” That’s what Benton Harbor is supposed to become. As I struggled to figure out what that could mean in post-industrial Michigan, I came across an article by him where all the ideas are lifted directly from Richard Florida. In the introduction to this 2001 text he seems to prefigure the arrival of the emergency financial manager almost a decade later:

Perhaps the problem of affordable housing, quality education, and job development should no longer be left to elected officials alone. Chambers of Commerce, large and small businesses, not-for-profit organizations, educational institutions, communities of faith, and governments are partnering in a new way to address the development, revitalization, and vitality of the community.

In Marcus Robinson’s eyes, Benton Harbor is the successful adaptation of Richard Florida’s creativity theories to a small regional city. To my eyes, the Harbor Shores development looks like a Bush-era real-estate scheme built on the cooptation of racial equality campaigns and left-leaning lifestyle culture. This development is not complete but it is now irreversible, despite the real-estate slump that seemed to render such money-pumps obsolete. The Arts District on which the flat-broke city has spent some $2.3 million included a boutique-style OutCenter which was was shuttered and disused when the Compass group passed by a year ago. On the web it looks like a totally legitimate LGBT institution, and surely it is, but in the context it also looked like another tick on the check-list of Florida’s Diversity Index, indispensable for luring high-value people to the city. Right next to it are two swank boutiques owned by a local artist and sweets purveyor, Jerry Catania, who started his Water Street Glassworks with, as he says on his website “the unwavering support of Cornerstone Alliance and its Community Renewal Through the Arts Program, the City of Benton Harbor, Michigan Council for the Arts, HUD, and a host of partners, donors and volunteers.”

Come-be-part-of-the-Arts-DistrictApparently Catania is a friendly and quite believable Oxbow prof who explained to a friend of ours that the city council was totally corrupt and the Whirlpool plans and the emergency manager were necessary, a good thing under the circumstances. We saw in the Transformation Center that he had received an initial $15,000 grant to buy the building. That amount, however, was clearly dwarfed by all the money that has been poured into this miniature “creativity district,” linked by a special road to the massive real-estate project that is being built to lure Whirlpool execs and future tourists to barely remediated lots, some of which are undoubtedly still hot from the radioactive paint used on the warplanes. The shocking thing is that, after destroying the local ecology and then sending the industrial jobs to Mexico, a successfully globalized Whirlpool now wants not only to retake the seashore as high-value property, but also to remake the whole town as a bohemian paradise for its managers and engineers who can invest big in lakefront homes and get out of there quickly in private jets. The black population is supposed – literally, in the case of the high-school students – to learn how to be middle-class by playing golf, thanks to generous corporate subsidies. Check out the Harbor Shores promotional video for the details.

Benton Harbor 2Local community activist Reverend Pinkney, who takes notes at all the public hearings in the Berrien Country Courthouse that looms like Dracula’s tower over the really existing people of Benton Harbor, has a quite different interpretation of what’s going on here. He thinks the harsh sentences meted out systematically to poor people under a get-tough-on-crime program are designed to drive blacks from the town and complete the total makeover. Here as in Chicago, former public housing has been demolished according to the dictates of Clinton’s Hope VI program. It is still uncertain whether any displaced residents are going to benefit from the new housing stock, which looks far too expensive for the $17,000-a-year median income of Benton Harbor today.

Many will say: “Look how wonderful, that town is coming alive again.” And they will ask: “What else do you propose? Do you have something against artists, gays, young black golfers and any kind of new development? How else could these people possibly rise up out of poverty?”

Not all the artists in the area agree with what’s going on here, however. Scott Elliot is the owner of the Citadel Dance and Music Center, also in the Arts District. He gives his own view in a documentary called The New Benton Harbor: “It’s fraudulent, because what they’re doing, they say, is for the people who live here. It’s not. The people who are living here now are going to have to disperse and go elsewhere, because they’re not going to be able to afford to live here. They’re doing it…. They’re sort of recreating the area in their own image.”

What will happen in Benton Harbor as the make-over continues? And what will happen in Chicago? Who has the right to shape the city? And whose image do you want to live in?


Harbor Shores Development Image



Documentary: The New Benton Harbor


Some links for further inquiry

[compiled in 2012]

Black autonomy network community organization (Rev Pinkney):

–Save Jean Klock Park

–What Is the Big Squeeze

The Whirlpool/Cornertone Alliance/Harbor Shores complex:

http://www.workforcediversitynetwork.com/docs/Article_world_class.pdf (on Richard Florida and “world-class communities”)

Chicago Reader articles:
http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/can-jack-nicklaus-save-benton-harbor/Content?oid=1109728 (this is a very good one)

New York Times articles:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/magazine/benton-harbor.html?pagewanted=all (–> this is a “must read” piece)

In These Times:
http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/7237/democracy_vs._profit_central_issue_in_benton_harbor_takeover (–> another “must read” piece)

Cincinnati Herald:

South Bend Tribune:

Jesse Jackson text:

Investigate West article:
http://www.invw.org/article/benton-harbor-michigan-1280 (good investigation from ecological standpoint)

Ecclecta blog (probably more in here if you look):


March to Saint Joseph (2003 protest against racism and police brutality, with Ron Scott)

Jean Klock Park: Legacy gift lost to greed (this one is pretty impressive):

Pastor arrested for quoting the Bible (Pinkney in jail, 2 parts)

Rachel Maddow

Harbor Shores promotional videos:

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