Benton Harbor — December 16, 2011 at 10:08 am

Jonathan Mahler publishes important piece about Benton Harbor


For most of the summer, Jonathan Mahler has been working on an article for the New York Times Magazine about Benton Harbor. At one point, my wife and I met him there over pizza and beers to give him a bit of our perspective, primarily as outside observers unhappy with the new powers granted the city’s Emergency Manager Joe Harris.

The piece will be published this weekend in print form and is now available online. It is titled “Now That the Factories Are Closed, It’s Tee Time in Benton Harbor, Mich.”

I think it is a very well-researched and well-written piece. I’m certain that many of the players involved in Benton Harbor will be unhappy with it which may, in some ways, be a testament to how fair the article is.

Emergency Manager Joe Harris comes across as a both arrogant and happy-go-lucky. He seems aloof if not almost unaware of the desperation just outside his window as he goes on with his bean counter’s task of balancing the books.

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.” […]

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.’ ”

Commissioner Dennis Knowles doesn’t fare much better. In Mahler’s article we learn that he often slept at City Hall and is unemployed. He seems like a man who can barely run his own life much less a city.

After we’d talked for a while, we got in my rental car and went for a drive around his ward. “It’s beautiful, but it’s not for us,” Knowles said, as we rode through Harbor Shores. “It’s not for poor people.” I had asked Knowles if he slept at City Hall, and he took me by his house, which he said he rents for about $250 a month. “I don’t sell dope,” he volunteered, explaining how he pays his rent. “I come out and hustle — electrical jobs, cutting grass, whatever.” On our way back to City Hall, we passed the Transformation Center — “a con job,” Knowles called it.

When I dropped him back at City Hall, Knowles got out of the car and said goodbye, then poked his head back in the passenger window. “Hey,” he said, “can you spare a couple of bucks so I can get myself a bag of chips and a pop?”

Whirlpool is shown to be self-serving and a major benefactor for Benton Harbor mainly because it helps with their business plan if they can gentrify the city. Even their attempts to help the poor folks in Benton Harbor are insulting and patronizing.

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.”

If Whirlpool’s plan is to make the Benton Harbor school system “one of the premier school districts in the region”, they have a very long, long way to go. Teachers without essential supplies and a recent move to lay off 20 teachers and staffers don’t make for much of a school district, much less a premier one. And I feel pretty certain that classes to teach the poor African Americans to “learn and use middle-class language and behaviors” went over like a lead balloon.

The person who shines out in Mahler’s piece is Benton Harbor chief of police, Roger Lange. He seems like a caring leader who only wants what’s best for the city and seems to be outside of the political turmoil and the corporate jockeying, focused on trying to do something about the crime and drugs and violence in his community.

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. […]

Lange seemed at times like a small-town cop, an African-American Andy Griffith in a Mayberry turned upside-down.

The situation in Benton Harbor is complex and multi-layered. Mahler has captured it well from my perspective. While he doesn’t glamorize the plight of the poor people in the city, he does a good job capturing their perspective about what is happening to and around them.

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.

His conclusion, actually stated in the beginning, is that Benton Harbor is a microcosm of what is happening across the country and that, as cities struggle and fail, they may be forced to turn to corporations to save them.

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.

We can only hope that he is wrong.