Hard times have taken sharp toll on Benton Harbor

Faltering industry, racial tensions helped form powder keg


BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- The years have weighed heavy on this place.

More than a century past its origins as a fruit-producing powerhouse, the riverside city is now home to about 11,000 people.

More than one-third of them live in poverty. More than 90 percent are black.

Benton Harbor looked very different just a few decades ago. The city evolved from a resort town into a manufacturing center, and spiraled into decline beginning in the late 1960s.

"Work virtually disappeared in Benton Harbor, and it has been economically distressed ever since," said Alex Kotlowitz, a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

Mr. Kotlowitz wrote a book in 1998 about a controversial shooting that highlighted racial and economic differences between Benton Harbor and its neighboring city, St. Joseph.

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Benton Harbor began in the 1830s, when Eleazar Morton and his family planted orchards, according to the city's Web site. A mile-long canal opened in Benton Harbor in 1862, allowing thousands of pounds of fruit to be shipped from the port each year.

A trolley, opera house, and schools sprang up in Benton Harbor. The growing town on the St. Joseph River officially became a city in 1891.

As the 20th century began, Benton Harbor attracted thousands of tourists. Visitors especially enjoyed the amusement park and semi-professional baseball team run by the House of David, a semi-religious communal society.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the region's industrial leaders recruited young black men from southern states to work in factories, Mr. Kotlowitz said. Many offered good-paying jobs, so black families moved into the area.

"In the 1960s, the population began to shift," he said. "There was, like there was everywhere else, a great white flight."

Many white residents moved just across the river to the city of St. Joseph, which has a population that is more than 90 percent white and has a median household income more than twice that of Benton Harbor. Community institutions, such as the hospital, YMCA, and newspaper also drifted across the river to St. Joseph.

Urban sprawl and global competition took a toll on Benton Harbor throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and the city has never recovered.

Whirlpool Corp., with corporate headquarters just north of the city, is one of the few reminders of the area's manufacturing heyday.

Racial tensions have simmered in Benton Harbor for many years, Mr. Kotlowitz said. Residents told him the local criminal justice system discriminates based on race and class.

"Benton Harbor is kind of this forgotten community," Mr. Kotlowitz said. "There's no doubt in my mind that this [riot] had to do with more than one incident ... residents in Benton Harbor felt unfairly treated."