August 26, 2003
Help Comes to a Riot-Stricken City, but Its Problems Remain
ENTON HARBOR, Mich., Aug. 20 — At first glance, the little riot that erupted here this summer after a motorcyclist was killed in a police chase might seem like a long-awaited blessing for this forgotten ghetto tucked among the beach resorts on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan.
The two months since the two nights of violence that left 12
torched have brought a flood of good-news announcements: $500,000 from
the state to create summer jobs for teenagers; the renovation by the
Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm is expected to bring a new bag of goodies when she returns here on Tuesday; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has marched through town five times this summer, plans to open a satellite of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition here this fall.
"Things are really moving; the window's open now," said the Rev. Edward Pinkney of the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization, whose weekly courthouse protest has swelled from its mainstay of 20 to as many as 80 at times this summer. "Nobody got killed. A few houses burned down, but we're going to get 50 new ones. That may not be a bad exchange at all."
Look closer, though, and the changes in this city of 12,000 residents — 95 percent of them black, 40 percent below the poverty line, one in five unemployed — might appear cosmetic.
The economic development deals were in the works long before the disturbances; in fact, resentment over the dominance of white contractors in the downtown revival may have helped stoke the outrage. The Youth Works summer jobs grant simply revived a longstanding program that was abandoned in 1998 — and had slots for only 262 of 640 applicants, for just six weeks. Main Street's few small businesses have been struggling with lower sales since the violence scared customers away.
In the graffiti-stained neighborhood, where ashes from the burned buildings have been covered with sand but the boarded-up houses next door remain hideouts for drug dealers, residents say the only difference is the squeeze from the police. The 12 officers of the Benton Harbor Police Department have been buttressed this summer by 23 state troopers, who locals say endlessly harass motorists and bicyclists, and shoo even adults from streets to stoops before the 10:30 p.m. youth curfew.
"I see no changes — everybody put on airs," said Linda Briziel, 49, as she took pictures of her grandchildren playing at a picnic organized by a local mental health clinic in response to the riots. "They're going to do everything they can for a while, but it won't do anything. They still going to have the drugs, they still going to have the violence."
The "disturbance," as many here call it, was set off by the June 16 death of Terrance Shurn, a 28-year-old man who was driving without a license and crashed while being chased by the police at speeds that witnesses said topped 100 miles an hour. It was one in a series of ugly, and often fatal, altercations between the poor African-Americans of Benton Harbor and the white officers from neighboring towns like Benton Township and St. Joseph.
The glare of national news coverage embarrassed city leaders at first, but they quickly seized the microphones to lament the horrors that have engulfed their city since it lost 5,000 factory jobs in the mid-1980's. Half the residents lack a high school education. Two-thirds of the men ages 17 to 30 have a felony record. The once-thriving downtown is just 30 percent occupied (up from 10 percent a decade ago), the tax base dry as stone.
The attention undoubtedly generated new energy.
Six banks called Community Housing Initiatives, a nonprofit organization, offering mortgages to low-income buyers that had long been rejected. A languishing ministerial alliance, representing many of the 100 storefront churches crammed into Benton Harbor's four square miles, replaced turf battles with cooperative meetings. Mayor Charles Yarbrough began walking the mile and a half from his home to City Hall, listening to angry residents en route.
"You've got people talking to each other that never talked before," said Mayor Yarbrough, 64, who is running for his second four-year term, after 25 years as a city commissioner.
Jeff Noel, the president of the Cornerstone Alliance, the economic and emotional engine behind most of the city's redevelopment, said, "It's forced people to say, `Yes, let's get a meeting tomorrow,' instead of next month."
The most obvious bright slivers in the dark clouds are the $5.15-an-hour jobs at 58 area businesses that were doled out by lottery to people ages 14 to 21. Students mowed the lawn at the tiny municipal airport, washed cars at Schroeder Motor Mall, did data entry at Gast Manufacturing and otherwise learned the responsibilities of clock-punching. Several were fired after failing drug tests or just failing to show up, but several others were offered full-time employment this fall.
But if some now have extra money to buy school shoes and books, other residents see the summer jobs as merely a Band-Aid.
"They're making jobs for kids; they should make jobs for grown-ups," said Lisa Callahan, 38, who lives near the riot area, has seven children and has been living on food stamps since she was laid off from a tree nursery in February.
All the attention in the world does not address the fundamental mismatch between employment-starved residents and companies with job requirements they cannot meet. Most residents lack basic skills; many have criminal records. A ceiling-grate manufacturer brought 100 jobs starting at $13 an hour in 1998; 30 percent of the new hires did not get past a drug screening.
The skills shortage is among the many complex and systemic problems being considered by the governor's 22-member task force, which plans to present a list of priorities on Oct. 15. On Tuesday evening, Richard Pappas, the president of Lake Michigan College, outlined a $140,000, 16-week seminar for 100 adults that would teach reading, math, computer and other job skills.
Dr. Pappas's presentation was sandwiched between one from a group of ministers who want to build 50 houses and one from the police chief, Samuel Harris, who said that he could not pursue community policing because his 12 officers were swamped by 1,200 to 1,600 calls a month, and that turnover was high because Benton Harbor's $13.40-an-hour pay is the lowest in the region.
The question for each was the same: Where would the money come from, in a state with a $2 billion deficit?
The lonely entrepreneurs waiting for customers in the ghostly downtown have similar worries. The doors of the arts district were mostly locked today, and the only place to buy a cup of coffee was at the concession stand of the newly renovated State Theater, whose peak audiences of 300 a weekend dropped to 75 this summer.
At the Sign Shop, which moved here in 1999, sales are off $20,000 from this time last year, a big hit on a total annual take of $130,000. Lashunn Harper, the owner of Dialo's Cafe, has placed a huge marquee on the town green in hopes of luring customers to his empty soul-food storefront around the corner.
"I have a lot of white customers who live in Stevensville, and they were kind of just getting comfortable coming down here," said Mr. Harper, 31, who opened his restaurant three years ago. The disturbance "slowed it down," he said. "They were calling and saying: `Is it safe to come down there? Can you deliver?' "
The residents of Empire and Pavone Streets, in the neighborhood where the buildings burned, do not attend task force or community meetings. They yearn for the construction jobs downtown, but say those are mostly taken by out-of-towners (though for two of the four houses being built to replace ones that burned, the state housing agency is spending $16,000 extra to hire a Benton Harbor contractor whose bid was not the lowest). They seethe at the state police officers, who they feel are occupying their city.
David Gray, an assistant manager at a furniture rental company in Benton Township, said he had been stopped nearly every day since the riot. Ditto for Charles Patterson, who pulled up on a bike to get a shave at a makeshift barbershop on a friend's front porch, and Jeffrey Sims, who stopped by to gossip.
"You got immediate hush money, that's all it was," Mr. Sims, 36, said of the summer jobs and other new initiatives. "I think it's just a story for the moment. Give it another year, we'll probably fade into experience."
Mr. Patterson scoffed, "Six months."
"Yeah," Mr. Sims agreed. "A year's probably too much."