Benton Harbor Gropes for Ways to Restore Hope Three years ago, the death of a black motorcyclist after a police chase in Benton Harbor, Mich., led to civil unrest. Now, as Erin Toner of member station WKAR reports, community leaders say they're trying to attack Benton Harbor's many problems: poverty, joblessness and a sense of despair.
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Benton Harbor Gropes for Ways to Restore Hope

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Benton Harbor Gropes for Ways to Restore Hope

Benton Harbor Gropes for Ways to Restore Hope

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Three years ago today, riots broke out in Benton Harbor, Michigan, after a black motorcyclist died following a high-speed chase by a white police officer. The riot highlighted underlying problems in the poor, largely black city, where roughly a quarter of the residents are unemployed.

Still city leaders say their efforts to revitalize the area are working. Erin Toner of member station WKAR in East Lansing, Michigan reports.

ERIN TONER reporting:

Benton Harbor is a small city along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. More than 90 percent of its residents are black and many of them are poor. Adjoining Benton Harbor is a city of most middle to upper class white residents, and that racial and economic juxtaposition makes headlines when things go wrong, like they did in the summer of 2003. Benton Harbor residents pelted police with bricks and bottles and set houses on fire during three nights of rioting.

After the violence, government leaders and residents pledged to fight the real problems in the city, unemployment, bad housing, and blight.

On this cloudy and cool morning, a few dozens parents and kids are cleaning up the city's downtown. Melvin Pullen is hunched over a garden helping kids plant petunias. He says you can tell a poor city by how it looks.

Mr. MELVIN PULLEN (Benton Harbor Resident): So even though it's a Saturday morning that I would normally be sleeping in, I'm like, what a better time to get up and get out, and do something that you feel good about.

(Soundbite of children chanting)

Unidentified Children: Sitting in a rocking chair, eating those crackers...

TONER: Downtown Benton Harbor sports signs of a successful past, an old movie theatre, hotel and office buildings. But the city lost most of that business some time ago. Now though, in one part of downtown, old storefronts are becoming art galleries. The city's recovery plan involves creating activity downtown, building better, affordable housing and giving people the job training they need.

Jeff Knoll helped create the plan before taking a job with Whirlpool Corporation, which has its world headquarters on the outskirts of town.

Mr. JEFF KNOLL (Co-creator of Recovery Plan): We've had employers who have indicated they can't find the work force they need, who have actually let the area. It's not that the work force doesn't exist; it's just that we don't have a work force that has the confidence, the skills, and that has some of the barriers removed that allows them to be more self-sufficient.

TONER: Knoll says the plan is working. Downtown is coming back and the city is building more than 300 new homes. Schloria Mitchell will live in one of them. The 26-year old single mother of four used to clean hotel rooms, but she got free training to be a nurse's assistant.

Ms. SCHLORIA MITCHELL (Benton Harbor Resident): I don't know, I'd probably be hopeless. Most of my dreams probably wouldn't even exist right now. And now I can actually know that it's going to happen.

TONER: There's also job growth in Benton Harbor, and a development deal in the works is expected to create 2,000 permanent jobs and more than double Benton Harbor's tax base. Kevin Phillips could end up working on that new project. The long time Benton Harbor resident was hired to do construction after receiving job training after the riot.

Mr. KEVIN PHILLIPS (Benton Harbor Resident): I've always scuffled, scuffled, scuffled, scuffled. And now I can see the opportunity to better myself, down the road. I have monies to send my kids to college. Me and my wife are buying our first home now. And I'm like 40 years old. I had planned on doing that years ago.

TONER: But in some Benton Harbor neighborhoods, as many as half the homes are boarded up, and a lot of residents still don't have jobs, or a reason to believe things are getting better. Still leaders here hope that as progress continues, people's perceptions of Benton Harbor as a troubled and impoverished city will change.

For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner.

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