Friday, June 1, 2012

Benton Harbor

It's a rainy morning in Benton Harbor, the city that Wikipedia tells us has the lowest per-capita income in the state of Michigan. I feel bad leading with that fact - I suspect that the narrative of a place like this is dominated by such ledes - but the boarded-up buildings in the gray rainy morning really are the most immediately-striking visual fact of this city.

The signs on one building are a mixture of black-and-white stencils ("city is changing but ignoring black men invest in us" with the non-bolded words merely outlined in white pencil against the white sign, almost invisible) and a professionally-printed call for "honest investor(s)" willing to put money into the local black community. A magnificent church retains the stained-glass and announcement board outside, but looks abandoned from within - I can't tell if it's still in use or not.

Young black men in black hoodies are the only signs of life outside. They're not, as far as I can tell, acting in solidarity with Trayvon Martin (though I certainly didn't ask, and can you imagine that conversation? "Why would you say you're wearing a hoodie today?" "Because it's 55 and raining!" "Sure, but why the specific choice of this politically-charged garment? You can be honest with me - I'm a well-meaning white guy with an audio recorder!") Inside the (good Yelp-reviewed, free-wifi-offering, Pride-flag-out-front) Phoenix cafe in the arts district downtown, the clientele and staff are almost exclusively white, all the more salient an observation in a town that (again, wikipedia) is 89% black. Really solid tracks from Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco play against a backdrop of beautiful black-and-white x-ray-looking images of plants hung on the wall, part of an exhibit called "Found Botany".

Across the river from the poorest town in Michigan with an 89% black population is St. Joseph, 88% white with nearly 3 times the household income ($49,982 vs a staggering $17,301).

We've only been in town since last night, a brief stay at the Red Roof Inn meant to keep us dry from the rain pelting the 94, sheets of water exploding out from beneath the wheels of semis that threaten to run us off the road every few minutes. It's hard to know what else to say about a place that surely hosts so many different storylines; but rather than let the moment go unrecorded (increasingly a rarity on this trip, and in our lives generally) I felt like pointing this out.

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