Southwest Michigan is an area with miles of scenic shoreline, popular for boating and fishing, thanks to Lake Michigan and the St. Joseph River. These shores are also home to the city of Benton Harbor. This is a city that once thrived because of its booming industrial economy, however, there are some painful parts to its story as well, particularly in relationship to its "twin city" of St. Joseph. These two cities, separated by the St. Joseph River, have seen significant conflict due to the disparity between the two. St. Joseph is predominately Caucasian, while Benton Harbor is predominately African-American. The median household income in St. Joseph is nearly three times that of Benton Harbor. This stark contrast has led to racial tension and unrest at times, and residents of Benton Harbor also face the struggles of poverty and poor infrastructure and education. In the midst of all of this, revitalization efforts are under way, and there are many who are committed to seeing this community be restored.
Benton Harbor is a small community on the coast of Lake Michigan in the southwest corner of the state. Two hours outside Chicago, Benton Harbor's long been a destination for tourism, manufacturing, and agricultural commerce. Benefactors of the Great Migration - an early twentieth century migration of African American families from the Jim Crow South to the North - many African Americans moved to Benton Harbor in lure of honest blue collar work, including at Whirlpool's corporate and manufacturing headquarters. This movement made Benton Harbor one of three primarily African American communities in Michigan, alongside Detroit and Flint. Manufacturing jobs began to decline in the 1960's, however, with the first wave of automation; Benton Harbor's population has been in decline since, dropping nearly 50% since the mid-twentieth century. The city has felt economic decline in ways that neighboring St. Joseph's has not. St. Joseph, unlike Benton Harbor, is an upper-class, predominately white, tourist community across the St. Joseph River. The two towns are referred to as the "Twin Cities," but they share few similarities. The population of Benton Harbor is nearly 90% African-American, while St. Joseph's is 88% white. Benton Harbor's median yearly income for families hovers just below $19,000; St. Joseph's median yearly income is nearly triple that of Benton Harbor's at almost $56,000. The community has always been resilient, but residents took a new interest in civil discourse in 2008 after the state of Michigan appointed an Emergency Financial Manager to the city, and repurposed 22 acres of beach-front state park to be a premier golf-course - both to the city's disapproval. Now, local leaders have rallied the community to create economic development themselves rather than letting outside forces shape their future. Since 2000, YouthWorks has had the privilege of coming alongside several influential community leaders to support community efforts to improve the city, including redevelopment of local parks, minor home repair projects through the city, and working with community development agencies.