Blight vs. Gentrification: Is There Another Way?


English: Aerial picture of Benton Harbor, Mich...
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Now That the Factories Are Closed, It’s Tee Time in Benton Harbor, Mich. –

In an engrossing and balanced article in The New York Times Magazine from December year, Jonathan Mahler describes the attempted revitalization of Benton Harbor, a Michigan rust-belt town that despite the ravages of global economics remains the headquarters of Whirlpool, Inc.

On the one side of the town’s revitalization efforts are a the developers of a golf resort, an “emergency city manager” appointed by the state government, and Whirlpool, all of whom seem to want the Lake Michigan town to regain its vibrancy. On the other are elected officials of an apparently dysfunctional government who have been sidelined in the State’s effort to resuscitate the town, and activists who are concerned that in this mini-Detroit’s renaissance there is no room for the town’s working class.

In this day of 1% vs. 99% and Occupy Whatever, it is tempting to see in the collusion between a Republican State government, a large corporation, and a property developer the specter of conspiracy. Is this an effort to gentrify a factory town that circumvents morality, if not the law?

It might be, but Mahler finds no easy villains, no smoking gun, just the smell of something that might be pushing the unemployed, undereducated, and unskilled out of town. That he did not is significant, and he seems troubled by a hard truth.

Harbor Shores is not without precedent. Recently, a golf course helped revive a troubled neighborhood in Atlanta known as East Lake. But at this point, it seems more likely that Harbor Shores will simply bring a new population to Benton Harbor and hasten the town’s fracturing into two distinct communities: the second-home owners and Whirlpool executives who live inside Harbor Shores and frequent the Arts District — and everyone else.

The question is, can “everyone else” include a stable, working-class population, or is Benton Harbor beyond repair?

The possibility that gentrification is the only thing that will keep Benton Harbor afloat gnaws on the author, but what gnawed on me the most was nobody from a chorus of opponents – the activists, the discarded city officials, and outsiders including Rachel Maddow and the Reverend Jesse Jackson – has yet to propose an workable alternative solution, or even to suggest changes to the current formula that would be more inclusive of those who Mahler categorizes as “everyone else.”

That liberals have failed to be part of the solution is disturbing, but the silence of the right is hints at a hubris that implies that gentrification is the only path for blighted communities. This is a failure of imagination on both sides of the aisle, and it offers scant consolation to places like Detroit, where scale makes urban blight a problem unsolvable by golf resorts.

The challenge of Benton Harbor, then, is the pressing need to construct an American future that avoids the hazards of a binary economy, of the 1% and the 99%. It is the clarion that reminds us to stop proposing industrial age solutions on post-industrial nations, states, and communities.

3 thoughts on “Blight vs. Gentrification: Is There Another Way?

Add yours

  1. I agree with you that there is a failure of imagination over what to do about urban blight in places like Detroit. But here is another reason why policies will fail: each case of urban blight is unique and so policies which have been effective in improving blighted neighborhoods can not be applied elsewhere.
    If we could find a way to identify urban blight as a ubiquitous process then it would be possible to apply solutions which have been effective in other cases.
    I offer an example of one such blight process which I call ‘sudden blight.’ If you are interested you can read my blog on
    Maybe you have some examples of ubiquitous blight from Beijiing?
    All the best,
    Dr. Mel Marcus

    1. Thanks Dr. Marcus. Would really enjoy seeing your blog, but I get an “under construction” page?

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