Building Up Benton Harbor: The blooming Arts District

NOW: Building Up Benton Harbor: The blooming Arts District

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- The Arts District is now known as a vibrant community, but is still new to Benton Harbor.

Its creation is thanks to a handful of people who saw the potential in the city.

“There have been a lot of abandoned buildings down here but it’s a great piece of Benton harbor history,” said Kelly Veega, Vice-President of the Benton Harbor Arts Association.

Two decades ago, these blocks painted a picture of a once-prosperous city filled with commerce and residents.

A mural on Water Street tells the story of Benton Harbor’s golden age – a port city bustling with people, agriculture and trade.

Then that started to fade away.

But in 1998, the Benton Harbor Arts Association was born – a group of volunteers hoping to create a space where art and creativity would thrive once again.

“We were established with a mission to revitalize the neighborhood through community and the arts," said Veega. "Things just started springing up around us, local artists’ studios, 10 nonprofits in just these few blocks alone."

Each business opening breathed new life into rundown, vacant buildings.

And the buildings aren’t the only thing being invested in, there’s also a focus on Benton Harbor’s youngest residents – hoping to inspire these kids to discover art as an outlet.

“The founders started our school because they wanted to have an after-school program for at-risk youth here in Benton Harbor,” said Anna Strach, manager at Water Street Glassworks.

Water Street Glassworks allows students take part in the weekly Fired Up program which gives them a safe, productive after school activity.

“They create their own art work that they enter into competitions where they have opportunities to win scholarships,” said Strach.

Just down the street at the new GhostLight Theatre, only one year old, is another safe space for students to tap into their creative potential.

“We want to make sure that right here in downtown Benton Harbor we have something that our kids can walk to,” said Paul Mow, Artistic Director at GhostLight Theatre.

With the goal that through art, they can help mold a young person’s future.

“The GhostLight Theatre was founded to find the people in Benton Harbor who want to see themselves onstage,” said Mow.

But the Arts District is a place for all – young and old, Benton Harbor residents and tourists – where people and their businesses can find success in the Port of Opportunity.

“It’s the heart of the community and it’s the people who work and live down here, who run these nonprofits, who work in your restaurants, who make your art – it’s all about the people,” said Veega.

For organizations like Water Street Glassworks and GhostLight Theatre, their programs for students – and fundraisers – have had to be stalled this year due to the pandemic.

As for the Benton Harbor Arts Association, they will continue to do outdoor events like Arts in the Park to help support the Arts District.

The “Building Up Benton Harbor” series also included stories on economic development, law enforcement and education.

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