On May 22, 1991, a Coast Guard seaman pulled the body of a teenage black boy out of the St. Joseph River in St. Joseph, Michigan. As Alex Kotlowitz succinctly states in the first sentence ofThe Other Side of the River, “This much is not in dispute.” Almost everything else about the death of young Eric McGinnis, unfortunately, is in dispute. The book investigates the disappearance and subsequent death of the Michigan teenager and what his death ultimately reveals about the two towns most closely affected by it. Kotlowitz researched the yet-to-be-solved case for five years, interviewing more than two hundred people, including politicians, businessmen, teachers, and teenagers. He read and re- read hundreds of pages of police reports and interviews. Because he came to care deeply about the young man he never met, Kotlowitz dreamed of uncovering the truth about Eric’s death; instead, he uncovered invaluable truths regarding the state of race relations in America.
The towns in questions, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan, lie on opposite sides of the St. Joseph River but might as well lie on opposite sides of the world. St. Joseph is an idyllic, All- American town of nine thousand people, the vast majority of whom are white. Bordered by both the river and Lake Michigan, St. Joseph is a popular tourist destination, with beautiful beaches and marinas, valuable lakeside property, and trendy boutiques; it is virtually crime free. Benton Harbor, just across the river, is a town of twelve thousand people, more than 90 percent of whom are black. In 1989, Money magazine named Benton Harbor the worst place to live in America. In 1994, Benton Harbor had the highest per-capita murder rate in the nation, triple the rate of Chicago and New York, with twenty-one homicides. Although sharing the same beautiful location as St. Joseph, Benton Harbor is like a small version of a decimated inner city, so poor that at one time its five police cars were repossessed, and its sole fire truck was equipped only with a garden hose.
Area locals refer to the towns as “Benton Harlem” and “St. Johannesburg,” and distrust between the two runs deep. Frightened by the high crime rate, citizens of St. Joseph rarely, if ever, cross the Bicentennial Bridge to enter their “twin city.” Benton Harbor residents are equally uneasy to enter St. Joseph, believing that a black person in the overwhelmingly white town is always eyed with suspicion. Many Benton Harbor residents feel that they are followed by shopkeepers when they enter stores and that they are stopped for nonexistent traffic violations when they traverse the streets. This great chasm between the towns is graphically illustrated once a year by the annual Blossomtime Parade, which theoretically ties the cities together but in reality only serves to illustrate their differences. On the St. Joseph side of the parade route, the streets are lined with white townspeople, Confederate flags are hawked, and the radio and television viewing stands are erected. On the other side of the bridge, the parade route is lined with blacks, barbecued chicken and ribs are sold, and there is a heavy police presence. Also illustrating the great divide between the two towns, perhaps even more vividly than the Blossomtime Parade, is the contrast between the opinions on what caused Eric McGinnis’s death.
Eric was a fairly typical Benton Harbor sixteen-year-old: lively, charming, insecure, self-absorbed, perhaps somewhat immature for his age. Reared by a doting mother, and close to his father, Eric by all accounts was not associated with a gang, although he occasionally liked to intimate that he was “connected.” He prided himself on dressing and dancing well. On the evening of May 17, 1991, Eric asked his mother for five dollars and his father for a ride across the bridge into St. Joseph so that he could spend an evening at the Club, a teenage juice bar and dance club. Although predominantly frequented by whites, the Club was one of the few places where black and white youths interacted. Eric was reportedly friendly with several of the white girls who frequented the Club and had had a brief relationship with one of them. The two never met outside the dance club, although Eric would phone her at home, disguising...
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