Reappraising The Jewel
A family-friendly feel, slower pace, and more clean restrooms? Perhaps the Belle Isle takeover is delivering on its 'new and improved' promise.
Photographs by EE Berger
So you think you know a lot about Belle Isle — past, present, and near future? You’ve probably heard that the 982-acre park in the Detroit River is calmer, cleaner, and more ambitious since the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Belle Isle Conservancy, and the State Police took it over last year from the financially struggling City of Detroit.
You probably know that Detroit’s reflexive racial resentment about the 30-year lease has chilled out a bit and that elected officials no longer fear the state will tugboat its “jewel” away to the Straits of Mackinac. Nor are there any more fantasies of Belle Isle becoming a separate nation-state.
You may know about the aquarium — a century-old gem by the architect Albert Kahn — that was rescued from further deterioration and possible demolition by dedicated and quixotic volunteers. It’s open (on weekends, for now) and it’s free — its tanks filled partly with exotic fish and partly with offbeat history lessons and dioramas.
You may have heard about this year’s optimistic plans, as well. The canals will open this spring and you can again rent canoes. The beach concession will rent cabanas, chairs, and umbrellas this summer on clean, restored sand on the American-side shore. And Belle Isle promises even more restrooms will be open and clean.
History Lessons, Revisited
If you’ve studied history, you know Belle Isle has been the site of men dueling with pistols and a residence for pigs (“Hog Island” or “Isle aux Cochons”). You may have read that celebrated muralist Diego Rivera startled the YWCA banquet at Belle Isle Casino in 1932 by praising Marxism during the worst of the Great Depression.
You’ve read that Belle Isle provided safe haven for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. And during Prohibition, it was a way station for bootlegging booze from Canada and the aquarium’s basement housed a speakeasy.
But on the sorry side of Detroit’s racial history — a civic undercurrent as deep as the freighter channel on the island’s Canadian side — Belle Isle was also the flash point for the deadly 1943 race riot and its beach bathhouse (since torn down) served as a temporary jail for persons arrested in the 1967 uprising.
Here’s something you may not know: The Rolling Stones learned to drive, American-style, on Belle Isle. At least Mick Jagger and Brian Jones did. According to bass player Bill Wyman’s memoir Stone Alone, the British musicians visited there on their first American tour in 1964 with Detroit high school journalist Jackie Kaplan (now a boxing promoter named Kallen).
“My girlfriend and I, with Mick and Brian, set out the next morning in my ’64 Mustang and headed straight for Belle Isle, where they took turns trying to drive on the other side of the road,” she said in the book. “Next, we stopped at Hudson’s.”
Kallen told her mother “trust me” … and her mother did, making sandwiches for the excursion.
A few years ago, Kallen ran into Jagger. “I asked him if he remembered,” she says. “I’m not exactly sure he did. We were all so innocent. ... They were perfect gentlemen. They wanted to go canoeing.”
More recent motorists include Jordan and Ricky Taylor, brothers who drive a Corvette Daytona Prototype. Sharing the driving at the Belle Isle Grand Prix last year, they won the 100-minute Chevrolet Sports Car Classic Championship.
This spring, they were back on the island with Charles Burns, the race’s general manager. Burns drove them over the new, wider pavement along the track’s Canadian side.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Jordan says. “This is way wider. It’s crazy.” Wider is better because it gives drivers more chances to pass each other.
In last year’s race, Ricky took the checkered flag despite being bumped into a wall by rival João Barbosa near the finish. Ricky lost the lead momentarily but Barbosa blew a tire.
The Grand Prix, which will be held this year May 29-31, suffered symbolic embarrassment in 2012 when racing returned after a three-year absence (and the auto industry bailout). The pavement broke apart, just as it has on so many metro Detroit streets.
Burns says the new surface should help prevent such incidents and that last year’s event — a production of Roger Penske — brought 110,000 people in three days and generated $46 million.
“Belle Isle is symbolic,” Burns says. “If it can rise, Detroit can rise.”
But the race also raises some grumbling. Setup starts mid-March and dominates the west end of the island for weeks. Traffic is re-routed off the bridge and visitors coming to see the spring blossoms are banned from the Scott Fountain and Sunset Point — arguably the island’s prettiest spot, where new cherry trees have been planted.
After the races, it takes almost a month to dismantle the infrastructure. “We’ve tried to streamline our take-down operation,” Burns says. “We’ve listened to the concerns, especially at Sunset Point.”
The ‘Other’ Race Issue
Then there’s the sensitive and (potentially) divisive issue. Last year, some city officials complained about stricter law enforcement, particularly speed. The limit is now 25 miles per hour.
Council President Brenda Jones asked City Clerk Janice Winfrey to describe her experience of being pulled over. Winfrey said: “I was insulted by the attitude” of the officer who stopped her and that “the officer was trying to push my buttons.” The council urged sensitivity training. (Mayor Mike Duggan also was pulled over and warned.)
Then-councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins said: “It infuriates me that there are people trying to ‘keep off the riffraff.’ It’s absolutely ridiculous. I don’t care who is running Belle Isle. It’s a city asset and city residents need to know that they are welcome there all the time.”
Council complaints prompted a firm har-umph! from Detroit Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer.
“The idea that any elected official would publicly decry enforcement of laws is absurd,” Kaffer wrote in a column published last year. “For Detroit-bashers, it’s seeming confirmation of the worst kinds of stereotypes about the city — the idea that rules don’t apply here, that Detroit is a lawless wilderness.”
Much of this was symbolic word dancing around a delicate notion: Would state authorities (mostly white) make Detroit citizens (mostly black) unwelcome in their own park, which is no longer free but requires an $11 car pass? (You can walk or bike the bridge for free.)
Karis Floyd, manager of the park for the DNR, is an African-American who grew up on Detroit’s east side and hit home runs for Southeastern High School at Belle Isle. He calls it “my backyard” and is “ecstatic” to have the job.
Floyd walked among visitors last year. He wears a uniform, but no gun, and a friendly demeanor. He solicited comments: compliments or complaints. Nobody told him of feeling unwelcome.
“Not once did I get that complaint,” Floyd says. “People said they were happy; they wanted to return to Belle Isle and bring their grandkids.”
Floyd concedes that “a few people” who were pulled over were not happy … or welcome. “Those with felony warrants and unregistered vehicles.”
Jones said recently that “we sat down with the state DNR and with the State Police. … We have come to some understanding” with the new folks running Belle Isle.
“The first year was educational about this transition,” says Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, whose District 5 includes Belle Isle. “There was an issue of cultural sensitivity.”
Fond Memories and Family (Reunion) Friendly
Sheffield’s favorite childhood attraction was the Giant Slide, now fully repaired. “They’re making much-needed improvements,” she says. “The beach has been cleaned up. It’s such a joy to see it.”
Winfrey has been back to Belle Isle a couple times as well and found it “very clean. I’m so pleased,” she says, adding that her family reunion will be held there in August.
That tradition is important to Belle Isle and the city, according to the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau. Reunion visitors rent cars and hotel rooms and buy meals. The reunions are particularly important in the black community.
Belle Isle Conservancy President Michele Hodges says her staff is monitoring people’s feelings. “It’s a big issue to address,” she says. “We have lost a measurable number of Detroiters. We’ve gained some suburbanites who haven’t been here in maybe a generation. [But] people who don’t feel welcome on the island need to feel welcome.”
Part of the transition of Belle Isle is generational as well as cultural. Consider Tamara Kamara, who went to Belle Isle in high school. “As a teenager, I could ride around with my car blaring music like a lot of other kids,” she says.
More than 20 years ago, she got married at Scott Fountain. Now, she brings her young children to the park. “They got to feed the albino deer!” Kamara says. “It’s a lot more family-friendly now.”
In agreement is Lt. Michael Shaw, a State Police public information officer. Until recently, he says, some citizens enjoyed a raucous mood on Belle Isle, especially on weekends or “senior skip days.”
“Lot of drinking, narcotics use, racing,” Shaw says. “Cars stopped in the middle of the road. Nuisance vandalism. We knew we weren’t going to be exactly welcomed. This isn’t our first rodeo. We were the face of this entity called ‘The State.’ ”
The period of adjustment, Shaw says, includes convincing people that it is no longer acceptable to drive 55 mph. “When you go from not enough enforcement to normal enforcement it looks heavy-handed. We don’t see race. There were a lot of rules that weren’t really enforced. People were on the island 24 hours a day.”
Owen Matson remembers those days from early 2000, shortly after arriving from Iowa City for a job. Two young women from home came through town and wanted to visit Belle Isle after dark.
He’d never been there. “They insisted,” he says, so he let one drive his car. As they cruised around the park, they were pursued at high speed and brought to a halt by a truck and a van, which cornered them against the curb.
Realizing they were in danger, Matson told the woman behind the wheel to gun the accelerator of his “early ’80s Chevy Celebrity with no muffler. But that car had a V-8.”
She stomped on it, jumped a curb, sped down the lawn between the road and the river, and lost their predators near the bridge. “Bizarre and dangerous situation,” Matson says. “That made me not want to come back for many years.”
But he did return. When the tech bubble burst, Matson lost his job. He spent days exploring abandoned buildings and nights on Belle Isle. Sometimes, he would take fellow students of kung fu to form a mutually protective herd if attacked by man or beast. “It seemed like a ‘Mad Max’ crime zone,” he says. “And that was part of its charm.”
Matson, now 37, is the successful owner of two martial arts studios. He’s married now with two children and has bought a home on a canal across from Belle Isle. He owns a canoe and says it takes 20 minutes to ferry his daughter, Tamerlane, over to Belle Isle Beach.
“We go frequently; I very much enjoy it,” he says in a West Village neighborhood restaurant near the island. “Belle Isle is pivotal to my lifestyle. Tamerlane loves the beach. We go to the Nature Zoo and chat with the biologists.”
Before Tamerlane was born, Matson heard gunshots — even gunfights — on Belle Isle at night. “Back then, I’d never take children to Belle Isle. The change has been massive.
“It’s more of a diverse scene now,” he says. “Racial, social, class. It’s a family scene now.”
The takeover of 2014, however, left Matson with mixed feelings. He didn’t like seeing so many cars pulled over (usually for warnings and not for tickets or arrests, say park authorities). He didn’t like hearing police and park rangers tell people not to drink beer.
“I’m very conflicted about that,” Matson says. “But, because of the enforcement, the hard-partying teenagers aren’t there anymore.”
It’s also been a while since he’s heard gunfire.
Current and Future State
Like several persons interviewed for this story, Matson saw the bald eagle that recently took up residence on the island.
“It just emerged out of the snow and flew over us,” he says.
Unlike in Matson’s early Detroit days, the park now closes from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. (It was 6 a.m., Shaw says, but joggers and walkers convinced them to open it earlier.)
Other improvements involve common sense. Because there weren’t enough ash barrels for barbecues, people would dump smoldering coals at the bottom of trees. This killed the trees, which had to be cut down. The solution: more barrels.
But decades of delayed maintenance have left Belle Isle with many challenges.
Hodges, in her third year at the conservancy, spoke in a stream of consciousness on a recent drive-around. Since Belle Isle is surrounded by water, she wonders why there can’t be slips for boaters who don’t belong to a private club? Or if a family wants to spend more hours than planned, where can they buy diapers?
Then there’s the Boat Club, closed to the public except for a group of rowers. No one is sure what will happen to this diminished property. Could it generate revenue through marine-related rentals or perhaps be renovated?
Things are visibly better at the nearby Detroit Yacht Club — a private club that is “holding our own,” according to Commodore Joe Brooks. Membership is about 650, down from “about 3,000 in our heyday” of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Brooks says the DNR and the conservancy have made “positive changes” that draw more people to the island. “The Yacht Club looks at this as a good thing,” he says.
The conservancy — four separate organizations that merged in 2011 — has rampant optimism, intense energy, and, finally, a sense of progress.
One important person is conservancy chairwoman Sarah Earley, who, Hodges says, “is a wonderful and huge part of the reason why we are where we are today.” The wife of former DTE chairman and chief executive officer Anthony Earley has moved to California (where Anthony now works). But she commutes here regularly to tend to Belle Isle affairs and raise money from corporate society.
Volunteer Jennifer L. Boardman helps run the aquarium, the saviors of which were “crazy, passionate, but smart” enough to get the roof fixed and reopen a building that was closed from 2005 to 2012.
“There’s this fabulous momentum in Detroit,” Boardman says. “And we’re just now feeling appreciated. Anything can happen here. That’s the beauty of it. Don’t stand back and wring your hands.”
On a recent weekend, Boardman conducted a spontaneous tour for one guest of the big basement that links the aquarium with the conservatory run by the DNR.
“Look how organized they are,” she said, pointing to an orderly row of clean shovels lined up evenly spaced against a wall.
Belle Isle “is a memory-making place” that changes for individuals over time. “People have their first kiss here,” she says. “They get married here.”
Another optimistic place is the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. Its telltale lawn ornament: a bow anchor from the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, lost in the Detroit River years before the ship sank on Lake Superior in 1975.
Operated by the Detroit Historical Society, Dossin is “virtually a new museum” since a renovation was completed in May 2013, says spokesman Bob Sadler. “Our attendance has doubled.”
Around the bend at the sports complex, Justin Jacobs of Come Play Detroit, which organizes and operates intramural sports leagues, will offer softball, hardball, tennis, handball, soccer, and one big infrastructure project: the restoration of the 1898 athletic shelter. There’s also a driving range, disc golf on the now-decrepit golf course, and more.
The More Things Change …
That’s all stuff for hot fun in the summertime, but Belle Isle is open all year.
On a cold day earlier this year, a few brave souls dropped by when little was open. One was Sister Mary Ann Untener, a nun who joined Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1945.
Until then, she lived most of her life on Belle Isle. Her father “lost everything” during the Depression, and felt fortunate to find work. First, he ran the canoe rentals, then took charge of the beach bathhouse.
Both jobs came with modest housing for two parents and nine children. During high school, when Untener took a streetcar downtown to apply for work at Hudson’s, they asked for her address.
“So I put ‘Belle Isle Canoe Shelter,’ ” she says, laughing. “Then, it was ‘Belle Isle Bath House.’ That was worse.”
Those days, people paddled canoes to the band shell to listen to live music. She pointed to a parking area on the island’s northwest corner, a vantage point to see the sun shine on Detroit’s skyline, the moon shine on the river, and to wait for the “submarine races” (a euphemism for making out).
“We used to call this ‘Lovers Lane,’ ” Untener says. “My sisters and I used to walk by and laugh at them.”
The Untener siblings also would swim “right out our backyard” in the summer. In the winter, they skated on the canals.
Untener walks this bright morning with a steady pace near the beach, past sparkling white snow.
“This is so different from when we were here,” she said, smiling and telling anecdotes about her childhood while trying to approximate where one of her houses used to be.
Those buildings are gone now, but in many ways it’s still the Belle Isle of her youth: same sky, same river, some of the same weeping willows.
“It was so pretty. We took it for granted.”