I drove across MacArthur Bridge on Saturday morning side-by-side with a pack of sunrise bikers, my headlights dissolving into the misty haze before me. Like always, I started my Belle Isle outings with a cruise around the island. My tires traced along the Detroit Riverfront as timid waves crept their way to shore.
Winding through the dew-glossed forest, I was reminded how much of the island is hidden away in secret coves where the walking paths taper out. The park was built in 1879 with the goal of providing a space for public gathering while preserving the natural landscape of the island. Belle Isle predates the automobile; it was there, publicly accessible, over half a century before Detroit cemented its reputation as the Motor City. I zipped down Central Avenue in my bright red Fiat 500 where Detroiters once roamed at a leisurely stroll.
Eventually, I circled around to the northern shore of the island, parked with Canada reflecting in my rearview mirror. The resident gaggle of geese bids me no harm, so I maneuvered around them on my way to the fishing dock. Weeping willows shivered above me, their liquid shrapnel soaking through my coat just as the sun shot a waking glance through the fog.
I laid out my blanket halfway down the dock and read with my feet dangling off the pier. Every so often, my friends, the geese, took off from behind me and glided overhead for a moment before landing in the water on the other side. They were so close that the breeze hit me in pulses as they flapped their wings.
I finished a chapter of my book on the dock as the morning sun reclaimed the skies. I returned to the island’s one-way circuit and ventured toward the William Livingstone Memorial Light, the country’s only marble lighthouse.
After parking on the side of the road and wading through a quarter-mile of muddy trail, I arrived to see the structure blocked off by a locked iron gate. This unique American treasure is now branded with graffiti. Its once-monumental presence was rendered ordinary by the mark of the masses, and a barrier was erected to keep them out.
In 1870, Detroit was on the precipice of urbanization. The Detroit City Council was dissatisfied with the city’s civic architecture; Campus Martius paled in comparison to Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in Chicago. So the city devoted $700,000 (around $23 million when adjusted for inflation) to the commission of a public park, which would boost tourism for the burgeoning city.
The idea to put a park on Belle Isle was the brainchild of University of Michigan Regent Levi L. Barbour. Barbour argued that the novelty of placing the park on an island would set it apart from its counterparts in other major city centers. The natural environment was sitting there, fully-formed, already ripe for the taking.
The importance of wildlife on Belle Isle dates back to the centuries leading up to the American Revolution. Before Belle Isle was named Belle Isle, the island was affectionately known as Hog Island. When French colonizers displaced the island’s indigenous residents, they resettled the land with livestock. Separated from the mainland by the Detroit River, it was the one place where wolves could not wreak havoc on their herd.
Long before I’d ever paid a visit to the island, the Belle Isle geese were just one species of occupants among many. Their neighborhood was inhabited by squirrels, raccoons, deer and owls. The Belle Isle Conservancy claims that all these species are still propping up the ecology of the island to this day, but all I’ve ever seen are the geese.
Many aspects of the park’s original charm have fallen by the wayside in the century-and-a-half since it was opened. The end of the fishing dock where I sat and read on Saturday was cordoned off, presumably for lack of maintenance.
In 2013, the state of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources lent their assistance to the city of Detroit with the upkeep of Belle Isle. The arrangement was secured with a 30-year contract and millions of dollars in funding. That acquisition technically made Belle Isle the state of Michigan’s 102nd state park, meaning visitors would have to pay a one-time $11 entrance fee for access. Personally, I haven’t seen the ticket booth operative in two years, so I never even bring the cash.
My first real memory of Belle Isle was underscored by an air of exclusivity. Back in middle school, I accompanied my grandfather to lunch at the private institution ornamenting the island’s crest: the Detroit Yacht Club. Decades ago, my grandfather served as the club’s Commodore — a presidential equivalent in the boating world. Although he left the organization at the turn of the century, my grandfather was still afforded the privilege of entry.
This private enterprise, sitting adjacent to the city’s largest public park, is emblematic of the socioeconomic rift bred by white flight from Detroit in the mid-20th century. Families bolted for the security of the Grosse Pointe suburbs but returned each summer to lounge on the land they once eschewed.
My mother spent the summers of her childhood living in a sailboat docked at the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle. She still remembers the evenings spent alongside her crew of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant-bred friends, staring off at the island as the sounds of Detroiters’ car radios echoed across the bay. The barrier between the two worlds was so much more than the few hundred feet of channel separating the club from the island.
What a luxury it is to simply exist in the presence of nature. Detroit, unlike New York or Chicago, houses little to no streetside ecology. There are very few places in the city where the concrete monotony is broken up with vegetation. Detroit, home to America’s premier industrialist Henry Ford, fell prey to rabid and seemingly irreversible urbanization without regard for how it may rob future generations of access to unencumbered nature. Now, Belle Isle is all we have in the way of a natural environment.
This 1945 postcard calls Belle Isle “a cool retreat during the summer, considered by many to be the most beautiful in the world.” It boasts of various accommodations including “20 miles of fine roads, canals for boating, horticultural gardens, a zoo, yacht and boat clubs, an aquarium and picnic grounds.” The aquarium was temporarily closed for the pandemic. The zoo fell into disarray years ago and is now a site for trespassing YouTubers hoping to secure a scandalous thumbnail. And the yacht and boat clubs were never open to just anybody.
Still, I find solace on the neglected docks and hidden trails of Belle Isle. It’s the perfect place to down a coffee and breath in a bit of fresh air when the city’s skyline becomes overbearing. For those University students who are not native Michiganders, strangers to the state’s metropolitan hallmark, I recommend adding Belle Isle to your list of must-see items in Detroit. The island provides another layer of complex history to the city, and it makes for a beautiful walk.
Statement Correspondent Melanie Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.