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Belle Isle as "Neglected Gem"

File this one under the "Why Haven't I Written This Yet?" file.

Great story in The Detroit News today about Belle Isle and its challenges by the talented Charlie LeDuff. I hate him for his great ideas and even better writing -- professional hatred, mind you.

He calls Belle Isle a "neglected gem," and that is so true. My last memory of the place is visiting the Nature Center, where there is one snake, some stuffed creatures and a dead grasshopper or two. It is truly a crying shame. This place should be great and it is not.

"If they don't do something soon, all we will pass our children is a pile of rubble," said Ernest Burkeen, the director of Detroit Parks and Recreation under Mayor Dennis Archer and currently the director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Miami.

"Unfortunately, race is always a bogey man. We're giving it away to the suburbs, the argument goes," said Burkeen. "Secondly there is a political culture in Detroit where you have a bunch of people who are against everything. They can't give you a better way. They simply say no."

Background from Wikipedia: Belle Isle is a 982 acre (3.9 kmĀ²; 2.42 sq mi) island park in the Detroit River managed by the Detroit Recreation Department. It is connected to the rest of the city by the MacArthur Bridge. It is the largest island park in the United States and the third largest island in the Detroit River after Grosse Ile and Fighting Island.

LeDuff highlights:

The island, like the city, is plagued by neglect. Take the Belle Isle Zoo. It was closed by disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2002 for budget reasons. He promised to reopen it, but never did. In the meantime, the zoo has given over to climbing vines and wild dogs.

As the zoo was closed, a million dollars was found to build a holding pen for a few dozen European deer that used to roam the island freely. That contract was awarded to Bobby Ferguson, the mayor's friend who got a lot of contracts during the Kilpatrick years. Today, the holding pen is being dug up and the deer shoved to one corner, since rotting sewer pipes weren't replaced before erecting the pen.

And then there is the Belle Isle Aquarium, a 10,000-square-foot gem with an eight-sided dome that opened in 1904 as the entrance to the botanical conservatory. Kilpatrick closed the aquarium in 2005, saying the $300,000 a year it cost the city to run the place was better used toward things like tearing down abandoned buildings. In the end, he only succeeded in creating another.

The aquarium is still in a good state of repair. Unlike much of Detroit, vandals and nature have yet to ravage it.

Anyone know the latest on getting Belle Isle back to its former glory? There's one I'd like to support.

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  • 1

    I vote for a 2 or 3$ toll for cars on nights & weekends. Generate revenue for a minor cost to the public and discourage kids from cruising there on weekends with no real purpose other than causing trouble. I'd gladly pay a few bucks to enjoy Belle Isle and re-open the zoo/aquarium and renovate the conservatory.

    • 1.1

      I'd also glad pay a visitor charge, Dan, just as I do at:
      * Huron-Clinton Metroparks ($5)
      * Oakland County parks ($8)
      * State parks ($6)
      . . . as well as just to park at Meadowbrook or Pine Knob (aka DTE Energy Music Theater, though not by anyone I know).
      A user fee is far more sensible than Councilman Kwame Kenyatta's campaign season "creative options" for supporting Belle Isle and other services with an annual charity raffle, city-owned casino or "a state-run, scratch-off lottery ticket with proceeds that would benefit Detroit."
      Back in the real world, the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium will host a Feb,. 6 open house at the attraction between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. [ ]
      The nonprofit group was born five years ago this month "to preserve the century-old Belle Isle Aquarium and secure this educational icon for future generations." Donations are tax-deductible.

    • 1.2

      YES! to a user-fee, and thank you alan for those links!

  • 2

    Take a look at The Central Park Conservancy ( and The Prospect Park Alliance ( models that were employed to bring two wonderful - but decayed and in-ruins parks in New York City.

    The process took close to 20 years - but the results are wonderful!

    Belle Isle is unique and LARGE (at 900 + acres, considerably larger than Central Park's 843 acres and much larger than Brooklyn's Prospect park at 540+ acres) and with many possibilities...

  • 3

    Belle Isle truly is a gem - from the hydroplane races, to the giant slide, the Aquarium, the Zoo, the Scott Fountain, even the beach! A "toll" would be a great idea to help begin to restore the island to it's beauty!

  • 4

    I'd like to see Belle Isle restored to it's original Frederick Law Olmsted plan, like some other parks have been. I doubt there's a Nature Center in it.

    • 4.1

      Yes - The Park as conceived/designed by Olmsted was a wonderful one - but one that was largely discarded during the development process...

      Manhattan's Central Park, on the other hand, was 'shaped and sculpted' as designed - only to have many 'intrusions' forced upon and within over the years (statues, playgrounds, etc)... Olmsted was aghast - but somehow over the years the public seems to have not only accepted such - but have embraced them...

      At 900 acres, it would seem that the opportunity for striking a balance between 'the natural' and 'the constructed' places/points of interest could be acommodated...

    • 4.2

      My fear is that the island will become grossly overdeveloped and commercialized.

  • 5

    I'm surprised that no one has made any comments, pro or con, about the Detroit Grand Prix Race (now temporarily suspended) being run on Belle Isle. A number of changes were made to the landscape including a large, controversial concrete slab.

    Hopefully, the race will be reinstated. It provided a unique view of Detroit and I believe the proceeds from the race were meant to help renovate the island.

  • 6

    I remember how grand Belle Isle was and all the fine things to see and do. Now, thanks to a procession of corrupt politicians, violence and general stupidity, it is on the verge of becoming another decaying and vandalized symbol of what Detroit used to be. Detroit has to begin to take responsibility for their actions, make good choices and not play the race card.

    If it is not a cell phone, expensive gold jewelry, a fancy SUV or night club crawling, Detroit politicians are not interested in it.

  • 7

    the money to pen up the beautiful mule dear (very rare) only found on Belle ISle may have been BEEN DUE TO THE GRAND PRIX starting up again!

    those deer are beautiful and i notices when they were not in the woods on bell isle any more sad sad sad but we were there a few weekends ago and on a sunday and found it beautiful despite the neglect.

    i plan on coming swimming there this summer!

    i think the only think that would help is POLICE PRESENTS

    A FULLY FUNDED DETROIT PARKS AND REC PROGRAM (i worked for detroit parks and rec in the 60's )

    funded by the federal govt. to help college students like myself earn money for college and it was very effective as far as i was concerned!

    the young adults that congregate on Belle Isle in the summer blasting their music and hanging out with a lot of violence is scarry to many older citizens!

    so more police and more character do your job but hey that is something that depends on your individual INTEGRITY!


  • 8

    Hey Karen, there is already a group that is dedicated to preserving and restoring Bell Isle.

    It is called the Bell Isle Women's Committee.

    They are definitely worth checking out, the organization is ran by Sarah Earley who is the wife of DTE President Tony Earley.

    I think a blog about this wonderful non-profit would be a great choice!

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NICHOLAS FISHER, expert at Stony Brook University in New York who took part in a study which found that bluefin tuna contaminated with radiation believed to be from Fukushima Daiichi were present off the coast of California just five months after the nuclear meltdown.