From Wahnabeezee to PenskiLand: the Desecration of Detroit’s Belle Isle

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann

If you are a Detroiter stopping at the gatehouse to pay the fee or show your State-issued recreational pass (or even if you are watching events from afar), know this: Detroit never leased Belle Isle, its Island park, to the State of Michigan. City Council refused that deal. A lease was signed by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, whose authority has still not been constitutionally tested in Federal court. Think of it this way: through his own appointee it was leased to the State by Governor Snyder.

An emergency manager, by the way, is not a financial manger as you might assume. He has vested in himself all the powers of government and more. He can, we are told, write laws, repeal ordinances, set budgets, privatize departments, sell assets, break contracts – union and otherwise, file for municipal bankruptcy, rewrite the charter, and dissolve the city government. Three quarters of all black elected officials in Michigan have been replaced by emergency managers. It’s a long back story. But you should know at least that much.

As to the park, improvements are underway to bring it back to the glory days of the 1950’s. It is being remodeled to comport with a downtown made safe for white people, whose numbers grow. Detroit is the last remaining major city in the nation with a black majority. But for how long?

Belle Isle Loves

OK I’m a white person. I truly love Belle Isle and want to love it still. Last week I sat at one of its plank tables with a pint of shrimp creole from the Louisiana on Gratiot, and thought of my history here. I do have the memories from the fifties and sixties of picnics and free band concerts near the carillon and of watching the model power boats cruise the cement pond along the south bank. My daughters could name their own childhood recollections, some involving playscapes, the giant slide (first in my arms then solo), and a lama who ate a pacifier dropped to its pen by the little girl looking down from the overhead boardwalk of the children’s zoo. Or more recently, pulling up an invasive species, phragmites, by the root.

More of my own and deeper still. In 1981 when I was struggling over ordination, I walked the Island with a friend, this mendicant non-violent activist. In the midst of conversation, he turned to me and said, “Well Bill, what’s it going to be, Jesus or the Church?” Have a nice zen whack. I still don’t want to believe the choice must be that sharp, but I keep the question before me to this day.

Two years ago I did a baptism in the river. As St. Peter’s congregants waded in along the north beach bearing an infant, we were mindful that this water runs to the ocean and so is connected directly to all the waters of earth. It is a common gift of grace.

I’ve also done weddings on the Island, one by the lighthouse on the east point that involved kites which broke free of their strings in the wind. Another which was supposed to be held in the formal gardens by the conservatory, but turned out to coincide with a massive funk festival so crowded that the cops closed the bridge. I pulled my pastoral credentials and finally got waved in, but the couple and their crowd couldn’t get through. My call from a pay phone located them at the “after party” now already in full swing at a Mexicantown bar. When I got there I suggested that the wedding party go down to Riverside Park for the ceremonials, but it was jammed with families who couldn’t get onto the Island either. When I asked permission to use the front lawn of the post office which serves the passing freighters, they said, “How about on the mail boat? We’re about to make a delivery.”  Promises were on the lawn, but we took the ride. Moving full speed, hull pressed to hull, they hoisted mail up and down in a bucket.

I myself made a proposal of marriage on a bridge by the casino, so called. And I’ve fallen in love on the Island. I could show you a spot where the sun shone down on the swan boats, now long gone. For that matter, I’ve not fallen in love on the Island too. A dear and beloved friend once walking with me along the canal behind the aquarium made a forthright declaration of love. But my own heart had to leave it there unrequited.

My partner Jeanie, now of blessed memory, had her bachelorette “shower” after midnight beneath a full moon in the Scott Fountain. There was wine and many a blessing I’m told. James Scott, by the way, a notorious and hot-tempered gambler at the turn of the century, left the city his entire fortune for building a monument to himself. The council balked. Then relented and built a fountain. Lift a toast to James.

Also in the eighties I played softball in the Detroit Athletic League on the Island’s playfield. Though we had our own ringers, the firemen and the policemen consistently kicked our butts. No mind. I played third base and I swear every game I had a view of the full moon rising and the freighters slipping by. Need I say for me, as for many, this isle has been holy ground?

Deep Histories

There is a pictorial history of the park, full of quaint interesting facts, which is commended and drawn upon here (Rodriguez and Featherstone, Detroit’s Belle Isle Arcadia, 2003). Such histories, however, like all, are shaped by who owns the camera and where they stand to shoot. It’s necessary to read between the pics, or peer outside the frame, in my view. I confess to having a perspective. I pray I stand somewhere to rehearse a little Island history, one falling along the fault lines of race and class, of the public and private.

From beginning to end, there is no city here without the river. Its fate and form and function are all tied to the passing waters. Places have names and names bear history. The Huron, the Ojibwa, and Odawa called this stretch Wawiiatanong, “where the river goes round.” It was for them a place of gathering. They tread lightly on its banks and in accord with all its creatures.

One clan of relations in those days were the sturgeon who ranged far, from watershed to watershed, through the river. Ancient beings who preceded the dinosaurs in North America, they would reach eight feet in length and could weigh in at three hundred pounds. Indigenous communities gratefully caught them for meat and buried their bones as honored relatives, never burning them. Europeans eventually harvested the fish en masse, only for their swim bladder which figured in the distillation of alcohol. In the Midwest, their corpses piled up like cordwood. Winona LaDuke says, “Their destruction was so intense, you could think of sturgeon as the buffalo of the aquatic ecosystem.” (Recovering the Sacred, South End, 2005) Or even, I suppose, the beaver.

The Europeans called the river d’Etroit, “the straight” and it was for them a channel for transport of firs, then timber, coal and ores. It was defended with forts and came to mark a border between nations. Eventually it washed their machines and carried off their petro-chemical wastes.

The Island also had names and changes, each marking a moment. In Anishinabeg it was first Wahnabeezee, “Swan Island,” then Snake Island, Hog Island, and finally Belle Isle. When the French first passed through coming down from the north, they came upon a stone formation, vaguely human, on the riverbank that was certainly a sacred gathering place. There was evidence of gifts left. Regarding it as a heathen idol, the two priests in the delegation broke it to bits with a “consecrated axe.” Here the stories diverge. A European account is that the stones were borne to the middle of the river and sunk. Indigenous memory says that they were found or recovered and the shattered pieces borne to the Island where the shards transformed into an infestation of snakes.

The snakes are an undisputed matter of fact. They inhabited the island marshes. To suppress them and to keep their livestock safe from marauding wolves, the Settlers grazed their pigs on now become “Hog Island,” Isle aux Cochons. Livestock signals that the French, somewhat akin to the Indigneous communities, held the Island to be a “commons,” shared by all. The Odawa village was then set where the bridge now lands. It was not until 1763, following Pontiac’s rebellion and hence for military reasons, that King George III authorized from afar (shades of Governor Snyder) that it could be deeded into private hands. Lt. George McDonald paid five barrels of rum and a belt of Wampum for the Island. It was subsequently named Belle Isle in honor of beauty and perhaps a family member.

Fault Lines of Race and Class

It would be a hundred years before it was purchased by the city of Detroit for $200,000 to make of it a city park, freed to be the commons once again. The project was designed and championed by Frederick Law Olmstead, more notorious for his design of New York’s Central Park. (Actually he threw up his hands and walked away from it in exasperation). It was contested matter. Rich people had no interest in a commons for ordinary folk, but were then pushing instead for development of Grand Boulevard, a greenway around the city, practically a private park serving their big homes. Industrialists saw the Island as the easiest way for bridging to Canada and featured a rail yard on its land between. Moreover, the placement of the intake for the new water works on the park would legally limit industrial development on the river for six miles upstream. As it was, the city’s waterfront was otherwise completely given over to industry, inaccessible to citizens. When the plan went forward it was a humanizing victory for workers. And in the midst of an early depression, it was also a labor-intensive public works project to boot: picture the canal system and the lakes being dug by hand with pick and shovel.

In the years that followed half the fun was the boat ride to the Island docking near the big bathhouse at the western tip.  For 6 cents you could ride back and forth all day. When the first bridge was built it began from the foot of the Boulevard with Electric Park, a ferris-wheeled amusement park on both sides. That bridge which pivoted at the center to allow boat traffic, caught fire and burned beyond repair. Its remains lie still at the bottom of the river.

The current bridge, the McArthur, was completed in 1923, and brought an end to Electric Park. As the Great Depression loomed, shanty town Hoovervilles sprang up and people froze to death on the streets of Detroit. Downriver the Hunger Marchers were met by Ford with fire hoses and guns at the Miller Street Bridge. Five people were killed and many more wounded. By 1935, jumping from the Belle Isle Bridge, 87 people had committed suicide.  Though no great drop, the icy water and strong current made it deadly nonetheless. All these are wounds the Island carries and bears.

Perhaps the deepest wound, and one most pertinent to the present moment, was the race riot of 1943 which began on the Island. In the wake of the Great Migration and in a city otherwise clearly segregated Belle Isle was the one place black and white folk did freely mingle. Little wonder it was the flash point.

The story bears telling in detail and the context is important. First say the atmosphere was charged with racism. Father Coughlin, who practically invented hate radio in Detroit, preached a running mix of anti-Semitic, anti-communist, white supremacy. It was in the air and fouled the wind.

With respect to housing there were two clearly circumscribed neighborhoods for Negroes – Black Bottom, named for the for the dark soil of its low land, including Hastings Street and Paradise Valley – being the one on the near east side. With populations rising as driven by the war effort in Detroit’s Arsenal of Democracy, the Federal Government built two public housing projects, one for white folks and another, Sojourner Truth Homes, for blacks. However, in 1942, when time came to move in, white neighbors adjacent rose up with pickets to block the way of the first 14 families. A small riot ensued. But the Feds held firm. The archdiocese ordered Coughlin off the air.

In the plants black folk were consigned to the foundry and the most dangerous or back breaking work – and at the lowest pay. Just months prior at the Packard plant, now one of Detroit’s most famous ruins, three black workers were promoted on the basis of seniority and 25,000 white defense workers walked out. Outside circling the factory were vehicles with loudspeakers blaring, “Better for Hitler and Hirohito to win the war than to work next to a nigger.” Here the powers acceded. (Connot, American Odyssey, Wayne State, 1986).

You could see it coming. Life Magazine did. In an issue on the city they wrote, “Detroit is Dynamite. It could blow up Hitler, or it could blow up the U.S.”

It was a 90 degree day in June of 1943 (actually the weekend of “Juneteenth” when African Americans celebrate news of the Emancipation Proclamation and Union victory finally reaching slaves in Texas – 6/19/1865). Tempers were flaring on the crowded Island. Incidents of racial conflict were breaking out. In the process, however, the police searched vehicles and possessions of black folks, but not white. As evening fell and people headed home, the bridge was a bottleneck, packed with departing car and foot traffic. Things jumped off there in a bloody brawl, exacerbated by hundreds of white sailors pouring out of the new Naval Armory at the foot of the bridge.

Among those fleeing, two different rumors spread throughout the city. In the white neighborhoods it was reported that Negroes had raped a white woman on the Island. In the black community, including a bar on Hastings Street, news was spread that sailors had thrown a black woman and her baby off the bridge.

As Victoria Wolcott has written, “The rights of black families to use Belle Isle unmolested was at stake, and the riot was, in part, a claiming of public recreational space in the city.” (Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters, University of Pennsylvania, 2012).

In the ensuing violence that broke out all over the city, the actions of Detroit’s all white police force were key. In white communities they relied on verbal persuasion or stood by watching assaults; whereas in black communities they employed nightsticks and guns. Police closed Brush Street and redirected African American drivers coming north right into the white mobs on Woodward where cars were overturned and drivers beaten.

The NAACP report or the riot, backed with careful affidavits, was written by Thurgood Marshall. Thirty five people died. Of the 17 killed by police, all were black. There were 675 serious injuries and some 1900 arrests (85% of those being black folks). (NAACP report in Wilma Hendricks, Detroit Perspectives, Wayne State, 1991)

The 2500 National Guard troops which Roosevelt sent to Detroit, made Belle Isle their base from which to quell the riot.

Just a footnote. When the 1967 rebellion broke out, the Island was once again closed for fear and memory, and the old bath house then used as a holding cell for those arrested. Its makeshift arrangements made it look like a prisoner of war camp.

For the decades to follow the police force continued to function in the black community as a white occupation army.  In the sixties a unit called STRESS (Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) would use decoys to set up purse snatchings, then shoot fleeing black youth. Did their lives matter? Their wounds and deaths, to be sure, were not captured by I-phones or squad car cameras. Upon election, Coleman Alexander Young shut that unit down and integrated the police force.

Turning Under Safe and Sacred Ground

For the last forty years the park has been a beloved and racially safe space for black Detroiters. This is not to say there hasn’t been crime or violence. This period includes the Reagan-era dump of crack cocaine into the cities and so passes through the years when Detroit was known as Murder City for its sad per capita record. The Island was only a partial escape from these realities.

Yet they are also the days of concerts, walkers and joggers, swimming in the river, and many many family reunions. For Juneteenth weekend, pavilions are reserved long in advance. Whole clans descend from near and far donning printed T-shirts. Barbeque smoke wafts like sweet fog. Family trees are traced and the old stories rehearsed.

There are hidden histories which should be known and told. Rhonda Anderson, activist in the Environmental Justice movement, reports being shown a “healing tree” on the Island. It was big willow near the east end fishing pier. She was told to go to the tree, and tell it your need. Then leave a gift of some sort. Over the years she did so many times, sitting and talking with the tree. Sometimes she buried a gift, but eventually took to pressing a coin into its bark.  She would see evidence of others leaving offerings as well. One day a man approached as she sat and said, “Ah, you know about the trees.”  He told her there were actually three of them planted by his congregation along that stretch. It was the community founded by Prophet Jones, a charismatic preacher in a tradition that fused Black Nationalism with fiery Pentecostalism. Since their heyday included the forties I can’t help but wonder if these plantings were a healing response to the 43 riot.

Last year she came and the tree was gone. It had suffered visible storm damage and the DNR took it down. In fact, all three of them. She spoke to a ranger at the nature center who said, “Oh, if we’d only known, we could have saved it!” That’s the deal.  You have to know the story, the layered meanings of a place. Sacred trees, like sacred rocks, may not speak for themselves, but their destruction can turn to curses.

Another story kin to it. For the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 the EPA instituted a national day of tree planting.  Working at the time with SOSAD (the anti-violence project called Save Our Sons And Daughters), Jimmy Boggs himself a labor and community activist in Detroit suggested connecting the day to a remembrance of the young people who had been killed by gun-violence.  There were several planting sites, but the big one was on Belle Isle. Not far from the casino, several hundred trees went in with names and ceremony and song. Shea Howell who tells the story, reports that in the years that followed a lovely grove was beginning to form. Then came the improvements for the Grand Prix race and they were unceremoniously plowed under to make room for cement.

Mindy Fullilove, a professor of Public Health at Columbia who is also a doctor and psychiatrist has written a book about black communities cleared by Urban Renewal. Most of her study focuses on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but the destruction of Hastings Street and Paradise Valley for the building of the I75 expressway is poetically included. She argues that the clearing of neighborhoods, even ghettoes as it were, vibrant with community and culture, has a collective physical and psychological impact much like what happens to plants when they are uprooted. Her book is called Root Shock (Random House 2009)

Detroit is currently being physically reconfigured by corporate and non-profit design. Though not an official planning document, Detroit Future City maps and identifies certain neighborhoods, like those along the river and the Woodward Corridor, which will be privileged with resources, infrastructure, and subsidies.  Other neighborhoods whose future is to be greenspace or water catchment areas, more patiently awaiting redevelopment, will be denied resources. Well, demolition resources can be found there, much of it taken from Federal funds designated to keep people in their homes. As corporate auto racing promoter Roger Penske put it, “My biggest concern is that we’ve got to now focus on the neighborhoods. I see Bill Pulte Jr. is heading up a task force to tear down buildings. To me, you’ve got 80,000 derelict buildings and homes; once you take those down they won’t be shelters for trouble.” (Free Press 5/8/13). People are being moved out of these neighborhoods not by use of eminent domain, but by foreclosures (mortgage or tax) and infamous water shut-offs, along with the systematic and de facto withdrawal of schools, churches, firehouses, and police stations.  Some people just decide to move as it were. If you are willing, you don’t have to look hard to see the racial dimensions of this new geography.

How does Belle Isle figure into these designs? How hard do you want to look?

Privatizing the Commons

First think for a moment about Campus Martius, in one sense Detroit’s oldest park, the origin and intersection of the spoke street design created by Augustus Woodward after the big Detroit fire. In recent years the old name has been reclaimed. The park like all of downtown, is under thorough electronic surveillance fed to a control room, not at police headquarters but at Quicken Loans (also a major sponsor of Belle Isle events). It’s patrolled by private security, also under Quicken’s Dan Gilbert, with their own cars and sidearms. In summer, beach sand it brought in for volleyball and the outdoor bar serves a certain clientele craft beers and wine under the shade of wide umbrellas. The clientele is almost exclusively white. And they know the space is theirs.

Kim Redigan tells how Women in Black, who vigil silently against war and the occupation of Palestine, had been ordered out of Campus Martius as they have along the Riverwalk. They refused to obey. Two of their number filed suit with the help from the ACLU and prevailed, but first amendment rights are not to be presumed in privatized space. Last Good Friday when our congregation again walked the streets of the city pausing to pray at locations where crucifixion may be recognized today, an irate Campus Martius shop owner called the private cops when we gathered at the fountain to reflect on the Detroit Water Struggle. He expected that we could be simply driven off on command.

Remember that access to water figured into the Civil Rights struggle. Don’t just picture “white” and “colored” over separate drinking fountains, think about public pools. The freedom struggle song, “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus…” has another verse that goes, “If you miss me at the swimmin’ hole and you can’t find me nowhere, come on over to the City Pool, I’ll be swimmin’ right there…”

Now, picture water access on the Michigan coastline which has been black majority or safe home spaces for African Americans. Last year at a beach in Port Sanilac, up in the thumb, we had to complain to the DNR folks about small swastikas marked into the parking curb by the breakwater. If they hadn’t been removed, we’d have done it ourselves, but that’s about claiming “white space” where black folks are unwelcome, openly threatened, at risk.

One safe common place has been the waterfront in Benton Harbor, a black majority city on Lake Michigan with the lowest per capita income in the state. Jean Klock Park was given to the city for a park “in perpetuity.” But as Whirlpool and the developers in St. Joseph coveted the entire lake and river front, it became highly contested. Twenty two acres of wooded land at the center of the park were appropriated for three holes of a Jack Nicklaus golf course connected with a condominium village called Harbor Shores. Like virtually every other black city in Michigan, Benton Harbor is under Emergency Management. Rev. Edward Pinkney who fought the expropriation is doing three years hard time in state prison on set-up election fraud charges. At present the beach itself remains, but it is an island in the continuing upscale encroachment.

Maybe you want to press around Lake Michigan to Chicago’s south side beaches, but if you stick with Michigan’s coast, the only other place where a black majority city has this kind of water access is Belle Isle.

When the state took over the Island last summer, one of the first things to happen was the dispatching of the integrated Detroit police force. They were replaced by State Police (almost uniformly white) and DNR authorities (likewise). Moreover, they immediately began doing stops of vehicles for any sort of minor violation and checking the ID not just of the driver, but all occupants of the car. News stories tallied the arrests for child support, outstanding warrants, and the like. Never mind undocumented folks hearing loud and clear: Don’t take the chance just to enjoy wind and water. Even the mayor (well reported and probably staged) got pulled over outraged, for speeding. First 3 months, actually February through April, police reported 55 arrests from 329 traffic stops on the Island. (Crains 5/1/14)

As a State Park, a prohibition against alcohol will now be enforced – at least “selectively.” Ron Olson, Chief of Parks and Recreation for the DNR, said upfront there wouldn’t be extreme enforcement of the no-alcohol policy – the idea is prevent young people from having a beer party along the riverfront, but a couple enjoying some wine with their afternoon picnic will likely be left alone. (CBS DETROIT 3/6/14). Alcohol profiling.

As I write, it’s Juneteenth weekend (and anniversary of the riots). I loop the Island to check out the reunions on the third weekend in June. Lo and behold, turns out it’s a day they’re selling and checking passes at the gatehouse. Extended families are sparse under an overcast sky. I see a few with bright matching T-shirts. One pavilion is empty altogether. Not how I remember it. It’s also the Fireworks and Freedom Festival weekend. Detroit youth are curfewed to their homes unless they have a note from their parents. Profiling and criminalizing is possible. The mayor actually wanted a standing ordinance, but faced with citizen outrage the Council granted only the night of the big display.

Last fall a group of African American elders who for three decades have jogged the Island together and now walk it, told Kim Redigan they were done. Not just age, they no longer feel welcome in their own place. In the parks of our church’s own neighborhood, Corktown, benches have been removed, officially and unofficially, to prevent homeless people from resting their heads or otherwise feeling welcome.

Detroit film maker, Kate Levy, sends me a facebook link to the latest corporate and conservancy video boosting Island redevelopment. (https://vimeo.com/127904637)  It begins with a mock scrapbook remembering the good old days. Ernest corporate and nonprofit folks (all white) share their memories with grainy black and white images to confirm and assist. But then comes the full color future with formula one racers speeding away and young people exhilarated on their water boards. Bottom line: the corporations who do business in Detroit have a social responsibility, it’s said, “to make Belle Isle become what it once was.”  In Detroit, that is a loaded and coded phrase. Listen for it. To what, precisely, is the city or its park coming “back?” How many decades do we have to go back to get there? The answer to that is actually pretty precise.

In the video Roger Penske speaks of the incredible decay the park suffered over the years. For what reason? Or at whose hands? Such questions would be better explored in depth than simply implied. His own solution has been to cover vast portions of the Island’s west end with a 14 inch slab of concrete. Since starting the engines in 2012, Penske and friends have invested $4.5 million repairing the 2.3-mile racetrack (Crains 5/6/15). Overall investment in the track area approaches $13 million. Other improvements include a world-class drainage system to keep the Grand Prix track runnable in rain, which actually doused it well a few weeks ago. Would that there was such sewage infrastructure improvements for the city as a whole, but the banks took that $500 million bond money right off the top on the interest rate swaps buy out.

I’m glad there are people who love the Island and commit to its care. But conservancies are tricky things. I visit an Island off the coast of RI where they protect pristine dune and marsh land from development. Good that. But the conservancy thereby increases the speculative value of the homes adjacent, already built.  The wealthy love and support it. In Detroit, park conservancies function as extra-democratic fronts for corporate or foundation agendas. Which is to say, for privatization.  The Belle Isle Conservancy is just now in the midst of foundation funded strategic planning process. Think of it as a well-funded closed door conversation with corporate partners.

Already there is another summer car race slated for the Island in July – the Red Bull Global Rallycross. It wasn’t even on the calendar until a few weeks ago. Without any public meetings or hearings, it was simply announced by Red Bull. Another weekend of blocked access on the Island. Moreover, Red bull aspires, like Penske and Quicken, to be a major sponsor of Island events brokering projects already under review by the DNR. (Mleszko, Deadline Detroit  6/7/15)

Belle Isle has long been coveted by Detroit’s big casinos. Originally they all built temporary ones, hoping for permanent homes on the Island or the waterfront. The same may be said of hotel and restaurant operators. State management is little more than the mechanism for the great give away. Consider what a dozen years of state control have done for the privatization and decimation of education in Detroit. A developer has published a “novel” fantasizing a fully grown independent “commonwealth” (royally chartered?) on the Island: hotels, quaint malls, a harbor, complete with residential spralls – a gated community with only one gate. Such extremes only serve to justify the lesser slips of the state run slope. It is constantly denied that there are plans for a hotel on the Island.

A Prayer for Love Honored

I know white people love Belle Isle. Part of me wants to honor that. In the promotional video, there is talk of turning sixteen, filling the car with gas and coming to the Island to drive round and round til the gauge read empty. A rite of passage. But somehow it seems, this love is enhanced by covering the Island with cement and running auto races upon it. The love I want to honor is felt at the family reunions and before the sacred trees. I think of runners and swimmers, safe and free in a place of their own. My heart yearns for the beat of soul, funk, and hip hop concerts, where even an outsider in my own skin, I find myself welcomed nonetheless.

I am at a loss. Can it be unpaved? Can the sacred trees and the groves rise again. Can memory be planted, sprouted, and nurtured? Can Manitou sing? Can the river wash us clean? Can la frontera nortena welcome us?  Can the desecrated be resacralized? Can the corporations be stopped? Can white people notice what the hell they are doing and be saved by those they’ve dissed and buked? I’m trying not to doubt it. But the evidence goes against me. Against us all.

Nevertheless. This is a prayer to the One who flows around us, over us, in us. Come. Come in judgement and mercy. Come home like the sturgeon. Glide as a swan and strike. Slither like the snake unexpected. Re-engineer this world only as the beaver. Come as wild grass that grows through the cracks.  Break from below the concrete idols. Dance on its rubble as at wedding. Grow like the truth at the poor one’s door. Unite as all relations. Burst forth like the buried stream. Rage like a bridge afire. Let the gatehouse crumble. Let the governor and his petty minions fail. Let the cop cars stall and the guns go silent. Let the wounds release their victims. Set the bath house prisoners free. Let the invasive species wither at their roots. Let the Island be sown or go feral with love. May the sacred commons spread. And Yes, may the waters go round. Amen.

18 Comments

  1. Beautifully written history.
    They may not know you are talking to them. Or about them. Or care.
    And the din of the races may keep them from hearing you.
    But keep writing.

  2. Lauren A. Hood

    July 7, 2015 at 12:46 am

    Wow! So much undocumented history here: Prophet Jones’s healing trees, the Jimmy Boggs/SOSAD trees, the African American seniors group that after decades of walking the park, no longer feels welcome, etc. Oral histories are so important to countering the incomplete and often inaccurate dominant narrative!

  3. Well done. Illustrates the deep-rooted damages done when memory and tradition are intentionally (or ignorantly) vanquished.
    Politically, nice to see a bit more light shone on the role of the DNR.

  4. Bill Wylie-Kellermann questions: “Can it [Belle Isle} be unpaved? Can the sacred trees and the groves rise again. Can memory be planted, sprouted, and nurtured? Can Manitou sing? Can the river wash us clean? Can la frontera nortena welcome us? Can the desecrated be resacralized?” He doubts; I say “yes”.
    Trees grow and precipitation washes clean. Every generation creates its own sacred places — some from half-remembered stories (good and bad), many from new activities that bring people (all people) together. I’m pleased to see Belle Isle again (continuing?) to be that place.

  5. A lovely, comprehensive piece about Belle Isle. It is well past time to take it back.

  6. thank you for these words, this history, that prayer.

  7. thanks Bill for the history lesson. I am white but was born and raised in Detroit and have lived here all but five years spent in Harper Woods during he and sr high school. From the time of my childhood 1950s Belle Isle was an intrical part of my life. My mother worked as a cook in a restaurant so my Dad who was a fun lovin active guy who care for the four youngest kids and my earliest fun memories include learning to ice skate on the canals at Belle Isle, riding around to see the giant stove, walking around the fountain, watching the waters colors change to beautiful hues of blue green red yellow and this was the entire fountain not just the tiny tips that now give color, watching the fisher people pulling up fish swinging on the swings playing tennis baseball or going to the beach. Family and club picnics on Belle Isle were annual events. Being from a large working class family we didn’t have lots of money to go to costly entertainment camps or cottages. But always could pile into the car and take a ride around Belle Isle.
    In my youth while in nursing school I stayed in cramped hot apartments in the Cass Corridor and was thrilled to cool off on the Island any day or night I could spare the time. You could always get a breeze on Belle Isle.
    When I had children of my own Belle Isle provided a fun place for them as well, skating fishing picnicing swimming going to zoo aquarium conservatory fountain woods feeding the deer and ducks and geese all free to families. As a grew older I began early morning walks around the perimeter or near the lighthouse or in the woods. Truly enjoyable starts to the day were walks where we could see a freighter or a great blue heron or watch newly born fawns ramping on the grasses areas near the woods. Such nature, city folks, without time or means to go to the big zoo or the country often miss experiencing. I love Belle Isle always have. I know many Detroiters for whom Belle Isle serves as the best part of their Detroit memories, a place to relax for all. It saddened me when they closed the zoo the aquarium got rid of the deer ruined the fountain cemented half of it but especially when they made the island unwelcoming to most of us. Yes there are more trash containers highly visible but fewer people feel welcome to come enjoy the beauty of Belle Isle.

  8. Wink Covintree

    July 8, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Thanks, Bill. So much Detroit history is invisible, and the more we pave it over, the harder it is to find. Many years ago, the Detroit Friends Meeting (Quakers) met on a quiet spot on the north side of Belle Isle in the summer months.

  9. Juanita Bryant

    July 8, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    This was very informative and very educational on not only the history of Belle Isle but also the bigotry and Hilter tactics of the wealthy and their political flunkies.

  10. Joseph Warren Holt

    July 8, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Bill, a good attempt to portray the history of Belle Isle that will NOT be coming from Penski/Gkillbert.
    I remember when Kwame kept saying he would “IMPROVE” things. I looked up IMPROVE. The etymology meant “To profit”
    It is immoral to profit off of the public, whether it be Belle isle, or Riverside.
    I believe Augustine said “Privation is the cause of all sin”, and that is a short walk (or faster grand prix car ride) from privatization.

    Here in Detroit,we have about 7 of 24 hours of local news on three (plus) TV networks daily, yet they will never give us more than a few re-re-repeated seconds of history……. And most of that will be the weather and sports……..

  11. Thaddeus Shakoor

    July 12, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    I have fond memories of Belle Isle also, I have a picture taken with my Mother and Great grandmother in front of the Scott Fountain. This about 1946 or 47
    the exact year ,i’m not sure. But all that aside, I really just want a place that I
    can as the young folks say”chill out”. I would like a rest room that is clean and
    does’t smell and it would be nice if the trash was picked up on a regular basis.
    Unfortunately ,until recently this was not the case.While running a 5K race
    last year I took look around and found that things were so much better.Rest
    areas were not only open but were clean and functioning. Do I need to say
    more? I think the people who are running the place are doing a good job.

  12. I was so impressed. Learned a lot and was also brought up to speed where I never saw the connection or obvious. Thanks

  13. R. Scott Martin

    July 21, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Thank You Father.

  14. the black versus white rhetoric which has returned to a vicious vogue with recent events. Certainly there is much bitter history of racism at Belle Isle and in Detroit. However, as odious and suspicious as the corporate/nonprofit nexus is, there is no reason that this new chapter for Belle Isle must perpetuate racist inequities and iniquities of the past. Have you noticed how many immigrant communities–the Latinos, the Arabic folks–other communities of color are out and Belle Isle? Why no mention of them? Yes, the island has become noticeably more white. However there still are many black faces there–perhaps not teenagers partying, but folks jogging, biking, barbecuing, on school field trips, having family reunions. Yes, the island has more upscale yoga, and less down-home barbecues, and I certainly hope those barbecues all return. Yes, the overzealous ticketing which inaugurated the state takeover was an inauspicious beginning, however there is no de facto enforced exclusion of any communities of color. People who insist there is are grasping with their Emergency Manager sour grapes. Belle Isle is still there waiting for them to come and chill. Possibly the only good thing Kevin Orr did as a Emergency Manager was allow the state to take over Belle Isle. While you’re poeticizing is pleasant, when combining it with politicizing, you need to be able to see through misty metaphors and take some reality into account. Functioning bathrooms are a good thing. People being able to bike and not get run over by drag racing is a good thing. It’s so easy for you to continue with a black versus white rhetoric–convenient and Manichaean mindset–as though every white person setting foot on Belle Isle or moving to Detroit is some kind of occupying oppressor, a 21st century Colonel Kurtz despoiling Africa. Come on. There’s a new community to be found here, and not found in the same divisive racial black-and-white rhetoric, but a new community which includes all, is what will move Belle Isle in the city forward.

  15. A fine off the beaten path history of Belle Isle. However, it is ultimately undermined by its strict adherence to the black versus white rhetoric which has returned to a vicious vogue with recent events. Certainly there is much bitter history of racism at Belle Isle and in Detroit. However, as odious and suspicious as the corporate/nonprofit nexus is, there is no reason that this new chapter for Belle Isle must perpetuate racist inequities and iniquities of the past. Have you noticed how many immigrant communities–the Latinos, the Arabic folks–other communities of color are out and Belle Isle? Why no mention of them? Yes, the island has become noticeably more white. However there still are many black faces there–perhaps not teenagers partying, but folks jogging, biking, barbecuing, on school field trips, having family reunions. Yes, the island has more upscale yoga, and less down-home barbecues, and I certainly hope those barbecues all return. Yes, the overzealous ticketing which inaugurated the state takeover was an inauspicious beginning, however there is no de facto enforced exclusion of any communities of color. People who insist there is are grasping with their Emergency Manager sour grapes. Belle Isle is still there waiting for them to come and chill. Possibly the only good thing Kevin Orr did as a Emergency Manager was allow the state to take over Belle Isle. While you’re poeticizing is pleasant, when combining it with politicizing, you need to be able to see through misty metaphors and take some reality into account. Functioning bathrooms are a good thing. People being able to bike and not get run over by drag racing is a good thing. It’s so easy for you to continue with a black versus white rhetoric–convenient and Manichaean mindset–as though every white person setting foot on Belle Isle or moving to Detroit is some kind of occupying oppressor, a 21st century Colonel Kurtz despoiling Africa. Come on. There’s a new community to be found here, and not found in the same divisive racial black-and-white rhetoric, but a new community which includes all, is what will move Belle Isle in the city forward.

  16. Lewis M. (Bill) Dickens

    July 22, 2015 at 9:25 am

    Bravo! Huge and robust and “on the money”!

    Thanks Tom Pedroni for flagging us on this.

    And it makes me think of the River that used to be Kahki. And Torch and Glen Lakes that used to be vibranty turquoise.

    The Detroit River was horrible and the “Cans” were having a population collapse and the Republican Industrialists were grousing and fretting about having to clean the river up yet it would not have happened without Ernie Gronda, of French Canadian, Indian, and White ancestry, a trapper and a Boat Liveryman on Grosse Ile who gathered the dead “Cans” (Canvasback Ducks) and loaded two dumptrucks up and drove up to Lansing and up over the curb and backed up to the front Entrance steps of the Capitol and dumped them and then blithely drove back to Grosse Ile.

    So it really was Ernie who got the politicians to sit down and solve something and that is why we can now dream of and create more parks along the river and why Cobo Hall can now embrace the river. . . It was Ernie.

    Will we honor him with a statue? And thank his family? Probably not. He was a Catholic and he embraced the Blacks who came to rent boats from him and go fishing, you know.

    Snyder and his gang will not forgive him for that.

    Bill

  17. I hear you Bill, and agree 100%. I do keep thinking, if those that stopped coming to the island all showed up, like on any pre 2014 Memorial Day, 4th of July or Labor Day (obviously paying the fee) the powers that be would be helpless, and beside themselves.. What could they do, close the island because too many Detroit citizens enjoyed it? I am hoping this happens.

  18. George McDougall* Not MacDonald 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*