Lifelong Detroiter cautiously optimistic about Belle Isle
As it happened, Sandra Turner-Handy—MEC’s community outreach director and a lifelong Detroiter—visited the island over the weekend for the first time since management by the Department of Natural Resources began. Here is her own assessment of Michigan’s newest state park.
Having grown up literally across the street, Belle Isle was my neighborhood playground as a child. My brothers and sisters and I walked across Jefferson Avenue and enjoyed the two-seat bikes, canoes, pony rides and zoo.
As I grew older and moved to a different part of Detroit, Belle Isle became the spot for family picnics on Saturdays. We stayed late into the evening to see the lights on the Scott Fountain change colors. Belle Isle was also the after-church spot, where we enjoyed ice cream treats from an island vendor. And as a teenager it was the dating spot with its beach, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, canoe rides and forest.
That slowly changed as the park lost its amenities and became overrun with trash, loud music and fights. For years I only went to the park for special events, and only in the daytime.
Last Saturday I went back to Belle Isle for the first time since the state took over in February. Because my family settled near the island after coming north from Tennessee in the early 1900s, it made sense to hold our family reunion picnic there.
To my amazement, the park was clean. There were plenty of covered trash cans and containers for used charcoal. I didn’t need the roll of toilet paper I’d brought out of habit—there never was any in the past—because the restrooms were functioning again and portable toilets were strategically situated around the park. And yes, I saw several state police officers and park rangers patrolling the park and enforcing traffic laws.
More importantly, I saw families enjoying the day. Kids were running around, being free – a welcome contrast to the old days, when you kept your children close in case a fight or shooting broke out. Older people were sitting and enjoying good food, good company and a view of the Detroit River sparkling in the sunshine.
My family had a ball, and those who have moved out of state found the remembered beauty of the park still there. My great uncle, the family patriarch, was reminded of the Belle Isle he experienced as a child in the 1930s. He and his family leave Detroit when they want to enjoy a park, but his visit to the island might change that.
I’m glad to be able to say nice things about the park, because it wasn’t easy to embrace state management of a place we Detroiters always thought of as our own. I still have mixed feelings.
But if the improvements made by the state continue, I can only say: Thank you for allowing me and my family to create more memories in the lush, clean beauty of our playground!
Scott Fountain photo courtesy Steffen Weiss via Flickr.