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Lifelong Detroiter cautiously optimistic about Belle Isle


Editor’s note: This week the Detroit Free Press ran a story and an editorial providing a checkup on Belle Isle six months after the state assumed control of the park.

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.

  1. David Wolf #

    Having grown up in Ann Arbor and then raised a family in Oakland County, I have to say that my family and I have always shared Sandra’s sense of “ownership” of Belle Isle, though we don’t actually live in Detroit. When the State of Michigan took over the park, we too had mixed feelings, but hoped that Belle Isle would benefit from increased financial resources as well as from no longer having to compete for other support from the financially-distressed city.

    My wife and I (now retired, empty-nesters) went to Belle Isle with some friends recently and were also very pleasantly surprised by its renaissance under state management.

    For what it’s worth, the status change from City of Detroit to State Park should have little impact on access by Detroiters, other than the cost of a vehicle permit. After all, every one of our state parks belong equally to each and every one of us - not just Belle Isle. Plus, with the one-time annual purchase of a state park permit, every one of Michigan’s state parks can be accessed for no additional cost!

    As always, pedestrians, bicyclists, families who are out for a stroll across the bridge won’t be subject to paying the fee anyway.

    Thanks, Sandra, for sharing your optimism. Belle Isle is a beautiful place that has always been open to all - not just Detroiters - and hopefully it will continue to be a safer, more-inviting place for all!

    August 14, 2014
  2. Suzanne Antisdel #

    This is all lovely for me, a lifelong (I’m in my 80s) Detroiter, to read. I haven’t ventured there yet, since the State takeover. And I share the “mixed feelings” of Ms Turner-Handy: no matter how well “they” are taking care of my island, it’s still a takeover. And I do have a major hard-time about the $10 fee: for a person having difficulty putting bread on the table and looking for a free place to enjoy him- or herself and family, that $10 is out of reach. And those families don’t own bicycles - too expensive - and walking across confines them and their families to the near areas, not where they had perhaps driven to, for family reunions. I remember seeing those reunions in the past, and feeling the warm happiness that radiated from them, and I was glad that Belle Isle was there for them, and for me. So it’s not all peaches&cream, by a long shot.

    August 15, 2014

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