Commentary: Restoring Belle Isle

Sep 13, 2012

There was some good news yesterday for those who care about this state. Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced a deal to turn Belle Isle, the city’s neglected jewel of an island park, over to state management for the next thirty years.

Under the agreement, the state would pour millions into Belle Isle, fixing up facilities that have become shabby. They would restore shelters and restrooms; shore up buildings that are starting to crumble, and make the park safe and family-friendly. 

This is a tremendous deal for all concerned. Belle Isle was once, indeed, a treasure, with a beautiful fountain and a picturesque little zoo and aquarium. It is almost a thousand acres long, and some of the facilities were designed by the same architect who designed New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Central Park has had its problems. But New York City still spends about forty-three million a year to maintain it. Detroit can’t afford to do anything like that. The city has been spending less than three million a year on Belle Isle, which is a hundred acres bigger than Central Park. That’s not even enough for basic maintenance.

The zoo is gone; the herd of European deer we used to try to find when we were kids have long since been carted away. Belle Isle these days is heavily underused. Fear of crime is one reason.

Seventeen years ago, a large crowd watched silently while a man savagely beat a woman one night who had sideswiped his car.

Eventually, he threw or scared her off the bridge connecting Belle Isle to Detroit. She quickly drowned. That helped scare people away. Now, if this deal goes through, the state has pledged to beef up security. The good news is that Belle Isle is not really in terrible shape. Shabby and neglected in parts, yes.

Dangerously dilapidated, no. Governor Snyder has pledged to spend millions to upgrade the park. The state would charge a fee, of sorts; the ten dollar annual state park pass. But the fee, which we’d only pay once a year, would just affect cars; pedestrians or bike riders could get in free.

Incredibly, there is opposition to this deal, opposition rooted, sadly, in the sort of racial distrust that has long poisoned the relationship between Detroit and its suburbs and the state.

Even before the agreement was announced, some Detroiters were saying that this was a plot by “them” to take Belle Isle away from “us.”  Well, it would be pretty hard to tow it away.

Councilman Gary Brown struck a note of sensible sanity, posting on his Facebook site that because of the city’s financial crisis, “We do not have the resources to improve… let alone effectively maintain, Belle Isle.” He added that a partnership that led to significant park improvements would benefit everyone.

Ironically, the Belle Isle announcement came just as an agreement to help fix Detroit’s horrendous street lighting system was falling apart in the state senate. Sometimes we forget that cities, even troubled ones, are part of this state.

And that legally they are creations of the state. When they work, we all benefit; when they don‘t, all Michigan suffers. If everybody remembered that, we’d all have a much better shot at a comeback.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.