It’s been ten years since visitors went through the turnstiles at the Belle Isle Safari Zoo. Nature has reclaimed much of the Zoo and the rest has been left to scavengers and graffiti artists. It is an eyesore and a symbol of Detroit’s plunge into over the past few decades. The haunted zoo is part of the bigger problem of rebuilding and maintaining Belle Isle, the 982-acre island park and largest island city park in the United States.
The sad part of Belle Isle’s history is the refusal of elected Detroit leaders to act in any manner to improve the park, in spite of the offers to help. The State of Michigan has proposed leasing Belle Isle from the city of Detroit in exchange for pumping approximately $20 million in bonds to upgrade the park and commit $1.6 million yearly to maintain it. But whoa, the Detroit City Council is balking at the idea because it “doesn’t have enough facts” and “wants to find other ways to fund improvements.” One council member even suggested that the focus should be shifted to financial troubles stemming from lost jobs, wages, and benefits.
In other words, it’s the same old song-and-dance of Detroit politicians wanting to snub outside help and to promote protectionism – all at the expense of rebuilding a wonderful gem like Belle Isle. City Council (current and previous) has had decades to come up with funding solutions and have obviously failed. Now when the State of Michigan has offered to step in rescue Belle Isle, the City Council becomes “”motivated” to act. Puleeze.
I visited Belle Isle in late September with the goal of finding eyesores to write about. The closed Zoo provided a wealth of material. There was also the weedy shoreline of the island, the overflowing trash in barrels and gathered in the pond near the famed fountain, and closed restrooms replaced with porta-potties. There was an absence of people on this sunny Saturday, except those who were fishing, picnicking, holding “Occupy Detroit” rallies, and those visiting the Belle Isle Aquarium, which recently reopened thanks to the efforts of the Belle Isle Conservancy (www.belleisleconservancy.org). The Conservancy has been responsible for a lot of good deeds on Belle Isle and will continue to work on improving the park for all visitors.
I am 100% in favor of Detroit leasing Belle Isle to Michigan because it means more jobs in rebuilding and maintaining the island, a travel destination for visitors to Michigan, and a great place to take the family for a day visit, or even an overnight stay if Michigan brings camping to Belle Isle. I can attest to being an overnight camper as a bike marathon participant back in the 1980s. It was very cool to step out of the tent and look across the river to Canada.
So wake up Detroit City Council. Take a trip into the seedy side of Belle Isle and see what your inaction has done. And for those who want to take matters into your own hands, make a monetary pledge to the Belle Isle Conservancy. Belle Isle is a historical gem and can return to its greatness once again.