The Beautiful Island: Fragile and Scarred

By Alyson Jones Turner

When talking about her, call all of her names:

The Anishinabeg called her Wahnabeezee, or “Swan Island.”

The French called her Snake Island and Hog Island.

Detroiters called her Belle Isle, or “The Beautiful Island.”

The State of Michigan calls her Belle Isle State Park.

I think about her.

I think about the big sky over Belle Isle, dotted with color and kites. Kites and flyers have long enjoyed the island park, including my kites and the Windjammers. The Windjammers Kite Team has been together since 1983. Known internationally, the Windjammers Kite Team invited everyone to Belle Isle on October 11, 2015 to fly and enjoy kites on the athletic field to observe One Sky/One World Day. When we fly our kites on Belle Isle each year, we fly in the long tradition of the Windjammers and the Kiters who taught them.

Photo of Aaron Harris courtesy of Windjammers Kite Team

I’m thinking about what people who have not known her will miss when visiting the island. They may not know that Belle Isle was freed from private hands in 1879, when it was purchased by the City of Detroit for $200,000 to create a park. They may not know what she has meant to so many of us in the city. They do not have the memories of city park days. For me the island park is filled with memories of a zoo full of animals, frequently used baseball and basketball fields, the laughter of family reunions, and the sound of kids playing at the playscape.

I’m thinking about why many of us are so afraid for the park these days. Belle Isle is endangered. Her ecosystem is threatened. Private interests like the Indy Car race –perhaps the only one in the country inside a park — and the Detroit Grand Prix do violence to the island and its inhabitants. The concreting of the island and the storage of race equipment are assaults to my eyes and heart. Belle Isle holds the scars of bridges that are erected for the race fans, the flattened grass areas that are used for parking and trees wounded by signs forced onto their trunks. There is no amount of money that could be worth the damage done to the park for this brief race. During the months of preparation for the race, people who want to enjoy the park are kept away.

Photo courtesy of The Detroit News

I’m thinking about the monuments and memories that are so fragile in the hands of the State and Conservancies. Our thoughts go to the trees planted on Belle Isle in 1990. On the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day, Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD) worked with the Detroit Greens to plant 10,000 trees to remember children who lost their lives to gun violence over two decades. A beautiful grove thrived near the casino, reminding us of loss and hope. Now that grove is gone. Shea Howell said that only the smallest roots remain, buried under the cement spread for a section of the Grand Prix.

When thinking about Belle Isle, it is important for me to say out loud the words of Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman in  “From Wahnabeezee to Penskiland: The Desecration of Detroit’s Belle Isle:”

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 to be constitutionally tested in Federal Court. Think of it this way: through his own appointee, it was leased by Governor Snyder.