A small, unmarked path curves away from the main stretch that outlines Belle Isle State Park, after five minutes driving along the cracked street, trees and bushes grow taller and the Detroit skyline falls away. The path looks more like a lush hiking trail than a bankrupt city.
Belle Isle has been an eyesore for the city of Detroit for more than a few years. It was known for being generally unsafe, dirty, and a major money sinkhole. In February, the island was leased to the state of Michigan and made the state’s 102nd state park. The city of Detroit is expected to save between $4 and $6 million annually since the state’s takeover.
It’s been about six months since the DNR came in and began its long list of renovations, but what exactly has been done?
After a tour around the island with Park Superintendent Joe Hall, it’s evident that there’s a lot of changes that have been made.
The cleanliness of the island is obvious as soon as you cross the bridge. Michigan Department of Transportation crews walk around picking up trash, and almost 1,000 trash cans have been installed and attached to wooden posts, so as to not blow away into the river. The clusters of white barrels dot the grassy stretches along the entire island, a hopeful “Keep Belle Isle Clean” message written across them. It just might be working.
For Hall, cleanliness is one of his biggest goals.
“If you go into an area and see trash on ground, you don’t feel bad about throwing trash on ground,” he said. “But if you go in and it’s pristine and see none on the ground, then you’re not going to throw trash.”
In addition to MDOT picking up trash, Jewish Vocational Services is out for two and a half hours each day helping to pick up trash, paint, and assist with general cleanup. MDOT’s youth initiative takes part in trash pickup as well, and DNR officers make it truly a community affair. The DNR aren’t the only patrols on the island, though. State police also patrol—more than some members of the city would like.
“We’ve always got at least three law enforcement vehicles on the island between state police and conservation officers,” Hall said.
He said they’re rarely giving tickets, but mostly warnings and pulling people over for speeding. The speed limit on the island is 25 miles per hour and is outlined by a one-way road that makes speeding fairly tempting. Safety had never been one of Belle Isle’s strong points, but now that troopers are policing, several park users agreed that it feels safer.
Natasha Brown of Detroit said there’s not as much loud music, and not as much riff raff. “It’s definitely safer with the troopers,” she said.
Irene Brown of Eastpointe agreed there is better policing now that the state has control. “I think it will definitely make a difference—the state certainly has more money,” she said. “We’ll just have to wait and see what they’re going to do.”
Brown and her husband take their bikes to the island often. They hope that someday there will be an RV park on Belle Isle, an addition that would compliment the many activities that are available and newly renovated on the island.
It has become a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, now with all of the work being put into making it a place safe and healthy to carry out such activities. Hall said a lot of people come out to the park to exercise, and the bike lanes along the entire road help. Many need to be re-marked, but they are surely being used.
A partnership with Come Play Detroit has brought softball, kickball, rugby, racquetball, and flag football events out onto the fields, and the spaces are being used regularly each week.
A disc golf course is now operating out of the old golf course by Detroit Disc Golf, and for $4 a person the course is available seven days a week. The course isn’t far from hiking trails and an archery range, both of which are used in the Stepping Stones program to teach children outdoor skills.
In addition to the restoration of the activity-based features on Belle Isle, 15 of the 18 bathrooms on the island are now opened, a contrast to the porta-johns that used to sit outside the dilapidated restrooms. The island even smells better now.
New roofs have been installed on five shelters, which are rented out on the weekends. New paint shines on many of them and 20 ash dumping stations have been installed. Even if users aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities to keep Belle Isle cleaner, the resources to do so are much more prevalent than they were six months ago. Maybe visitors will get the hint.
The biggest struggle for Hall has been figuring out the infrastructure of the park.
“There is not a lot of documentation,” he said. Finding parts to replace 100-year-old structures isn’t just a trip to Home Depot. One of the most impressive restorations is the 89-year-old James Scott Memorial Fountain. Cleaned up and cleaned out, the fountain runs almost daily now and requires eight to 16 man hours a day just to operate.
“It’s basically a giant swimming pool,” Hall said. It has to be cleaned of debris daily, the chemical levels have to be monitored, and it must be vacuumed. A statue of James Scott, the man with the money for the fountain who died in 1910, sits and watches nearby.
If any of the changes have done anything for Belle Isle, it’s certainly brought people in. On a Tuesday afternoon, the beach is full, the water is being splashed by dozens of yelping children. The bike lanes have more than one person in them. Many more, in fact. The playground is packed and the fountain is surrounded by visitors.
The only rules that have changed in the park is the recreation pass that is required for entry, a controversial fee that many weren’t quite sure of.
An $11 recreation pass is required for entry to the park, although there is no contact gate at the front of the park that visitors are required to stop at, and the rule is lightly enforced as of now. Foot traffic, bikes, and public buses can enter without charge.
Instead of checking each car, officers go around to cars and check license plates to see if the car has a recreation pass.
“We would rather miss a few people than have people wait in line 15 or 20 minutes to get in,” Hall said. For now, cars without a pass get a reminder note on their cars asking them to purchase a pass on their way out of the park for the same price as if they were to purchase it at the secretary of state.
“We’re not even writing license plate numbers down this year,” he said. “Eventually, it will be a notice to stop and purchase it on your way out.”
The changes are gradually coming on the island, and they start with the less glamorous jobs like repairing electrical and plumbing, but coincide with things on the surface like clean and cut grass, paved sidewalks, and working bathrooms. They’re on their way.
“It’s going to take years, and there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” Hall said. “You have to fix those bones before you go and fix the skin.”
The improvements made already have turned a seedy and dirty island into a safe place to relax, and the plans for next year’s improvements are underway. Hall and his crew are doing the best they can with what they’ve got, for now.
“This island is a real special place to a lot of people that come out here,” he said. “It’s our job to make sure it’s accessible to everybody and it’s clean and safe.”
Images by Chelsea Hohn