Nothing fishy in report on city's decline
April 5, 2005
BY DESIREE COOPER
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
I was in Toronto last weekend for a conference.
On Saturday morning as I was waiting in the
hotel lobby, I picked up a copy of Canada's
national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. There in
the Focus section was a story titled, "How
Motown lost its bounce."
Sigh. It seems that Detroit's demise will
forever be a global spectator sport. As a
resident of Detroit, I flinched as I read the
story, which inevitably pointed to the city's
population hemorrhage and its persistent crime
problem as evidence of its impending doom.
I wasn't surprised by anything I read -- who
hasn't heard it all before? But I was surprised
by how the article started. Not with the city's
deep racial divide or the fall of the auto
industry or the crumbling infrastructure or the
It started with the fish.
Closing a door on history
When writing an obituary, it always seems to be
the little things that stick out in the life of
a person -- and in the life of a city. The Globe
& Mail's obituary for Detroit focused on the
closing of the aquarium as one of the
heartbreaking casualties "in the agonizing
decline of one of America's most storied
Until Sunday, the Belle Isle Aquarium quietly
occupied its own corner of history. When its
doors shut for good Sunday, its reign as the
longest-running public aquarium in the United
States ended. But at 101 years old, its
experience held barely a drop to the glitzy
immersion experiences of contemporary aquariums.
The green-tiled facility designed by famed
architect Albert Kahn has struggled to hold the
imagination of Detroiters. In 1995, the facility
attracted more than 113,000 fish fans. Last
year, it hosted less than half that number. In
fact, during the furor over closing the
facility, many people I knew assumed it already
had closed years ago.
Still, why should a quaint and nostalgic fish
tank become the barometer of an entire city's
Here's a hint: It's not about the fish.
Fishing for hope amid death
Fish have long been a metaphor for life, or more
specifically, for the inner life or the spirit.
And in that regard, it's hard not to see the
relationship between closing the aquarium and
the slow suffocating of this city's humanity.
To be fair, the city is trying to hang on to its
symbols of civility. Even as the aquarium was
closing, the city was investing in Belle Isle,
including installing a new giant slide and a
concession stand near Kids' Row. The Nancy Brown
Carillon Tower, a monument with chimes, will
reopen this month and there are plans to add
venues for skating and cross-country skiing.
Yet, as Detroit faces a $200-million deficit,
it's a no-brainer to close the door on a few
piranhas and eels that cost taxpayers more than
a half-million dollars each year. Who would
question that our parks, recreational facilities
and art programs should be the first to be
marched to the guillotine?
But just because you have to amputate a leg to
save a life doesn't mean the leg was a frivolous
Studies have shown how interaction with nature
can improve mental health, decrease the heart
rate and blood pressure and even help children
with behavior disorders become more emotionally
centered and socially adjusted. And it was Henry
David Thoreau who once said, "It is the marriage
of the soul with nature that makes intellect
fruitful, and gives birth to imagination."
Detroit is ailing, and it may be forced to shut
its parks, museums, recreational facilities and
art programs so that the city itself may
But my worry is that its spirit may never
Contact DESIREE COOPER at 313-222-6625 or