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Free Press: Nothing fishy in report on city's decline

April 5, 2005


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 poor schools.

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 cities."

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 demise?

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 appendage.

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 survive.

But my worry is that its spirit may never recover.

Contact DESIREE COOPER at 313-222-6625 or cooper@freepress.com