|Last Updated: January 28.
Travels with Charlie
Belle Isle a neglected gem waiting for political
Charlie LeDuff / The Detroit News
Detroit --Whenever I feel troubled or penned-in,
one of my favorite places is Belle Isle, where I
can sit on the bank of the river and let my mind
run. But when I went to Belle the other morning,
I got a clear and unobstructed view of its 982
There is no other way to say it: The island,
like the city, is plagued by neglect.
Take the Belle Isle Zoo.
The mostly vacant Belle Isle
Aquarium contains one display tank
containing about 25 Japanese Koi,
thanks to the efforts of the Friends
of Belle Isle Aquarium. The group is
trying to raise $1 million to reopen
the aquarium, designed by Albert
Kahn. (John T. Greilick / The
It was closed by disgraced
former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2002 for budget
He promised to reopen it, but never did. In the
meantime, the zoo has given over to climbing
vines and wild dogs.
As the zoo was closed, a million dollars was
found to build a holding pen for a few dozen
European deer that used to roam the island
freely. That contract was awarded to Bobby
Ferguson, the mayor's friend who got a lot of
contracts during the Kilpatrick years.
Today, the holding pen is being dug up and the
deer shoved to one corner, since rotting sewer
pipes weren't replaced before erecting the pen.
And then there is the Belle Isle Aquarium, a
10,000-square-foot gem with an eight-sided dome
that opened in 1904 as the entrance to the
Kilpatrick closed the aquarium in 2005, saying
the $300,000 a year it cost the city to run the
place was better used toward things like tearing
down abandoned buildings. In the end, he only
succeeded in creating another.
The aquarium is still in a good state of repair.
Unlike much of Detroit, vandals and nature have
yet to ravage it.
Designed by Albert Kahn as part of the "City
Beautiful Movement," the ceilings are still
covered in green glass tiles, the viewing tanks
are still lined in chromium and the steam heat
still operates. The roof needs work.
It is Michigan's only and America's oldest
aquarium and the Friends of the Belle Isle
Aquarium are trying to raise $1 million to
"Once it is lost, it is lost," said Vance
Patrick, president of the organization who gave
me a tour. "I took my kids there. I went there
as a kid. Generations have grown up going to the
Belle Isle Aquarium. There is no other
opportunity to visit aquatic life in the Great
Two ideas for saving Belle Isle and its venue
have been floating around for at least 15 years,
but there seems to be no political will or
energy to seize upon then.
The first is a conservancy, a public-private
partnership that oversees maintenance and
improvements to the park. Such an arrangement
means funding would come from fundraising,
grants and user fees. New York's Central Park
has been operating like this since 1980, when
joggers feared for their lives and junkies
inhabited bathroom stalls.
It should be noted that both Central Park and
Belle Isle were designed by Frederick Law
Olmsted, the founder of landscape architecture.
In my opinion, Belle Isle is the more beautiful.
The conservancy arrangement is not unprecedented
in Detroit: the Institute of Arts, Zoo, Science
Center and Historical Museum all operate as
such. And Belle Isle has no lack of supporters
who do much conservation work anyway including:
the Friends of Belle Isle, the Belle Isle
Botanical Society and the Belle Isle Women's
The second idea is a user fee, like those used
at the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.
Belle Isle now has no budget specifically for
itself, said Keith Flournoy, the park manager,
since its budget is folded into the greater
parks and recreation budget. The budget for all
the parks in the city is $25 million, half of
what it was when the aquarium was closed.
"If they don't do something soon, all we will
pass our children is a pile of rubble," said
Ernest Burkeen, the director of Detroit Parks
and Recreation under Mayor Dennis Archer and
currently the director of Parks and Recreation
for the city of Miami.
"Unfortunately, race is always a bogey man.
We're giving it away to the suburbs, the
argument goes," Burkeen said. "Secondly, there
is a political culture in Detroit where you have
a bunch of people who are against everything.
They can't give you a better way. They simply
Mayor Dave Bing said earlier this year he is
considering funding options to resurrect the
forlorn island. Residents wait.
If you wish to tour the shuttered aquarium, it
will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 6 as
part of the annual Shiver on the River
celebration of Belle Isle.
The event will feature live entertainment and
the opening of the island's other venues
including the casino and conservatory. Donations
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