Detroit Divided on Belle Isle’s Future

 Speaking of Islands, remember LOST?

This may be pushing things a bit, but who remembers the popular TV series about the crazy island?

To jog your memory, there’s this mystical, overgrown island that a bunch of new people crash land on and try to change it up. But the people who’ve been there forever don’t want them to. Sound familiar? It’s okay if it doesn’t.

The point is this: there are two schools of thought when it comes to Detroit’s (in this case Belle Isle’s) future. One is lead by those who assert that fixing problems will come from new people and businesses moving in due to economic growth and regional or state management of underfunded city projects.

Then there are the “others” who believe the best thing for they city and its residents is change from the inside out without allowing the State or region to meddle in its affairs other than perhaps to fork over funding with no strings attached. This train of thought has some valid points: before we cater to places like Downtown or Belle Isle, we should look at the neighborhoods, the ‘hoods where the real mess is going down everyday: horrifying police response times, unsafe (if any) sidewalks, illegal dumping, grass taller than Shaq… the list goes on.

Meanwhile, the riverfront is booming with new development, the Dequindre Cut looks like a suburban dream trail. But the fact of the matter is that that’s not how cities grow—not from its poor areas out, rather the reverse. We live in a capitalistic society. The people who build cities have money. They spend money. They bike the Dequindre cut, they peruse riverfront activities and they go to Belle Isle. Did I mention that they spend money?

It’s an old story. But let’s get practical about the country we live in: Industry, economy, that’s how the American cities grow. And unless the others start a revolution, that’s how things will be. But that’s not to say business and drawing in young professionals is all bad. It’s great that people are coming to see Detroit as a fun place to visit rather than a scary one. And eventually that energy will get to the sometimes forgotten neighborhoods.

If Belle Isle is beautiful now, just imagine if the tennis courts were functional and the nature trails were newly cleared and re-finished. Belle Isle would be a national destination.

As the Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson pointed out last week: The city spends 2.8 million—half if it’s annual budget for parks and recs—on (barely) maintaining Belle Isle. Meanwhile, other city parks go un-mowed and ultimately melt back into the natural landscape. That’s good for wild pheasants, bad for kids.

Some have compared the island to Central Park in New york, which is more than 100 acres smaller than Belle isle, yet has 15 times more annual funding.

As Dave Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder announce their proposal for Belle Isle this morning, keep in mind the possibilities Belle Isle holds. And remember, it’s not over ‘til the City Council sings. 

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