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Summer, set, go (6/13/2007)
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Metro Retro (9/29/2010)
Metro Retro (9/22/2010)
Everyone has a fond memory to revisit or an engaging story to tell about an experience on Belle Isle — it’s just one of those things that goes along with being a resident of Southeast Michigan. We create our own little histories during family picnics, softball games and romantic getaways, and pass our stories down the generational line.
But what about the history of the 985-acre isle itself? A member of Friends of Belle Isle, author Jane Anderson, offers an insightful history in her book, Island in the City.
The two-and-a-half-mile-long and half-mile-wide rocket-shaped island was originally part of the Ottawa and Chippewa territory; the Native American tribes called it Wahnabezze, which translates to “White Swan.” During the French occupation from 1701-1760, the island was an agricultural resource for settlers, who put pigs there. That led to the nickname “Ile aux Cochons” — Hog Island. Because the island was both scenic and rich in natural resources, the French and British squabbled over its possession. In 1752, the French government granted the island’s title to Commandant Douville Dequindre. However, by 1760, the British had taken over possession of Detroit, and Lt. George McDougall was granted ownership in 1798, provided he could secure a peace agreement with the Native Americans. He did so, and purchased the island from the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes for a whopping five barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, three pounds of red paint and a belt of wampum (the wampum belt that purportedly marks the “purchase” of the island is housed in the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection). In 1915, descendants of the Chippewa sued to get the island back (along with the Chicago lakefront). That didn’t work out for the Chippewa.
Island ownership passed through several hands before coming into possession of the Campau family, which sold it to the City of Detroit in 1879 for $200,000. The sale was quite controversial at the time, as locals felt the cost was too high. Under the city’s possession, good ol’ Hog Island became the much more elegant “Belle Isle.” Although most Detroiters assume the name comes from the French translation of “beautiful island” it is also rumored the name is in honor of Isabelle Cass, daughter of Michigan Gov. Lewis Cass. Her nickname was Belle.
The city hired prestigious landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to create a development plan for the island; (with New York City’s Central Park and the grounds of the Capitol in D.C on his résumé, Olmstead seemed like a sound choice). Major construction on the island began in the late 1880s, and included bridges, roads and attractions like the Casino and a yacht clubhouse. The 1890s saw even more structures pop up: the music pavilion, a police station, two comfort stations, a skating pavilion and horse stables. The first bridge to the island was built in 1889, but was destroyed by fire in 1915. Eight years later, construction was completed on the 2,193-foot bridge that still leads the way to the island today.
1904 saw the construction of the aquarium; it remains the oldest continually operated, municipally funded aquarium in North America. The Gold Cup powerboat races (still active today) came to the island in 1915, and the zoo was built in 1947 but closed last year.
With a plethora of new attractions, Detroiters came in droves — and the occasional bit of trouble occurred. In 1910, some 100 people, mostly teens, were arrested on moral grounds, after police broke up numerous romantic trysts in secluded areas. Some things never change.
Among island plans that never materialized: an elevated electric train to the mainland, an airfield, a miniature railroad over the bridge and circling the island, an amusement park, gambling casinos, an equestrian center.
For decades, Detroiters frolicked and congregated on Belle Isle, until the riots in 1967 changed the face of the Motor City. As residents fled to the burbs and Detroit began to slide into decay, so did Belle Isle. Some facilities fell into disuse, and many historic structures began to show the wear of time.
Fortunately, however, there are major renovation plans in store for Detroiters’ favorite little getaway. Early this summer, the bell tower will ring for the first time in 15 years, and will ring hourly from there on out. The Anna Whitcombe Conservatory will hold its 100th anniversary on Aug. 7. Upgrades are scheduled for the band shell, the pavilion, and nine baseball diamonds. One comfort station is being renovated, and two new ones will be constructed. And the famous Scott Fountain has been spruced up, and has a brand-new set of lights.
In November, the Michigan Coastal Management Program granted the city Recreation Department $250,000 for ecological restoration of the 41-acre Blue Heron Lagoon at the eastern end of Belle Isle; the rec department contributed $100,000. The ecological analysis and restoration project aims to create a deep-water fish habitat in the lagoon and help protect unique native species here such as Prairie Ladies’ Tresses, Pumpkin Ash and Sullivan’s Milkweed. The project will also help control the phragmites (reeds that take over streams and lakes when the water is polluted) that are as numerous here as in the industrial ponds of New Jersey. In addition, the Coastal Management Program and the Great Lakes Fishery Trust gave another grant of $500,000 to help create a spawning habitat for the largest fish in the Great Lakes: The lake sturgeon, an ancient fish that can grow up to 7 feet that is a threatened species in Michigan.
Metro Times decided to make an intense examination of the fabled island, its features, its mysteries, its quirks, its visitors. “48 Hours on Belle Isle” was born. The project involved 12 writers and six photographers, deployed in six-hour shifts beginning at sunup on Friday, May 7, and concluding at sunrise on Sunday, May 9. The effort produced nearly 30,000 words of text (you’ll get about half that sum here) and more than 1,000 photographic images.
What did we discover? Belle Isle remains a welcome haven for many metro Detroit residents. They are drawn by placid green meadows and bosky copses, by secret nooks and crannies, by stunning views of the Detroit River and of the cities that straddle the river, and by cultural institutions.
They are also beckoned by tradition. Many Belle Isle regulars have been coming for generations.
The place teems with permanent residents — raccoons, foxes, deer, snakes, black squirrels. Belle Isle is home to 628 native plant species, 130 species of bird and 68 species of fish. There are even humans. Yes, a few homeless people see it as a haven as well.
It’s a romantic place, figurative and literally. There’s lots of sex.
We heard of what people love and lament about Belle Isle. Island denizens feel a sense of ownership. While some appreciate the place just as it is, many are nostalgic about what it once was. General consensus is that the city is not doing enough to preserve and exploit the wonders of the unique island park. We heard suggestions for improvements.
Yet people on Belle Isle are given to relaxed smiles. With one or two exceptions, what we didn’t hear during our 48 hours was a discouraging word.
Belle Isle’s statues stand guard in the dim pre-dawn light, the shadows cast by headlights adding drama to their poses. That’s especially true of Major General Alpheus Stanley, veteran of the War with Mexico and the Civil War, who’s atop his steed at one of the island’s main crossroads, Central and Inselruhe. His spurred boots are in the stirrups; he has a map in hand as if plotting conquest, and his sword at his side, at the ready.
Cars cross the Douglas MacArthur Bridge as the sun begins to light up the island. It’s a blustery gray-blue morning, the kind that belongs in a Virginia Woolf novel. The air is cool and damp, the river foreboding.
On the eastern tip of the island, near the Livingston Memorial Lighthouse, is a clear view of the sunrise. It’s empty here, but noisy. Waves slap the embankment. Birds jabber. The wind is relentless.
It is almost too cold to stand still and watch the sun break through the clouds. But the light transforms the landscape. For brief moments, grassy fields are electric green. Pebble-sized hail from last night’s storm are glacier-white. Crab apple blossoms glow pink and turn pale. The river is a swift current of changing hues.
Detroiters Al Hunt, 56, and Asa Chiles, 74, follow Lakeside Drive as it crosses the east end of the island and curves back toward the Detroit Yacht Club. They’re regulars who sometimes find themselves walking in sync, talking their way through, as the more-talkative Hunt puts it: “Politics and women. What’s going on in the world. … We talk about life.” To walk here in the quiet on either side of the dawn is to “re-spiritualize yourself,” he says.
Chiles says part of the reason for walking here is practical: Anywhere else in the city, motorists “drive you off the road.” And one must walk in the morning, Hunt notes, because even on the island pollution becomes bothersome after noon as the traffic picks up.
Hunt, who has been here most days of the last 12 years, has advice on how to interpret weather reports for island walking. Yesterday was 47 degrees, for instance, while today’s 52 feels cooler because of the wind. That windchill has to be part of the equation. But don’t take rain warning seriously. If you’re not careful, you’ll find every excuse to say in bed, head on the pillow.
Strangest things Hunt has seen on these walks? There was a commotion once as cops dredged a body out of the river. There was that guy who was “buck naked” on the hood of a car while a woman performed oral sex — both high-tailed it when surprised by Hunt and a friend traipsing along. Hunt’s seen raccoons and opossums. And a pair of foxes in winter: “That’s something to behold,” he says.
“This stimulates me,” he says. “It’s a shot in the arm. I really love it.”
The sun makes a full appearance. Two men carry fishing poles. They smile and chat as they head for the canals to cast their lines. Sean Newson, 36, has two poles. The lifelong Detroiter learned to fish as a boy. When production slowed down this spring at the car parts company where he works, he started fishing here Friday mornings.
“The water has risen a lot since last week,” says Newson, who’s joined by his friend, Michael Moore, 32.
“There goes a bass!” says Moore, who also grew up in the city and learned to fish as a kid.
“Go get him!”
A couple of geese fly overhead and honk. A pair on the ground call a response.
Newson says he has caught bass, perch and pike. So far, he hasn’t had a bite. Neither has Moore.
“To be truthful, I don’t bring my kids down here after 5 p.m.,” says Moore.
“It’s really a teenager hangout in the evening,” says Newson, who wants the city to charge visitors an entrance fee and use the money to maintain the island.
Moore agrees. Both are frustrated by the litter they see on the island, though there isn’t much this morning.
“As kids, we were taught how to fish,” says Newson. “Kids aren’t taught that and don’t appreciate nature. I come out here and see the beer cans, I get disgusted.”
Duane Townsend strolls leisurely along the concrete path. He has been taking morning walks on Belle Isle since last summer.
“I come here to talk to God, to do push-ups, work out. It’s a beautiful way to start the day,” says the 50-year-old computer instructor.
Townsend, who’s lived in Detroit most of his life, says he used to pray and exercise at home, but wanted a new routine. When he started walking here last year, he says there were lots of people who appeared to be living in their cars.
“It was like a parking lot along the west end,” says Townsend. “The cops didn’t bother them. There’s a lot of functioning homeless; they’re not all on drugs.”
As he saunters past a stand of maple, a small white-breasted bird swoops surprisingly close to him. It circles and flies past a couple more times. Maybe it is defending its nest. Such moments delight Townsend, who tells how he once wandered behind the now-shuttered Belle Isle Zoo and found himself face to face with a caged tiger. “It was awesome,” he says.
The sun is climbing into morning. The Ren Cen, viewed from the deserted north fishing pier, absorbs the depressed metal gray from the sky and looks like an enormous industrial cylinder looming over downtown. Looking back onto the isle, the view encompasses a cyclist leisurely pedaling, a couple of joggers; a yellow city Parks and Recreation truck drives along Riverbank Road. Pier graffiti shows that fans of AC-DC and Third Eye Blind have been here. A heart surrounds “Adam & Stef.” Another note says: “Andy ª Marie.”
A red and gray barge glides quickly along the river past the rock sculpture on the island’s east rim. Artist Matthew Loflin Davis has been erecting what some call a mini-Stonehenge. Duane Townsend is intrigued by the carefully placed stones. He sometimes watches the artist, whose work was dismantled by the city before Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick gave his stamp of approval.
“Some people take offense and say it’s pagan art. To me, art is art,” says Townsend.
Three city workers spear up the last scraps of trash at the picnic shelter at Vista and Riverbend, then drive away. The picnic tables and benches wait for visitors. A statue of Dante Alighieri, “the father of Italian literature,” looks on. Its plate explains that it was erected by Detroit’s Italian community in 1927, restored by the Friends of Belle Isle in 1998.
A freighter passes the Coast Guard station while a speed walker punches the air as he clips along. Sid Johnson, 52, a retired autoworker, says he walks or jogs two or three miles nearly every day. He has been working out on the island for about five years and likes to get here early.
“It’s less congested,” says Johnson.
He crosses paths with two women, also speed walking. Carol Gross, 56, has a foot injury. She says she’s taking it easy, but it’s hard to keep up with her. She and her friend Dana Jenkins, 35, are preparing for their second marathon. They ran their first one last year.
Jenkins says a group of women meet up at about 5:30 a.m. nearly every day to walk and run together.
“We do it all year round,” says Gross. “It’s beautiful here in the winter.”
Why would a Lincoln stretch limo be parked near the fountain? The island is a popular spot for wedding photos. But would a bride walk across these damp, muddy fields? There’s no one in sight. Knocks on the dark windows elicit no response. Nor does a business card with a note to “please call” left under a windshield wiper blade.
Near the park entrance, four men use tractor mowers to cut the grass near the beach.
“We cut each section once a week,” says Jamaris Williams, who wears a face mask. “We start at the beginning of the island and hope it’s all done by the end of the week.”
The crew begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m.
Williams comes to Belle Isle in his free time. “I like to look at Detroit,” he says, pointing at a view of downtown. “I tell people to come in the morning before the trash is out. I think if we didn’t pick up the trash it would be over our heads.”
A young woman pulls into a parking lot and sits in her car with the motor running. Is she in trouble? She steps out and takes a brief stroll on the beach before returning to her car. Her seat is reclined, the engine runs, the radio is on.
“I come here to pray,” says Sandia Twine as gospel music blares from her car.
The 32-year-old Detroiter prays on the island each morning before work. Twine, a fund-raiser for Children’s Hospital, says the ritual began about two years ago when she had some spare time after dropping her mother off at her job. Though she no longer drives her mother to work, Twine maintains her daily routine.
“I like the water. It’s peaceful,” she says.
Walter Mitchell says he, for one, doesn’t know why a stretch limo would be parked on Belle Isle. His reasons for being on the island are simple: He’s homeless. He likes the air here. And you can always do a little fishing. He came to the island yesterday. Sometimes he stays three or four days at a time. “Never had no problem,” he says.
During last night’s hailstorm, he was safe under the canopy of a picnic shelter. He wears a trench coat over a hooded sweatshirt, which already looks uncomfortably hot. He sometimes works as a temporary laborer, he says. He’d like to find regular work. He says he’s “going on 54.”
Robert Mingus has just finished serving eggs and bacon cooked on a grill set up outside the Casino, which is not really a casino and never has been; it’s a big fancy meeting hall. With him are three others who have brought lawn chairs, tents and coolers. They are some of the hundreds of parents who will spend tonight on Belle Isle to ensure their kids are registered in the city’s summer recreation program.
Mingus explains that there are limited slots available for the nine-week program, which costs only $325 for the summer.
Frank McMillian says there are only 55 spaces at the rec center in his neighborhood. He has been here since about 7 a.m. to ensure his two kids are enrolled.
“It’s a great program,” he says, offering basketball, soccer, self-defense courses, arts and crafts, swimming and other activities, including field trips to such places as Cedar Point.
“There are other centers, but the fee is outrageous,” says McMillian.
Mingus says the program is a safe place for kids. He plans to enroll his 8-year-old daughter.
This is the third year that parents have lined up for registration 24 hours in advance.
“The average cost of day care is $130 a week,” says Mingus. “That’s why everyone is camping out.”
“I have been through hailstorms without a tent,” says Gwen, who doesn’t want to give her last name.
In previous years, Mingus and his wife would each put in 12 hours on the island, but she’s at work today. He has come well-prepared for a night on island. Along with a Eureka tent, he has a cooler packed with steaks, baked beans, pancakes, popcorn and other goodies.
“Kids need places to go, period,” says Mingus, a Detroit cop who says he sees kids in trouble because they have nothing to occupy their time. He believes recreation programs are critical for children who often are left unattended when school is out.
“I see them at 36th District Court,” he says, “and they are just lost.”
The Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower does not chime the hour. Or any other hour. It’s surrounded by a partly dry moat, which is surrounded by a high fence, which has a padlocked gate. It’s a weird mini-fortress island on the island. Although it’s slated for renovation, it’s a forlorn sight now. It’s not only mute, but the clock is limbless: The hands have fallen (or been stolen, or removed for safekeeping) from the tower’s two clocks. Hard to imagine that 10,000 people gathered for the 1940 inauguration of this symbol of peace.
Dramatically and majestically, a gray-feathered heron swoops low over the lake near the carillon. It defecates, raking the calm water with a sort of aerial bombardment. The bird banks behind a growth of trees and disappears from view.
Terry Beasly is the building attendant for the Casino, where about 80 senior citizens come each weekday to exercise, play checkers, do yoga, take ceramics classes, socialize and share a meal. Beasly says he needs an authorization letter before our photographer can go in. He says the park administrators at the nearby White House, a Civil War-era mansion, will provide that letter. This task proves more complicated than Beasly suggests.
At the White House, city workers place several calls, including one to Charlie Beckham, the Recreation Department director overseeing all Detroit parks. The necessary authorization doesn’t come, at least not right away.
Across from the White House is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, which is celebrating its centennial in August. It’s a good place to kill time while waiting for Beckham’s call (which comes about an hour later).
The tropical room is packed with dwarf banana and rubber trees, sugar cane, coffee and vanilla plants, bamboo palms and balmy air. A bumblebee hovers over a citrus specimen that emits a lemony odor. The sun pours through the glass ceiling; the day is warming up.
A man in his 40s and three white-haired ladies who are not speaking English check out the foliage. The fellow is Brian Kritzman, a Wayne State University industrial design professor. His girlfriend’s mother, Johanna Schrattenthaler, is here from Austria with friends, and Kritzman is giving the visitors a tour of Detroit.
Schrattenthaler asked to see the conservatory, which she visited 14 years ago. She is disappointed. She recalls seeing a room full of amaryllises on her last trip. Schrattenthaler heads to the showroom, where the conservatory displays new varieties of flowers and plants six times a year. As she walks in, there they are: dozens of brilliant red and pale-pink amaryllises. Is this how she remembers the conservatory? She nods and smiles and points at an amaryllis with green edging. It’s spectacular.
John Irving, 23, of Detroit, fishing pole and paraphernalia in hand, calls it quits on Lake Okonoka. His take for the last half hour? Nothing but a story about the crappie that got away. The wind moves the bobber so much that you can’t tell when you’re getting a bite anyway. It’s a far cry from his best day so far, which Irving recalls precisely as April 25 — he caught 50 crappies and 50 bluegills. That makes up for days like today.
He’s been coming to Belle Isle all of his life, but has been fishing here just the last four years. “It’s relaxing just to get outdoors, just to clear your mind up and have some fun.” He points across the road to a distant point on Blue Heron Lagoon. Back there is a fine fishing spot. But he won’t go that far just now. Having given up on Okonoka, he crosses Lakeside Drive, settles in on the edge of the lagoon and puts his pole out again.
The limousine is gone.
Kaylee Smith, a Taylor 4-year-old, has the sprawling playscape all to herself. Her father, Mark, 45, and her uncle, Matt, 44, are down for the morning. Mark’s wife works at Blue Cross Blue Shield and they’re killing time before meeting her for lunch. Kaylee renders a judgment on the playscape: “It’s wet.” Her attention shifts to a ladybug she’s found while dad and uncle talk. Two other little girls arrive and join Kaylee to form a frolicking threesome.
Mark and Matt note that the park has improved markedly since their last visits, a couple years back for Mark, many for Matt. One of the big playscape attractions is a sort of swing which has a tyke-sized saucer for lounging rather than a slat for sitting; you — assuming you are of a certain size — kick back and watch the sky slide back and forth over your head. Kaylee clasps her hands behind her head and smiles like she owns the contraption, whatever it’s called.
Ruth Hart has worked at the conservatory for two years. She wears red glasses and rubber boots and jeans. She gathers a bucket and other supplies needed to fertilize the flowers, giving directions to an elderly woman.
“My favorite part of the job is answering questions,” she says.
Hart gives a brief tour of the five-room conservatory. She points at the ceiling fans and explains that they’re necessary to keep each room at a particular temperature.
“Shading compound is to cut down on light,” says Hart, pointing at the windows. The glass looks dirty, coated in the white-gray goop. The windows are open.
“You need fresh air for the plants,” says Hart. “Without it, leaves go brown … and fall off.”
Ivy grows on tufa rock, which holds water so the lush plant can grow. Baby tears (its scientific name is Helxine Soleirolia) also grow on tufa rock below the amaryllis. An orchid cactus with large pink flowers is displayed.
“When they finish, we take them across the street [to the greenhouses],” says Hart, referring to the amaryllis and other plants.
In the palm room, trees flower.
“Not a lot of people notice them because they are so high,” says Hart, pointing at 20-foot-high palms. “But when all of them are in bloom, it’s really bright.”
She notes a fishtail palm, which looks like a green reed. It drops golden pollen on plants below.
“That’s what I like,” says Hart. “There’s always something new to observe and to learn. I like people’s questions because it fascinates me what they focus on.”
Like the desert, the cactus room is kept cool at night and warm during the day. It’s about 11:10 a.m. and the temperature gauge reads 62 degrees.
“There is always a breeze on the island, so it keeps [the conservatory] cooler,” she says.
Hart steps into the fernery, where several species grow. It is below ground to keep it damp like a basement.
“This building was designed in the turn of the century with all this in mind,” says Hart.
The White House was once the summer home of an old Detroit family — back in the 1800s when the island, according to historian Janet Anderson, “was a popular place for fighting duels.”
“We want to know what goes on here — to help give a picture of 48 hours on Belle Isle,” we tell the city folk at the White House. No one here can talk to press is the answer. One has to go through the same lady who hasn’t returned advance inquiries for several days now. This is security worthy of the more famous White House. Why bother?
Four busloads of third- and fourth-graders from the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences throng into the 100-year-old Belle Isle Aquarium, the oldest continually operating municipally funded aquarium in North America. As of Dec. 31, 2003, the aquarium kept 187 species and approximately 4,000 individuals.
The vaulted ceiling of Pewabic tiles seems to have been designed to amplify, distort and project the sounds of groups like this. You can stand alone and the echoing voices create the aural illusion that you’re in the middle of a crowd. But lean close to a klatch of the kids and you can make out some of what’s being said, the ooohs and ahhhs. “Look here … seahorses … glass fish, you can see right through him.” One little girl reads from a display with the authority of an ichthyologist; she explains to schoolmates: “That’s the mushroom anemone … tree coral … hammer coral … star polyp.” A little boy motions for the attention of third-grade teacher Janaia Stegger. “Miss Stegger, you see that one?” he asks, pointing to a leopard moray eel curled to one side of its tank, lazily opening and shutting a mouthful of translucent teeth. “Oooh, that’s nasty,” the boy proclaims.
The conservatory has 20 greenhouses. Some have gone empty since the staff was cut from 12 to seven about five years ago.
A few of the greenhouses are used to train Golightly Career and Technical Center students in floriculture. They work each morning, learning how to grow hostas, geraniums, vegetables, herbs and other plants from seed. In the spring, the plants are sold.
The Belle Isle Botanical Society (BIBS) also uses the greenhouses to grow plants that are sold at the spring sale, which is open to the public.
Vegetation indigenous to Michigan also is grown here. Two-year-old oak trees stand about 2 feet tall. Shelves are packed with flats of Solomon seal, a small white ferny flower, wild yam vines and jack in the pulpit.
Thousands of orchids pack another greenhouse, which is kept between 70 and 80 degrees. It’s overwhelming. How do they tend to each one?
“Not much of a show back here,” says Steve Weaver, who has been working at the conservatory five years.
None of the orchids are in bloom. Those with flowers are on display.
“We have about a half dozen species and hundreds of subspecies,” he says.
A volunteer plucks dead leaves from the plants.
“We have volunteers come in for a half day regularly,” says Weaver. “Ford [Motor Co.] sends volunteers, white-collar workers.”
Starbucks sends about 200 employees one day a year.
Weaver heads to what looks like a barn. The conservatory staff congregates here.
While a couple of folks eat lunch, Beckham drops in. The recreation director wants to be sure photos were taken of the seniors at the Casino. But he also wants to put a good spin on the island. Beckham has big plans for Belle Isle.
“We would like to redo the whole boathouse,” he says of the dilapidated building just east of the bridge. “It’s the first thing you see when you enter. So we need to fix it up.”
He also plans to repair the carillon.
“It will ring for the first time in 15 years,” says Beckham, who is interrupted by a couple of calls and soon takes off.
Mike Sands, a senior floriculturist, who is having lunch, has worked at the conservatory 33 years. He knows this place as well as anyone. Sands is genuinely excited by the plants, particularly geraniums. He pulls a leaf off an apple-scented one. Others smell like nutmeg, coconuts, strawberries, lime and ginger.
“You can go nuts with this stuff,” says Sands.
He strolls through the outdoor garden. A red-winged blackbird flies past. It looks like velvet. They live in the evergreens.
“Don’t be surprised if we’re attacked,” he says, referring to the birds.
The conservatory had 12 flower beds but it became too much work when the staff was reduced. There were four 700-foot dahlia beds. Now, there are only remnants of the beds, partly covered with grass.
Sands became interested in plants as a child when he began to help a neighbor tend to his rose bushes. His parents also were garden addicts.
When studying at Wayne State University, Sands says he had to make a tough choice.
“I was deciding between being an immunologist and horticulturist,” he says. “I love bacteria, but got hooked on plants.”
Beverly Parker, a retired Detroit Public School administrator, wants to make it clear that the Belle Isle Casino is not her regular hangout. She visits so seldom that she doesn’t even want her picture taken.
“This class is a backup for me,” she says, adding that, as “backups” go, it’s about the best around.
Parker, who normally frequents the Northwest Activities and Coleman Young Recreation Centers, likes the Casino’s senior classes. The aerobics instructors give a good workout, she says. But they told her to dress down. See, Parker, age unknown and unrevealed, is something of a kitten. Whatever age she is, subtract 10 years for youthful appearance.
“They told me not to wear my tight — you know,” she says.
The sky is overcast and cloudy. The day camper vigil continues. A group of friends takes pictures of each other as they hang over the Casino railing. They pose like rap stars, laughing, mugging for the camera. Kids are running around the lawn in front as adults arrange liters of soda and chips and picnic foods on a table. The banter and laughter of a family reunion gives a hustle-bustle feeling to the scene.
A young man shoots hoops by himself behind the racquetball courts, which are deserted. The aqua paint of the racquetball area is chipping, the floors and walls look well-worn. Across the lawn, the line of tennis courts is the same: empty. When it gets warmer, the courts will swarm with racket enthusiasts, while fields nearby buzz with kids playing soccer and baseball and men playing croquet. Not today.
Basketball guy says he comes to Belle Isle to shoot, but usually by himself.
“I don’t trust too many people,” he says. “You beat ’em and they might pull a gun on you.”
“Is that a big problem?”
“A big problem,” says Bridgeforth Jerrod, 23, who works a host of construction jobs. He grew up in southwest Detroit, but now lives on the East Side near Eight Mile. He’ll play family members one-on-one, he says, but that’s about it.
Behind the racquetball area, a creek is strewn with trash. The water is muddy with a greenish-yellow hue, and carries a foul odor. A plastic garbage bag floats along. Is that a turtle poking its head from the water? Alas, it’s a mud-drenched shirt caught on a stick.
Four adult geese and a gaggle of furry babies wobble toward the water. The babies run wildly to keep up; it’s remarkable they don’t fall over considering their awkward and frantic gait. The parents squawk and honk alternately, warning all to keep away.
The birds reach the water and swim under a small bridge that spans the creek. It’s funny watching the goslings lurch forward and move their little legs in fierce, frantic circles to keep up. The geese swim on, avoiding collisions with a floating plastic milk container, a lost shoe and a couple of plastic grocery bags.
Barbara Leonard, assistant director at the recreation center in the Casino since 2000, can’t imagine a better job. “When you can go to school, and come to work, and not be tired …” she says, finishing the sentence by rolling her eyes and leaning to the side until her face rests firmly in the palm of her hand.
Leonard assists center supervisor Diane Maynard and building attendant Reese Gallimore. Her job is to open the place, which is open year-round, in the morning, and close at the end of business. During the day, she assumes various administrative duties, helping Food & Friendship, the caterers, coordinate lunch activities (a buck buys a meal of Salisbury steak, white rice, corn and vanilla pudding), fitness activities, and arts and crafts projects.
“Most of them are here before I open the doors,” she says of the center’s patrons, “and don’t let me be late. Then I have to kick them out at the end of the day.”
Leonard says passersby — walkers and joggers, particularly — often straggle in, thinking the Casino is abandoned. She says this has happened for years, and attributes the mistaken perceptions to the fact that the building stands alone in a large field.
Suits the seniors fine. They’ve got the run of the place every day.
The Belle Isle Zoo looks like a strange, abandoned Tiki-hut concentration camp. The quaint 1970s bamboo and thatched-hut Tiki style of the place is dilapidated, like so many great Detroit structures of yesterday, and it’s surrounded by two chain-link fences with barbed wire on top.
It’s been shuttered since Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick sparked loud outcry from the Detroit City Council and some citizens groups in 2002 when he declared that the zoo was unsafe for its animals and too expensive to keep up and repair.
Inside the fences, several dozen deer, including many albinos, are visible.
They look content as they graze. The herd seems altogether different from the one island visitors used to see roaming around.
Talk was that the deer population on Belle Isle was inbred, with fuzzy and strange antlers. But they were a main attraction — people loved them. Now, they’re all penned up in the abandoned Tiki zoo, hanging out with a goat, a couple antelope with big spiky horns and a sheep that looks like it weighs 500 pounds. A sign on the fence says, “Do Not Feed Deer.” It would take a 40-foot mechanical arm to feed the deer over the layers of fences.
These fenced-in deer have been through a lot. Ron Kagan, head of The Detroit Zoo, says in an interview that he took over the Belle Isle Zoo (from the Detroit Recreation Department) in July 2003. Then came the announcement that the zoo and the city were raising money to transform the old Nature Center on the eastern end of the island into a new, modern center.
Kagan says he hopes to raise $10 million over five years, half public, half private, for the Belle Isle Nature Center Zoo; already, $3 million has been committed, including $2 million from the City of Detroit, $175,000 from the federal government, $250,000 from Standard Federal Bank and $200,000 from the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan.
Kagan says when he took over wildlife management on Belle Isle it was believed that the deer population was out of control, numbering as many as 400, eating everything in sight, supplementing their diets with unhealthful human food and occasionally causing car accidents. Kagan estimates that a healthy, sustainable deer population should be about 50. The Detroit Audubon Society passed a resolution last year encouraging a reduction in the deer numbers because they were ravishing the island’s vegetation, damaging bird habitats. State officials were concerned because Michigan deer were testing positive for tuberculosis.
Kagen says all of the nearly 400 deer on Belle Isle have been captured by Detroit Zoo staff. The deer were tested and about 80 suspected of carrying TB were euthanatized. The rest were given birth control (the males were neutered). Now it’s hoped that the deer will naturally reduce in numbers through attrition.
“I really think it’s remarkable that we trapped them all. There are no deer running wild on the island,” he says. “There was great concern that the deer were destroying the entire habitat. The island is a wonderful habitat for the deer. They have no predators, no hunting, lots of deer that breed, they were destroying all the vegetation.”
Placing the deer in a zoo setting is preferable for the deer and for island visitors, he says.
“The public shouldn’t see deer in an uncontrolled way. We want the public to see the deer, so they are only fed healthy, natural food. We certainly know people aren’t experts on deer nutrition.”
As for the theory that the herd was inbred, Kagan says, “Obviously that is not a scientific assessment. Evolution occurs over millions of years.”
Kagan is excited about the new nature zoo. “It’s a totally unique kind of product,” says Kagan, who runs Detroit’s award-winning zoo, located in Royal Oak. “Most kids, their exposure to nature in a big urban environment is feral cats and feral dogs. Having a place that’s committed to environmental education and our own natural heritage of Michigan, It’s going to be quite powerful.”
During the spring and summer months, the road lining Belle Isle’s south end, known as The Strand, plays host to thousands of picnicking families and idling teenagers — a natural summer lure for girls and guys, music, “fly whips” (read: very nice cars) and choice intoxicants.
“Any hot day, it’s on,” says Dejuan Thompson, 20. On this particular day, it’s on for his younger brother, Deonta’, 17, more than Dejuan. Deonta’, a senior at Redford High School, is skipping class to be here.
Police officers say every Friday in May, leading up to graduation, is a senior skip day that draws two to four schools. Today is a slow day. Only Redford students have turned out in numbers, although Deonta’ has heard that a few Southfield High kids are mingling in the crowd.
Police monitoring The Strand on senior skip days look out for fights between rival schools, noise pollution, loitering and overcrowding. Officer David Matthews says there are occasional problems like reckless driving, but the norm is typical teen partying.
“It gets backed up, but not like it used to be. I think a lot of the crowd shifted to other parks, Chandler Park, Rouge. People got tired of the congestion,” he says.
Matthews suggests that most of the teenagers who hang out on The Strand are orderly. Most of the kids seem to disagree.
“Police, they always mess with you,” says Mike Hall, 19. “They push people off (the island) once it gets too crowded.”
“Police mess with young black people,” says Terri Whitsett, 17, who is hanging out with a group of graduating friends. They are piled in the back of a black SUV, listening to music and laughing. These girls are not loud, but they say boys who hang out at Belle Isle usually are. They’re also “disrespectful” to the girls, they say.
Whitsett says the annoyance of teenaged boys and insensitive police officers sometimes makes the Belle Isle experience uncomfortable. Her older friend, Amber “Redd” Gooden, 27, who is here as a chaperon, is hesitant to place blame on the police.
“It’s our fault,” says Gooden. Police do stereotype black kids who congregate in large groups, she says, but it’s a two-way street. Many of those same kids also do things to warrant attention.
The Belle Isle Turkey Grill, near the zoo and tennis courts, is deserted. A sign out front advertises Cajun fried turkey wings, sandwiches and ice cream.
Nearby is the Belle Isle Athletic Shelter. A sign says it was built in 1898, but the beautiful brick building is still in great condition.
“Yeah, we live right here on the island, says Erik Larson, 42.
He and Daniel Carr, 51, each wear at least two coats apiece.
The two met here and say they have lived on the island for more than two years. Carr is reluctant to tell me how he ended up homeless. He says he lost his job and rented house while he was hospitalized for a foot infection. “A fridge fell on it,” he says. He stayed at a shelter but wandered to Belle Isle when the time allotted at the shelter expired.
Larson is more frank.
“I ain’t gonna lie,” he says. “I was drinking. I lost my wife of 18 years, my kids, my job. I was homeless while I was working. I had a job at Jacob Industries, but the bus schedule made me late. I came to Belle Isle, met Dan, and we been buddies ever since.”
Larson walks with a limp. He attributes it to a broken kneecap he sustained from a beating.
Larson and Carr say 15 to 20 homeless people live on the island during the cold months, even more in the summer. The police don’t bother them, they say. In fact, they give them food, as do many of the island’s visitors. The kids on The Strand, Larson says, tend to be the nicest.
“You can tell who ain’t a Christian,” he says.
To stay warm in the winter, each man crawls under a bush near the conservatory and slips into his own thermal sleeping bag. They shower in the public locker room near the Turkey Grill.
The two spend their days collecting bottles. Carr says they walk across the bridge two or three times a day to exchange them at nearby liquor stores. Then they buy alcohol.
“We’re not hurtin’ nobody,” says Larson. “Just drinkin’. All we wanna do is collect our bottles, get our drink on, and get well. ’Cause I’m sick right now, man. I’m an alcoholic.”
He tosses crumbs to a flock of seagulls. “This is how we get our blessing, though,” he says. “We feed the birds.”
The sun pops out bright and warm. Teenagers in big shiny cars come rounding a street from the center of the island. They drive fast, weaving in and out in front and in back of each other. Girls and guys hang out the windows and sunroofs, music blasting.
Matthew Davis has been working all day on his sculptures made of rocks and hunks of concrete. Davis says he started his sculpture garden last summer, after his girlfriend broke up with him. The Detroit resident was bummed out and said he often came to the island for reflection. He’d been working on some stacked-rock sculptures at his parents’ house, and on a whim started stacking some on the island’s edge. As he got into it, people would stop to tell him they liked what he was doing. People started congregating. The mayor gave him a certificate thanking him for “doing his part” for the city. Davis says most people seem to enjoy the art, and he enjoys meeting the onlookers. He likes it that kids come build their own rock sculptures. Nearly 20 of the sculptures up today are not his own, he says.
His one nemesis, he says, was a woman who fast walks on the island. He says she once interrogated him about the sculptures, and seemed satisfied with his answers. But then, the next day, as she was power walking, she yelled barbs to him, about how the city was going to tear down his work. This occurred over and again, he says, and Davis believes that woman — he calls her the “power-walking maniac” — convinced some city officials that his project should come down.
A group of artists threatened to stage a protest on the morning of the threatened demolition (evoking memories of the Heidelberg Project debacle), and journalists showed up. But Kilpatrick called the demolition off. Davis was told not to build the rock sculptures on the grass, to keep them on the rocky shore.
Now, he’s working to get a permanent license for the sculptures, so he can drill mortar and rebar through them and into the ground. That way, they won’t fall over, and he can build upon them. “They’re not getting back to us,” says Davis of the city recreation department, as his monstrous, nicked and cut hands fumble to light a cigarette. Getting permission from the city will allow him to make the sculptures safe, he says, which is the main complaint against them. Some worry the structures will topple on children. Davis admits this, saying he needs permission from the city to make the sculpture garden permanent. Otherwise, he keeps putting them up, here and there, and people knock them down.
Anthony Brooks, 56, wheels past the giant slide. A bag of cans hangs from the back of his wheelchair. He says he broke his leg while working a security job at Heart & Soul Ministries, on the city’s East Side.
“I was helping the pastor move a pop machine,” he says.
Brooks knows Larson and Carr.
“We all hustle bottles and cans,” he says. “It’s real hard wheeling off of the island. I don’t always go.”
Brooks, who is thin, with a scruffy gray beard, has been homeless for three years. His last full-time job was as a welder. He was laid off. He plans to apply for disability and move to Mississippi, where his mother lives. His brother passed away last year, so it’s just the two of them left.
The melancholy beauty of Belle Isle on a blustery, drizzly evening is weirdly cheering. The peeling backdrops — the art deco lighthouse, the Whitcomb Conservatory, the Scott Fountain — have the look of something abandoned in the rain for too long, their history played out in front of an audience of empty verandas, aged oaks and fast-food wrappings whipping about in gusty winds.
A couple sits at the western end of the island, the two of them, the gulls and nobody. They look toward the Ambassador Bridge, wet grass and wild flowers, foamy splashes and ominous cloudbanks marching over the Detroit skyline. The twilight falls like that.
Robert H. Hommel, Commodore of the Detroit Yacht Club, sits in the bar of the largest yacht club in the United States. The 67-year-old Dearbornite and 16-year club member wears a blue blazer adorned with the crest of the club, with three stars arrayed over the top of his breast pocket. Despite the implied formality of membership and rank, his shirt collar is open and loose, and a hand flaps up affably to wave at passing members, a constant reminder that this is a private club. A glass of scotch rests on the bar near him.
“The commodore is the king. The commodore is the president of the club. It’s the top office. … It used to be a rank in the Navy that they retired and let selected private clubs use … So they don’t use it in the Navy any longer, but even at that time it was a position of some stature. So they granted us the use of uniforms and we do a lot of folderol.”
Hommel explains the dangers of being bequeathed something that is expensive to maintain. “We’re challenged financially because we have this beautiful, big old building to maintain — and we would like to go beyond maintaining it. We’d like to restore it to its original grandeur, somewhat like the DAC [Detroit Athletic Club] has done, … which takes a lot of hard work,” he says, adding with a frank chuckle, “and a lot of money.”
DYC General Manager Thomas Trainor, 49, drops by. Hired at the beginning of the year, Trainor faced similar problems at the DAC, where he worked for six years. “The whole concept is a restoration and renovation of the building, to take it back to its original architectural features. … The DAC was in similar condition — not bad, but it needed work. And it’s a gorgeous building now.”
How valuable is the yacht club? Both men are reluctant to give a dollar value. “Invaluable,” Trainor says with a laugh, explaining, “There’s Pewabic tile all over the building, there’s marble all over the building, there’s wood that was brought over from other countries to help construct it, when you could afford to do those types of things. Now you really couldn’t replicate the building. Well, you could, but it would just be astronomical.”
Roll call at Belle Isle Police Station. Construction on the lovely if not antiquated stationhouse was completed in 1893, and old horse stables and carriage stalls are still intact. The edifice is part of the city’s 7th Police Precinct — the city’s first — and houses the island’s Harbormaster’s unit. Seven meticulously turned-out officers line up. Two of them shun a photo op. In the heavy argot of a seen-it-all public servant, Harbormaster Sam McGee tells of suicide leaps from the Belle Isle Bridge.
Officers’ Andrew Berger and Jay Allor, two white cops from the suburbs, man a patrol car. Berger drives. The car has seen better days — it bottoms-out over bumps, has a shoddy dash and an archaic computer purchased from another department years ago. Berger bemoans departmental fiscal shortcomings: “We have pepper spray, eye irritant and an outdated gun, there’s nothing in the middle.”
They offer disclaimers, too, things like: “You should come on a night when things are really happening.” The rain is keeping people away in droves.
Hommel walks down one of the DYC’s several docks, commenting on the dozens of vessels that are moored, nose-in, in the wells between the finger piers. Out on the long pier, the evening sunshine is kind to the fading yellow Masonite that covers the club building, and the building looks quite grand. The commodore points out a fetching Halverson trawler, then a sturdy Nordic tug. But his tersely favorable descriptions don’t include the whomping big ship moored at the end of the pier. It’s almost 150 feet long, three stories tall and looks brand, spanking new.
Asked about it, the commodore is almost dismissive, as though he’s describing a hairbrush, “That’s a visiting vessel. That’s a new Palmer-Johnson vessel, it’s an $18 million boat, just being delivered to the owner.” He lowers his voice a bit and adds, “It’s sort of a small motor yacht. … Bill Gates’ boat is 435 feet long and designed by the Cunard Company. This is, uh, sorta small.”
Trainor explains that the ship, with a full crew and a captain from New Zealand, was built and launched in Wisconsin, and is stopping in Detroit before it leaves for the Cayman Islands via the St. Lawrence Seaway. The owner is from West Bloomfield.
Considerably impressed with the “small motor yacht” is a small, flashily dressed crowd that has gathered at the end of the pier to take a closer look. Among them is Frank Jones, the house manager of an organization called SHAR. He’s at the club this evening for the 10th anniversary of a drug and alcohol treatment center. “I brung out some of the clients in here to show them that we can do things without having drugs and alcohol in us,” he says.
Ronald Dawes was commodore of the Detroit Yacht Club back in 1993, and, as he gravely explains it, “It’s a title you retain for life.” He is a lifetime member, as his father joined in the ’50s and was commodore in 1973. He is regarded as an authority on the history of the club. Despite his seemingly patrician roots, he is also the sort of person who delightedly affects the airs of a philistine, joking like a rascally uncle with the wait-staff in the club’s dining room.
Polishing off a mesclun salad, he grows cautiously strident as he alleges, “There’s a misconception, by some, that the club is on city property and doesn’t pay any rent for that. In fact, that’s not accurate.”
He tells of “old city politics,” of how the city had wanted to build a swimming area on the middle of Belle Isle’s north shore back in the ’20s. He says the city prevailed upon the club’s nautical-minded nabobs to build their facility upriver from the beach “in such a way that it would slow the current … so that people could swim without getting caught in the current and being flushed down the river.”
The club fulfilled its end of the bargain by driving pilings down to solid bedrock and building the massive Mediterranean-style pleasure palace out on the water. For protecting Belle Isle’s bathers, the city awarded the DYC a 99-year lease at a dollar a year. With soft indignation, Dawes insists that the city gets the better end of the bargain, as the club pays taxes as if it owned the property, when it’s only leased.
The lack of action begets small talk for the officers, Allor and Berger.
The cops are youthful 27-year-olds, and are married. They’re friendly and answer questions freely. They’ve known each other for years and theirs is a bond that allows taunts and jest. Berger, who sports mirror-shaded wraparounds that give the impression of inscrutability, is into his second summer working Belle Isle. Allor’s in his third. Both say they’ve never had to draw their weapons here. “It’s more about crowd control,” Allor says.
Do the wives at home worry about their spouses manning Belle Isle? They do.
“It’s a cliché,” explains Allor, lifting his arms quickly and letting them drop. “But you never bring it home.”
Conversation continues, runs the dog bite and “disease-infested” hooker gamut. One account involves a guy who had “cock and balls” listed on the organ donor entry on his driver’s license.
They speak of flipped cars in island lakes, stripping women on summer days and assaults involving long-winded drunks. They tell of a murder that occurred while they were off duty. Lengthy pauses are bracketed with tales of island overcrowding — the difficulty in transporting accident victims when medics can’t make the scene. They talk about how understaffed the Belle Isle force is at times.
“It gets so bad that we can’t get on the island to patrol,” say Allor. “When it’s that bad, sometimes we just shut the island down.”
And lost kids are a problem.
“You gotta write something about all the lost kids — at the beach and at the play area,” says Berger. “There’s a lot of lost kids.”
We hear about one guy who cruises the isle in a converted Mustang with the rear reshaped into a trailer. A 5-foot trophy rides shotgun. “Last time he had a girl,” says Allor, sounding almost shocked.
But, they say, in the dark corners of parking areas and off roadways, “indecent and obscene” conduct is a constant, even on slow nights.
“You’ll get a lot of people having sex in cars,” Allor says. “… A lot of times doing disgusting things. You’ll see guy-on-guy, two girls on a guy, girl-on-girl, half in the car, half-out. Sometimes they’re in the throes of passion.”
Berger adds, “You can arrest them, but we usually don’t; there’s so many of them. We caught a guy out here the other night masturbating. And sometimes it’s gross indecency.”
Commodore Dawes has finished his shrimp scampi, and he’s now impatiently dismissing the idea that the Detroit Yacht Club is a fusty, rigid, insular group. As he tells it, the club went from the exclusive realm of male, Anglo-Saxon, Christian industrialists into a beautiful mosaic of humanity that aspires to social equality. “As far as I’m concerned,” he declares, “we’re probably the most forward-thinking, forward-acting private club maybe in the United States of this size and age.”
Perhaps the remark is ill-timed. He casts his eyes around the room of white diners and black waiters and carefully qualifies, “Granted, you look around and it looks like an all-white club, and it isn’t. It just isn’t. We have members of all ages, colors, sexual preferences. … The club is basically open to people who can afford to be here.”
A timely laugh about speeders is immediately cut off when a car whizzes by the officers miles over the posted speed limit. Cops tail, car slows. No ticket.
Not everyone gets away. A few have been arrested for goose squashing. “Saw one lady speed up just to hit one,” says Berger, who gets visibly upset at the thought. “That is an arrestable offense.”
Outside the dining room at the Yacht Club, the sun is stooping a bit lower, and the leggy cottonwoods are casting lengthening shadows on the manicured lawn, the reddening sunshine rippling on the water. The peaceful scene is broken by an outlandish conflict: A goose is attacking a raccoon, hissing and flapping, beating the furry critter with its wings. The stunned rodent rushes around an outbuilding and disappears. But even the brave goose cannot enjoy the thrill of victory long — two young men ride up in an electric cart and pursue the bird, armed with brooms.
One of the people who keeps the Yacht Club running is Terry Glass, 49, of Redford Township. The wiry custodian wears a proper uniform with a DYC baseball cap. He describes the dizzying duties of being an all-around troubleshooter.
“Just a little bit of everything,” he says. “I’m self-taught. I’ve worked in building maintenance off and on for five or six years. It’s not really my background, but I know enough to perform the job.”
As a maintenance man, Glass is one of the few who sees the building when it’s empty, which sounds spooky.
“I’m here until late, you know. You walk the building and you get everything turned off and you hear the ice machine dump a load of ice, you wonder what that is,” he says.
While he’s never seen a ghost, he says the staff often encounters something else: guests at the club having sex.
“We break ’em up once in a while,” he says. “They get in a corner or a dark back room somewhere, guests usually, here for a wedding or a frat party or something like that. That kind of stuff goes on. Chase ’em out of the bathrooms, you know.”
Back at the station house one officer sees a reporter and starts riffing: “Please don’t get me to talk,” he says, then starts talking. “They don’t put any money into the place. We’re still in the Stone Age. You’d think you’d at least have a viable boat to go out and patrol.”
“Sometimes we hate to fist-fight with these people,” he continues, talking about sunny weekend melees. “We arrest them and put them in jail and they file a complaint. You know, ‘he was harassing me for no reason.’
“One time two schoolteachers got run over and killed.” He pauses, glances toward the window and says, “You learn to pray for bad weather out here.”
Not only was the Yacht Club built on pilings out on the river, Commodore Dawes explains, but the man-made island it now occupies is built on a foundation of demolished buildings. When the club was built, the commodore explains, “There was a lot of rebuilding going on in the city of Detroit. Some of the old buildings were being torn down. The steel and concrete that was used in the original buildings that were replaced back in the early ’20s ended up coming here, becoming the base for the island that’s here.”
In a city known for tearing down its history to satisfy the whims of car culture, the tale conjures a fascinating allegory: auto magnates burying the 19th century city beautiful under their Motor City Xanadu.
Commodore Dawes is strolling through the spacious rooms of the Yacht Club, his words echoing off the paneled walls and high ceilings as he points out portraits of wealthy club patrons such as real estate titan George Oakman and moneyed socialite Anna Dodge. He pauses before a painting of what could easily be an old Italian street. The painting depicts three young ladies walking along, half ignoring the attention of a few young men who watch them pass, possibly snickering cheeky comments.
He explains that a friend of his had been commissioned to restore the artwork.
“He got that particular one, the three ladies,” the commodore says, “and he started doing the restoration and we find out that the original faces on the people in that painting were all painted over. Now, we’re looking at a Mediterranean scene, roughly, and the original painting that I grew up with was of blue-eyed, blond people, and when we started to do the restoration we found out that the original painting was of Mediterranean people.”
With the original art restored, the painting now shows three swarthy teens rubbernecking at three young ladies with thick dark hair, broad faces, graceful aquiline noses and wide nut-brown eyes. “So at some point in time,” the commodore conjectures, “somebody ended up with this painting over here in the United States, so, of course, you weren’t cool if you weren’t a blond or blue-eyed, I guess. Back in the old days I guess that’s just how it was, you know.”
The murky twilight gives way to an almost impenetrable darkness that’s reinforced by sporadic rainfall. Bad horror movie images involving woodsy frolic and decapitation replace the tired Cops and Adam-12 ones.
Leading the way down a wide, long hall with comfortable chairs set before a long wall of windows, Commodore Dawes explains that the space is called Peacock Alley, after the Peacock Alley in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. As he walks into a large banquet hall, he laments the bygone days of formal dress and expensive finery. But his plaintive words are drowned out by a passionate, charismatic speaker who is giving one hell of a speech to the assembly commemorating the 10th anniversary of the drug and alcohol treatment center.
The mostly black crowd calls back receptively to his address, as he roars over the P.A. system, “We had a deeper respect, long before they gave us their version of God! We had our own concept of God. A god who’s is always trying to lead the good feet into the doorway. … As for this concept of God that we had that included color — that one blond-haired, blue-eyed person was somebody who looked like they were Christ — this is just cultural warfare trying to fit the gender, color, race, culture, fashion, ideas and all that limiting stuff!”
Fitted somewhere on the police cruiser’s dashboard is a blackout switch. When it’s flipped on, the entire car goes dark, becomes an intimidating beast of rolling shadows that can easily sidle up — armed with the full element of surprise — to an unsuspecting parked car. It’s a handy trick when nailing juiced-up couples or trios in mid-fornication.
A van is spotted tucked away under some trees. Berger hits the blackout switch and slowly pulls up next to the van. Suddenly the squad car lights kick on like some horrible alarm system. Heads with disheveled coifs pop up from huddled positions inside the van. Two faces with startled expressions appear in a back window, genders unidentifiable. Their expressions reveal a complete contempt for the cops.
The van’s side door opens and a hefty gent steps down. Busted. He unhappily reaches for his wallet. The cops give him a once-over and drive away. Last glance shows a relieved van man, his head moving side to side in disbelief.
Allor makes the old point that people who hate cops probably have had a regrettable police experience. It’s an aspect of his work he finds troublesome.
“I’ve had so many bad experiences with fast food and I keep going back,” he says, in what is the analogy of the night. “But someone has one bad experience with a cop, and that’s it. … I don’t know what it is.”
Berger adds, “Doing this job makes you really distrustful.” Asked to elaborate he chooses silence. “I don’t really want to go on the record …”
“You’ll see a lot married people out here cheating on their spouses,” continues Allor. “There’ll be two cars next to each other. You’ll find wedding bands and different last names on driver’s licenses. You’ll find a lot of gay cheating.”
At the Detroit Yacht Club, Commodore Dawes has crept off to sleep aboard his yacht, and Garrett Myers of Grosse Pointe Woods, strategic planning committee chair for the club, is sitting at the bar in front of a glass of dark beer watching a Pistons game on the television.
Myers admits that the club attracts people who feel strongly about the city, but that those strong feelings cut both ways. He acknowledges that there are “people in the suburbs who will not come into the city under any circumstances. That whole ‘Detroit’ thing has been a deterrent for all of the institutions, certainly all the private clubs in Detroit. … We chose to stay here.”
Yet, even having a fiercely loyal membership of die-hard members poses problems. “When you start a strategic planning process, there’s a lot of inertia,” he explains, “There’s still a lot of people who say, ‘Can’t it be 1963 again? Everything was really good then.’ ... So there’s a lot of that inertia to get over.”
He claims that the consensus is now there and plans are moving ahead. “We’re really excited because we now can visualize the club being restored and all these wonderful activities. We see ourselves being part of the Cool City thing. I mean, where else in the country can you come into and live in one of these nice new lofts that are affordable here and belong to an affordable yacht club? … That’s a really cool thing.”
Cool cities? In a club that’s more Cal Coolidge than cool, it’s a stretch. Myers counters, “But, you know, in today’s world, there’s something kind of cool and endearing about that.”
An SUV headed in the wrong direction on a one-way road passes the squad car. The squad car flips around, pulls in behind the Land Rover and flashes the lights. When the errant vehicle pulls over, the cops stop and get out. Each has one hand on their holstered gun.
Turns out the driver’s papers are in order, and he gets away with a warning. Allor explains how rare it is to pull over someone who actually has insurance.
Dezirae Hutchison, 17, of St. Clair Shores, shivers in the cold, looking like a princess in her gown. The chill night air provides a good excuse (as if he needed an excuse) for Jamal Gause, also 17, to wrap arms around his date as they look out onto the Windsor skyline. Gause, a Detroit kid, has brought Hutchison here after attending Lake Shore High School’s prom. In his tux he looks as if he could have stepped from the pages of GQ. Smiling and well-mannered, Gause says, “We came out here to look at the water. It’s real restful, walking by the water.”
Drew Cushingberry and pal Greg Champion, both 21 and both from Detroit, are hanging at their spot alongside the road on the island’s southwest side, with Windsor just across the way.
“This is our normal hangout right here,” says Cushingberry, an affable, outgoing steel mill worker. “We come out here to watch the cars come by. It’s a nice place to chill out. Real nice. We’ve been coming out here to this same spot for the past three or four years.”
Just up the road is a spot that attracts hordes of partiers, but that scene is a little too wild for this pair. They prefer the relative quiet here.
“The police don’t mess with you here,” says Cushingberry. “Other people don’t mess with you here.”
Up the road, things can get pretty wild. On a busy night in the summer, hundreds of young folk turn out to hang, listening to the music thumping from scores of cars, dancing along the road and on top of cars.
It is more mellow here. It’s not a big spot for congregating, which is just the way Cushingberry and Champion like it. This, however, is a slow night, they explain. There’s a real chill in the air, and the cloud-covered sky threatens rain.
Despite the late hour, the Casino parking lots are jammed almost to capacity. Children play in the dark fields outside in front of the tent village of people vigilant to get their kids into the day-camp program. A car radio is broadcasting the Pistons game. A group of mothers is chatting near the Casino parking lot, and the irony isn’t lost on them: They have to camp on Mother’s Day weekend to secure a day camp slot for their children.
One mother says, “Last year it was raining. This is
Another mother warns, “But it’s supposed to have some thunderstorms tonight.”
The first mother laughs, “Last year we didn’t have tents. We stepped it up a little this year.”
Despite the threat of inclement weather, spirits seem high. They are playing cards and partying. At least, one woman observes, they get to acquaint themselves with the parents and kids their children will spend time with at camp.
The island’s south side strip — dubbed The Strand — is usually packed on summer weekends. Tonight, it’s dead. Parked are few SUVs (one with a DVD screen on a driver-side visor) and vintage Cadillacs, attended by a smattering of people dancing, talking and drinking. When the cops approach, expressions freeze. One guy quickly disappears into the shadows. When this car looms near a crowd, this is typical reaction.
Tyrone Brown, 41, pushes a shopping cart containing the day’s haul of cans and bottles. Belle Isle, he explains, “is usually my habitat.”
It is a safe habitat?
“I never have any trouble with the police,” he observes.
In the nature cycle of this habitat, Brown and others like him are the scavengers, picking over the bones of family reunions and leisurely picnics.
“We help keep the place clean,” he explains. “If it wasn’t for us, we’d have a mess out here.”
And where will he bed down for the night?
“I sleep here and there,” he says cryptically
Perhaps reflecting on the long, cold winter, his face splits in a smile as he adds, “This is gravy weather.”
Outside the Casino, most of the campers waiting to sign up for summer camp have yet to settle in for the night. Despite the chill, there is a festive air, with people clustered in small groups, huddled over and wrapped in blankets.
Paige Liddell, 12, and two of her friends are still up and strolling through the camp.
“We’ve been here since 9 in the morning,” she announces with the sort of unfettered enthusiasm only the young can muster. “We get to sleep in tents.”
And what’s fun about being out here?
“All the people we get to meet,” she smiles.
Raindrops start to fall.
At night, the picnic area on the western tip of the island, behind the restrooms, affords a postcard view of the river and the Detroit skyline. Nobody has chosen to take it in at this late hour. Instead, the intermittent roar of sedans, humvees, SUVs and stretch limousines rushing past attests to a city in motion that cares little for tranquility.
Along Sunset Drive, an SUV comes to a stop in front of the bathroom building, a young couple spilling out. The woman remarks, “And that’s when you know those drinks were weak!” After trying the locked doors of the facilities, they stroll behind the building. The man urinates on the wall.
“What do I do?” asks the woman.
“Go right ahead,” the man replies.
“Nope. I don’t do that. I’m not going to go like that.”
The squad car pulls in beneath the bridge and the officers get out and walk around. With a backdrop of graffiti art, love testimonials and racial slurs spray-painted on the concrete supports, Berger shakes his head and says, “It’s all about the hate.”
Lying in the back of an SUV with the hatch up near the Casino, Vanessa Engram, a 30-something mother from Southfield who “does accounting,” is less enthusiastic than the kids. You get the sense there are any number of other things that she would rather be doing with her Friday night. But the bargain rates for the summer camps are something she can’t afford to miss out on. So she’ll spend the night in her vehicle, surrounded by friends. “You have to make it fun,” she laughs. “ It’s nice to be outdoors, but I’m doing it because I have to.”
In a deserted parking lot near the conservatory the officers happen upon a parked car with open doors blaring a distorted version of “Back That Ass Up” from tortured stereo speakers. There are two couples dancing, grinding and groping near the car.
Allor, over the squad car PA, announces: “We’re the Fox 2 problem solvers!” The mirthful hoofers stop midstep and head for their car. The music stops, the party’s over.
Allor and Berger roll to a stop, get out and explain to the couples that they’re not doing anything wrong. All is OK. On cue, the bass and drum kick in again. The rainy, asphalt soft-shoe begins anew.
One of them, a fetching woman with big almond eyes who wears a do-rag and hooker-tight jeans, strolls to the driver’s side window, leans in and slurs, “You know why I love ya all? ’Cause you’re the pole-eece. Ya feel me?”
The trail to Livingston Memorial Lighthouse on the island’s northern tip is ghostly at this hour. Away from the motordrome of Lakeside Drive, one can hear light rain pattering down. Dead trees seem to lift their skeletal limbs into the air in agony, still-living trees silhouetted against the glowing sky of the night, their first green a feathery blackness. The path winds by the lighthouse, which looks almost like a toy, continuing on to the eastern extremity of the island. A thin strand of land is all that separates Blue Heron Lagoon from the river, the shore below bulwarked by broken chunks of concrete. Looking off the island, one sees to the east the gloom of true night, where the sky hovers above the unlit lake. The river drives a lapping current against the breakwater below, giving the illusion that the island is some massive vessel, pushing inexorably out into the uncertain darkness.
It is an odd place to call home, but home is exactly what it is many nights for Larson and Carr. They are stretched out on the floor of a restroom located next to the island’s police station. Joining them is Brooks, in his wheelchair. They occupy one side of the lavatory. A few more guys, much less sociable, sit on the other side of the structure.
“There’s usually about eight of us or so that stay here,” says Carr.
It is a room filled with hard-luck stories.
Carr says he got robbed not long ago while sleeping in the Cass Corridor.
“I got drunk and passed out,” he explains. “They took everything. My wallet. My I.D. They even took my keys. What could they do with them?”
Next to Carr is a garbage bag filled with rolls — a lucky Dumpster-diving haul.
The island provides most of what they need to survive. In the summer, at least, getting food is seldom a problem. People tend to bring more than they need for picnics and family gatherings, with the leftovers frequently ending up in the trash barrels.
“We’re able to find plenty of food,” says Larson. “And then there’s the people who will just feed us.”
They are looking forward to the warm weather, and the influx of visitors that will bring to the island. It is a simple equation: more people equals more cans and bottles equals more cash.
“In the summer you can make 40 to 50 dollars, easy,” says Carr. “In the winter, you starve.”
The hard tile floor of the restroom can get pretty cold on a night like this, but the fifth of vodka Carr and Larson have drained goes a long way toward easing any chill.
“I’m a chronic alcoholic,” admits Carr. “I love to drink.”
And do they worry at all about the cops headquartered next door?
“The cops are our friends,” says Larson.
“Yeah,” agrees Carr, “the cops out here are cool as hell.”
“We don’t hurt anybody,” says Larson.
“We’re just out here trying to make an honest living,” says Carr.
“Man, it’s paradise here,” says Larson. “Paradise.”
There’s not a trace of irony in his voice.
The patter of rain that began earlier is now a deluge. The island’s inhabitants hunker down, trying to stay dry. There are the overnight campers, in tents and SUVs — one couple spends the night in lawn chairs, shielding themselves from the weather with only a piece of plastic. Larson and Carr and their pals are dry and wrapped in an alcohol blanket on the hard cold floor of a public toilet. Elsewhere, there are people sleeping in their cars, some of them lovers, others … who knows what brought them here this night. The rain pounds down, and whatever form a person’s shelter takes, it is welcomed.
A security guard for the city’s Recreation Department keeps one eye on the makeshift campsite outside the Casino and the other on a portable TV that sits next to her in the front of her city vehicle.
She won’t give her name. She’s been on duty since 3 p.m. Friday, and will remain here until at least 7 a.m.
“Mainly I’m here to save the employee parking spaces,” she explains. Occasionally she will get out and walk around, to give her legs a stretch and make sure there’s no problem with the campers.
At this hour of the morning, the camp is mostly quiet. Hushed voices drift from a few of the tents. A lonely tiki torch flutters in the early morning dark.
Robert Mingus is cleaning up after breakfast. The Detroit Police officer is among the hundreds who spent the night waiting to enroll his kids in summer camp. He brought along his 9-year-old daughter and members of her basketball team, which he coaches.
“I tried to make it an event,” he smiles. But they wimped out and abandoned the tent for his SUV.
“They’re going to be running laps for that,” he laughs.
He’s been out here since early Friday morning, and he’s first in line for the recreation center he wants to enroll his daughter in — one with a pool. There may only be 50 spots available, and he was determined to get one of them. Even some of those who spent the night, if they didn’t get here until the evening before, might not get a spot. That’s why Mingus is willing to spend more than 24 hours waiting.
“You have to do that,” he explains. “You don’t want to spend all night out here and then in the morning find out that you’re number 51 in the line.”
It’s cold, barely 40 degrees. And the wind is blowing from the east. It’s not a summer breeze that makes you feel fine; more like a spring bite and sting in the eye. The sun is thin and seems to be doing its best to crack through thick clouds.
Diffuse light begins to reveal the island’s details. A woman with sturdy thighs is walking into the boat club. You’d won’t know it by the weathered look of the building, but the Detroit Boat Club Row Crew is still intact.
“Rowing has been going on here since 1839,” says master rower Joe Chlebnik of St. Clair Shores. “I believe we have one of the oldest continuing regattas in the world.”
The rowers won’t stick around for too long because of a scheduled regatta at Stoney Creek Park in Macomb County. But teams from Warren De La Salle High School and Grosse Pointe area high schools North, South and University Liggett are each competing.
Besides the club teams, the crew puts on summer rowing schools for city youths and adults.
A calm and patient Trina Davis waits to sign up her 10-year-old son Brandon for day camp at the Casino.
“I want to get him into Heilmann; there’s an Olympic-size swimming pool there,” she says. “There shouldn’t be problem, I’ve done this for the last three years and got my son in programs.”
There’s a confidence among the tired crowd.
Maintenance people clean up the playscape. There’s a used condom on the ground. The Playscape, built just this past winter, is a polypropylene palace with a variety of multicolored slides, shoots and little hideouts. There’s a spongy mat underneath that looks like burnt corn chunks.
Shelton Sandelin comfortably leans against a city truck and watches some colleagues vacuum scraps and trash. He’s working his 10th year on the island.
“Some people call this the jewel of the north — I don’t see it,” he says.
The nine-hole golf course and driving range are open. Layla Armstrong, 20, is at the counter.
“It’s $11 on the weekends, $10 weekdays and $12 addition if you want a cart,” says Armstrong.
Those living the burbs can add a buck.
She points to a gentleman on a riding lawn-mover.
“That’s Dan Sheard, he’s a groundkeeper.”
The title on his business card is assistant greens keeper. He’s worked here for three years.
Sheard has the look of a proud parent as he describes how the course looked, but recalls when it looked much worse.
“You should have seen this course before,” he says. “It was in horrible shape. The tees and greens were bald, no grass. It took a while to make it playable. We made a miraculous turnaround.
“I love to do this kind of work; it’s my big backyard.”
A couple of fellows are getting ready begin a round of the nine-hole course of mostly par threes. Dave Oglesby and Mick Wiktorski work together at Mariners Inn in the Cass Corridor, a nonprofit alcohol and drug treatment center for the homeless.
The first hole is a bit tough for Oglesby, but it’s his first time on the course. For Wiktorski, the course is nothing new.
Before long Sheard pulls up on his lawnmower with his warm smile intact and tells how Wiktorski usually rides his bike down from his home near Wayne State University.
“Yeah, when it gets a little warmer out I’ll be riding my bike,” says Wiktorski. “I’ll play some and on the way back I’ll stop at the Eastern Market, rest, get lemonade or something.”
Oglesby and Wiktorski riff jocularly while walking the bright green course.
Oglesby hits an errant shot. “When are they gonna put a navigation system on these balls?” he wonders.
As their round winds down, Wiktorski announces, “I’m denying everything here, just like Rumsfeld — deny all the probable.”
Golf pro Lindsey Mason III is at the driving range. He teaches for the Detroit Public Schools, the Mayor’s Time Program, Marygrove College and Wayne County Community College.
“I also specialize instructing women. I’ve helped Brenda Scott and Alberta Tinsley,” he says.
He calls the driving range is “one of Detroit’s best-kept secrets.” There are only a few people on the extremely well-kept range. There are also a couple of putting greens, a chipping area and, over the canal, a five-hole pitch and putt course.
Mason hits a few balls — a couple dead-straight shots with an iron before he reaches for his driver. The balls screams out past the 250-yard marker with ease.
There’s a hat tea party at the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, part of the centennial observances going on. Women in spectacular lids are milling around, sniffing flowers and noshing on desserts and pastries.
Jan Ellison, a Detroiter, helped organize the tea party. She began volunteering at the conservatory in 1990. She talks about upcoming fund-raisers and plant sales to get people in to help with preserving the facility.
Ashok Kumar, 29, of Farmington Hills sits on a small bracket of bleachers, watching his team, the Detroit Cricket Club Blues, play a game few Americans understand. The players, decked out in their white trousers and sweaters, look out of place. Some players wear protective pads and face masks.
“If you sat with me and watched a couple of games, you could understand,” says Kumar, a native of India who’s lived in the Detroit area for eight years. He’s a software designer.
He says cricket and field hockey are the top sports in his homeland, but that there’s strong interest in cricket in metro Detroit as well. The Detroit Cricket Club has two divisions of 10 teams each. Most teams that compete on Belle Isle are based in Michigan, he says, though one team from Toledo plays in the Detroit league. Another is composed entirely of Jamaicans, he says.
The matches are long affairs, he says, taking about three hours for each team to bat. There’s a break for lunch in between.
“I played it as a kid,” he says. “I think the best part is hitting the ball. It gives me a good feeling.
Henry Cabane, a science teacher at Cass Tech High in Detroit, sits inside the Nature Center building on the north end of the island. He’s surrounded by a dozen or so teenagers, participants in the Detroit Academy of Environmental Science who volunteer two Saturdays a month to work on environmental science projects. Today’s project was to clean up the area around Blue Heron Lagoon.
“The program gets the kids to understand nature, because that’s science itself,” Cabane says. “They find snakes and bugs and they can tell you the types of trees out here.”
Today, kids say, they found such items as a kiddie pool, a baby doll head and lots of broken bottles.
They seem a bit tired from the morning’s toil, but appear quite pleased with themselves and the program. It’s important to them.
Michael Reed, the associate curator of the Nature Center, which is now administered by the Detroit Zoo, stands on the facility’s loading dock. He’s been helping with the schoolkids’ outing.
“Belle Isle is like an outdoor classroom. If you have an open mind, you can learn something new every day,” says Reed, who’s been working for the zoo on the island since he got his degree in biology from Wayne State in 1986.
“It’s been a career,” he says.
He explains that the Nature Center, which is currently closed, is being reorganized with live and static educational exhibits, and should open to the public again in September.
“There’s a great deal of effort put into it. I’m really glad we’re making the effort,” says Reed, who lists his favorite spot on Belle Isle as the northern tip, near Blue Heron Lagoon.
“It’s a very tranquil spot,” he says. “There’s the lighthouse, and you can look out and see out into Lake St. Clair. I can sit out there all day.”
The boat club is the domain of Ted Pritchett, a city Recreation Department worker. He meets unexpected visitors in the parking lot and encourages their departure. “Somebody from your paper was already here this morning,” he says. But when he learns we want to see the place anyway, he relents.
The 102-year-old building is heartbreaking, its grandeur moldering by the minute, seemingly dissolving before our eyes. Luxurious hardwood ornamentation and stately, soaring ceilings now preside over musty carpeting, flaking plaster and the detritus of decay. Wires jut willy-nilly from walls. The expansive kitchen looks as though it was abandoned years ago halfway through a dinner shift (the place was closed in 1996). Tennis courts to the north are overgrown.
But the boat club, founded in 1839 and considered the oldest continuing rowing club in the world, is still utilized by rowers. One ground floor room is filled with sleek crew boats, some of them 70 feet long. There are rowing machines in various rooms. A weight room looks and smells recently used, as does the warren of locker rooms.
Out back, a grand swimming pool is filled with brackish rainwater and trash, both natural and man-made. Sturdy lifeguard chairs stand watch over ruin, yet they evoke the sounds of sunny shrieks of bygone laughter and play.
Pritchett has a line in the water in the hope of hooking a lake perch. He’s got a stubby cigar clenched in his teeth.
An off-duty city worker, Ronnie Jones, has already landed a nice-sized pike. He speaks of the ones that got away. He says he almost landed a 5-foot muskie a couple of days ago, and once battled an 8-foot sturgeon for 90 minutes before it slipped the line.
“If it happens on the water, we’re involved somehow.”
So says Coast Guard Petty Officer George London, who’s currently the senior officer on shift at the Belle Isle Coast Guard station.
At 26, this Navy veteran is a serious guy with a family. He’s also the son of a Coast Guard man, and he’s glad to be in this branch of the service.
“In the Coast Guard, you’re actually somebody,” he says. “When I was in the Navy, I couldn’t stand it.”
He has a by-the-book mien, but he sets it aside to provide a tour of the sprawling facility, which operates somewhat like a firehouse — 33 people work rotating 72-hour shifts.
It’s not the Coast Guard’s high season yet. On a busy summer weekend, London estimates, the station responds to five to eight calls for assistance on average.
“It’s for people in the water, vessels run aground or broken down — everything you can think of,” he says.
A long hallway that leads to the dock is lined with 30 hooks where his charges hang their gear. The primary accessories are body suits designed to protect against frigid water. One outfit is for work on water whose temperature is below 50 degrees; the other is used when the water is warmer. Once a call comes in, London says, it takes a crew about five minutes to don the gear and get under way.
London leads the way to the dock, where two new 25-foot RBHS craft (Response Boat Homeland Security) are moored. An older, larger 41-foot UTB (Utility Boat) sits forlornly.
He gestures to the smaller craft. “The only reason they’re here is because of what happened on Sept. 11,” he says. “They’re extremely highly maneuverable.”
He notes that 9/11 drastically changed Coast Guard operations. “The difference has been night and day from that day on,” he says.
The sun tries to burn though the clouds as one of the RBHS’s zips from its slip and into the Detroit River. The twin outboard engines are soon revved, and a gauge on the dashboard reads 44 knots, or about 50 mph. Downtown Detroit lurches past as the vessel slams hard over the chop on the river. Boatswain’s Mate Nate Thomas, who’s at the wheel, veers across the wake of a freighter, and the craft seems airborne.
“Sometimes you can get both engines out of the water,” says the watchman on this patrol, Machinery Technician Cory Bergeron, with a chuckle.
Thomas displays the boat’s agility, pulling into a high-speed turn that seems to perch the craft at a 70 degree angler. A starboard passenger gazing across and through the window sees churning water. His opposite sees the sky. It’s not good place for the easily queasy.
A display monitor provides a full-color radar display, while another gives water depth.
Thomas calls the RBHS, which cost nearly $200,000 apiece, “the Cadillac” of the Guard’s inland waters fleet. The Coast Guard has deployed 700 of them since 9/11, Bergeron explains. There’s a .50-caliber machine gun stowed onboard that can be mounted in front of the cabin, he adds.
Bergeron talks matter-of-factly of a wrenching aspect of his job: retrieving bodies from the river. “Ice fishermen, bums, jumpers,” he says.
What’s worse, he says, is reaching someone who’s still alive but too far gone to save.
Bergeron says smuggling is a problem, and that smugglers operate craft even faster than the RBHS’s. The most common cargo? Humans.
“I think it happens all the time,” he says. “One time they dumped off a group of illegal migrants 10 feet from our fence.”
“It is happening,” London confirms, adding that the Coast Guard assists the Border Patrol, which also has boats that ply the river, and Canadian authorities in attempting to stem the flow.
Fatality on The Strand. Vehicular gooseslaughter.
There’s exactly one patron inside the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, which sits on Belle Isle’s south shore. That man is Joe Wiedmer of Ypsilanti, who describes himself as a “Great Lakes freighter fan” — he belongs to a subculture that observes the passing ships and studies their movements and history. Some freighter aficionados can identify one on sight as it rounds a bend in the river.
Yet today is Wiedmer’s first visit to the Dossin. He usually goes to Wyandotte to observe.
“I never even knew this museum was here,” he says incredulously. “I like this sort of thing. It’s right up my alley.”
The Dossin is, indeed, an unknown and unappreciated gem. The sister facility to the Detroit Historical Museum rests under the umbrella of the Great Lakes Maritime Institute, a nonprofit incorporated in 1952.
The place is chock-full of intricate scale models of historic Great Lakes vessels, and exhibits that track the history of navigation on the lakes, including the role played by African-Americans in Great Lakes commerce and the Underground Railroad. The pilothouse that once commanded the 767-foot William Clay Ford has been affixed to the museum, and visitors can walk the deck, handle the controls and view passing river traffic as though they were skippers. The so-called “Gothic Room” near the museum’s entrance, preserved from the retired side-wheel steamer City of Detroit III, features a profusion of intricately carved English oak and stained glass. The anchor from the Edmund Fitzgerald, arguably the most storied freighter of all time, rests outside the Dossin.
But the Dossin has seen better days. Hours have been cut back. It’s currently only open on weekends or by special arrangement for group tours.
“The residents who come to Belle Isle don’t even know we’re here,” Sharon Garnett, gallery assistant at the Dossin, laments. “Students don’t know about maritime studies, and they live right here on the water’s edge. When you realize your connection to the water, this museum is a jewel.”
The Great Lakes Maritime Institute’s Web site (www.glmi.org/webcam) includes some fascinating features, including a swiveling and zooming camera that can be operated remotely by Internet viewers. It’s accompanied by a schedule of the ships making their way up or down the Detroit River. There’s also real-time weather information collected from a station atop the pilothouse.
Zhamel Reynolds’ radio-controlled car zips down The Strand. The 2-foot-long model, fueled by a blend of nitroglycerin and methane, whines at it reaches speeds of 55 mph, easily outpacing the life-size autos that share the pavement. He deftly controls the mighty mite, which has a range of a quarter mile. His rottweiler, Vato, watches impassively from the grass.
“I don’t let it get out of sight, though,” explains Reynolds, a Detroiter who says he’s been coming to Belle Isle for 30 years.
He and other RC car enthusiasts put a lot of time and money into the hobby.
“Most of the guys will have four or five cars,” he says. “Right now, this is my only one. You do to these cars what you do to big cars. I changed my gears, because otherwise I’ll bust up my gears. That would be really painful.
“Mine is actually an off-road vehicle, but I put street tires on it and make it run this fast.”
He tries a sharp, high-speed turn and rolls his model several times. He grimaces and tenses, poised to dash into the street to retrieve it. But the car teeters back onto its wheels and he calmly directs it back to his feet. It’s undamaged.
“Got lucky,” he says. “Lucky.”
Stubborn overcast has finally given way to an almost balmy evening as the sun descends over the city. A meadow on the eastern end of Belle Isle is verdant in the light. Birds sound from trees that line the shore and Blue Heron Lagoon.
If Bob Ross were alive today, he’d visit the Livingston Memorial Lighthouse, on the island’s north end, to paint its happy trees and clouds. A vast, grassy field spreads before the lighthouse and lends itself to unimaginable frolicking. Daniel Melican, 44, walks along the field with Sid, his ginger-colored bullmastiff. Sid’s been coming to the island with Melican for 12 years; Melican, for the last 30. Melican recalls a secret spot near the lighthouse where he and friends used to swim. “We’d set up railroad ties to dive off,” he says. “They made it hard to get to. You really have to walk there.”
Melican also remembers “kite-ins” on the island “back in the hippie days” when he was still in high school. His favorite part of the island, though, was the boat club, especially its sizable swimming pool. “I wish they never shut down the boat club,” he says.
Melican loves to smell the water and watch freighters pass. “(Belle Isle) is like Central Park, but surrounded by water,” he says.
Livingston Memorial Lighthouse is surrounded by a fence. Its inscription reads: “This lighthouse is erected by the Lake Carriers Association and citizens of Detroit to honor the memory of William Livingston, president, Lake Carriers Association, 1902-1925, and throughout his active life one of the most prominent and public-spirited citizens of Detroit, 1844-1925.” Livingston was also Belle Isle Park commissioner. The obelisk is touted as the only marble lighthouse in the world.
The sound of emergency vehicle sirens wafts across the water from Detroit on one side. The sound of a tugboat chugging upriver, pushing a barge, dominates the other side.
Richard Sawicki, 52, a plumber who lives in St. Clair Shores, is casting into Blue Heron Lagoon from his favorite fishing spot, near its eastern tip, not far from a pumphouse and intake where river water flows in to feed Belle Isle’s lagoons and canals.
Sawicki, who says he comes to Belle Isle every other week, has been fishing on Belle Isle for 40 years, he says. “I was a little kid then. It’s a great place. I haven’t seen the water this low since I was a kid.”
“There’s always been pike in here. There used to be steelhead fishing and coho salmon fishing,” he says.
Doug and Danielle Williams have set up a barbecue grille and a couple of lawn chairs under a willow near the lagoon. There three kids play with some other youngsters on a jungle gym as ribs and hamburgers sizzle over the coals.
The Williamses, Detroit residents, say they’ll probably come to the island twice a month when it warms up.
“The kids like it here,” says Doug, a musician and music producer. Danielle is a medical assistant.
Reynolds has the place staked out — literally. He’s driven stakes into the ground and is playing a spirited game of horseshoes with three friends. Vato sits obediently by, panting.
Darkness has descended as music booms from a sound system set up outside the van on the island’s west end. Doris Lately, 42, has organized a Taurus/Gemini party to recognize the birthdays of friends and colleagues.
The turnout is good for a chilly night. People dance to music provided by the DJ crew, One-On-One. Others stand around sipping drinks from plastic cups.
Lately says she’s organized parties on Belle Isle before, and will do so again.
“We may even leave before they put us off,” she says.
Sharon Sellers’ family is hosting a dance at the Casino to raise money for their summer reunion. She and family members sold tickets. “If we’re lucky, 300 people will attend,” she says.
Casino rentals and family reunions are typical island occurrences. Park manager Alicia Minter says the casino is rented out for a myriad activities, including wedding receptions, retirement or birthday parties, and meetings. Minter adds that the island grounds play host to more than 300 family reunions during the summer.
Sellers says her reunited family will picnic on the island this summer. Perhaps then, she will hop a burlap sack down the giant slide as she did in childhood.
Mark McKinney, 47, guards the Casino. He is a seven-year veteran of X-Men Executive Protection. He says his company has built up such a reputation that “a lot of the troublemakers stay out of our path.” McKinney has also been a guarding force at stadiums and concerts. McKinney loves the view of Detroit from the southern end of the island. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” he says.
Street lamps cast the film noir glow on a barren side street. Kevin Smith provides the pulp. His tow truck, lit like Las Vegas, drives past and pulls over. Smith, 23, says he has worked for Executive Towing for six months, mostly to assist the police. “We ride around; they stop us if they need us,” he says. Tonight is slow for Smith, who says he once towed the truck of a rejected man. The man tried to chat up a woman on the island. The woman rebuffed him. So he dragged her down the street with his truck, then left the island in a police car. Hence, the tow.
The river slaps against the cold beach, and the locked bathhouse and waterslide rest before the summer onslaught. The scent of sweet urea wafts along the occasional breeze, and an empty 40 oz. bottle lies on the grass. People sit in their cars in the parking lot, waiting for the slide to open again.
The night’s first raccoon creeps into the parking lot toward an overturned garbage barrel. A few yards away, he finds bread that was probably thrown out by an Atkins dieter. The raccoon eats his snack thoughtfully.
The raccoon quickly abandons his bread and runs up a tree when three SUVs and a sedan pull into the parking lot. He is alive, though hungry. A man gets out of one of the vehicles and walks behind the bathhouse to urinate.
Jasper and Winkie Hamilton of Detroit have parked their van in front of the playscape. Winkie is cooking white bass and potatoes on a propane stove she’s set up on the pavement, next to a portable picnic table. Their two kids and their dog, Snoop, run about, frolicking with other kids.
Jasper is angry that there are no lights over the playscape.
“They should put some lights up there so you can see the kids,” he says.
He’s not altogether pleased with the state of things on the island.
“Belle Isle has fallen from what it was when I was a kid,” he says. “We used to be able to come out here and ride canoes and horses.”
Now, he says, the concession stands aren’t open and the bathrooms are unusable.
“Before it becomes a family park again, they need to straighten out the bathrooms and get the family values back,” he says. “Now, it’s just about everybody coming out here to hang out and get drunk. I’ll pull up somewhere with my kids and the guy in the next car is smoking weed.”
Jasper says he thinks the city should begin charging a small toll to get across the bridge. That would cut down on cruising and riff-raff, and the money could be used to better maintain the island.
It’s spitting rain, and a Detroit Police officer is cruising slowly down The Strand. He stops to chat, and is asked about his approach at this time of night.
“We don’t do anything unless they’ve got a whole lot of people in one spot. Then we’ll close the area,” he says. “As long as everybody’s peaceable, there’s no reason to do anything more than that.”
Bruce Giffin, a freelance photographer for Metro Times, approaches a group of girls dancing atop a car. He’s surrounded by hundreds of partying teens and twenty-somethings along The Strand. He asks the girls if he can take their picture. They ask to be paid. He says he can’t do that. In that case, they say, no photo. Giffin turns away and, with his camera on a tripod, kneels to start photographing the stream of autos flowing past. Music rattles from scores of stereos. A man who looks to be in his 20s approaches Giffin, kicking over the tripod, sending the camera crashing to the pavement. The guy grabs Giffin and pokes him in the chest — maybe with his finger, maybe with something else, Giffin can’t tell for certain — and says, “Hey, what are you doing?”
Giffin tells him. Then he demands that Giffin give him the film. Giffin says the camera is digital, and calls up on the display screen the shots he’s taken, showing that there are no pictures of the girls dancing on the car. The guy, apparently satisfied, issues a warning: “Get on up the road before some nigger shoots you.”
The scene is completely different on the western tip of the island. Detroiters Antonio Christian and Alexandria Spruiel, both 16, cuddled shoulder to shoulder, are here for the view, and the serenity.
“You get the wild people on the other side,” says Christian. “I like it here. This view is real peaceful.”
White and yellow lights from along the shoreline ripple on the water. The graceful curve of lights on the Ambassador Bridge graces the horizon. And the chill night air makes cuddling all the more fun.
Drew Cushingberry and bud Greg Champion are back at their usual spot. Unlike the previous night, they have some company this time. Three young women are shakin’ it alongside the road and rap music from two different car stereos fills the night.
“If you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg to have fun, this is the place to come,” says Cushingberry. “You can come out here and just let go of all of your problems.” The water is right here. There’s real nice scenery.
“Everyone has a place where they can relax and recuperate. This is where I come.”
Still, he says, this spot is much preferable to the scene just up the road.
“Here,” he says, “it’s all people I know. We don’t have any problems here. We keep to ourselves, and we’re happy.”
The good times come to an end — or at least move elsewhere — at 1 a.m. sharp, when a Detroit Police Department patrol car pulls up, the bullhorn blaring orders to leave immediately. The cops aren’t messing around.
“I’m not going to repeat myself,” says the officer over the loudspeaker, never leaving his car. “Get in the car and get going.”
And just like that, the party is over.
The haunting sound of a trumpet reverberates through the night. The music is being made beneath a gazebo by a man named Sylvester, 39, who doesn’t want to reveal his last name. He works for the Postal Service, and is just getting off the night shift.
Asked what brought him out here, he says, “My mother passed in ’85, and I was thinking about her.”
It is Mother’s Day. He came out to this quiet spot on the island to play a serenade. For his dead mom.
Life’s not been going so good for Sylvester lately. “My girl just quit me,” he laments. “She was young and pretty.”
Creditors are hounding him. Someone broke into his brother’s car and stole his good trumpet, the silver one.
But there is solace out here on the island, alone with his music.
“This is the one thing that soothes me,” he says. “It makes me feel free.”
Lightening flashes fill the sky, and a few seconds later a long, rumbling roll of thunder shakes the air.
Another deluge is about to let loose.
The island smells clean and fresh in the aftermath of the thundering shower. Lights from the city dance silently on the river. On the southeast tip of the island there’s a line of parked cars. In some, pairs of bodies are outlined embracing beneath quilts. In a few, men sit alone, behind the wheels of their cars, listening to music in the dark.
A lone man walks along the sidewalk. As he passes one car the headlights flash on for a second, then flick back off, an invitation to join the man behind the wheel for an anonymous rendezvous. The man on the sidewalk keeps walking.
The morning sky is pewter. Two joggers wearing reflective vests start their slow trot around the island. A goose and gander with goslings in tow peck silently for food. A homeless man stops to watch them for a moment, then walks on, stopping at each garbage can on a hunt of his own.
Wisps of clouds float overhead.
Another day dawns.
“48 Hours on Belle Isle” was reported by Lisa M. Collins, Eve Doster, Joanna Galuszka, Curt Guyette, Scott Harrison, W. Kim Heron, Michael Jackman, Sarah Klein, Ann Mullen, Brian Smith, Khary Kimani Turner and Jeremy Voas. Photography by Cybelle Codish, Doug Coombe, Gina Erdmann, Bruce Giffin, Tera Holcomb and Cibele Vieira.
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