No One Could Take Belle Isle Away From Detroit, Even If They Wanted To
Detroit politicians are worried that Rick Snyder/suburbanites/[insert villain du jour here] are trying to steal Belle Isle from Detroit.
"It's outrageous to even have a discussion about someone taking away Belle Isle," City Councilwoman Joann Watson said Tuesday.
This isn’t the first time fears of having outsiders “taking away” Detroit institutions has been an issue. Though no one ever suggested picking up Cobo Hall and literally moving it Brooks Patterson’s actual backyard, regionalizing its governance was, according to Watson and her hymn-singing friends, taking it away from the city.
It’s true that Detroit no longer has a $15 million annual Cobo-related liability. Maybe that bill was some kind of precious jewel to be cherished and protected, but for everyday Detroiters a regionally governed Cobo Hall is otherwise exactly like a Detroit-governed Cobo Hall. Well, except that Cobo underwent a regionally-funded renovation and expansion.
Still, Watson presents an interesting possibility. Would it be possible to literally float Belle Isle up Lake St. Clair and park it at the foot of M-59?
Think of what Macomb County could do with a jewel like Belle Isle. Maybe an outdoor music festival featuring Kenny Chesney, James Taylor, Adele, and John Mayer. Or giant picnics where everyone is encouraged to bring mayonnaise-themed foods. At the very least, the Grand Prix track could be modified to accommodate NASCAR. This could be fantastic.
I checked with a civil engineer friend to see how, as a practical matter, the suburbs could take Belle Isle. I was thinking maybe a freighter could tow it away in the middle of the night. Like how Robert Irsey moved the Colts to Indianapolis.
“It really isn't feasible,” my friend tells me. “Belle Isle doesn't float, it's solid land just like the land underneath Woodward. To actually move the island to another location would require an incredible feat of civil engineering.”
Fine, no one said this was going to be easy. Nothing worth doing ever is. What if we (just spit balling here) plant some dynamite under water, detach Belle Isle from bedrock, and then tow it to Macomb?
“I don't even know how it would be done short of some sort of futuristic mining operation to completely excavate underneath the island and then shore it up so that it would structurally cohesive without any bedrock,” my engineering expert tells me. “And then I doubt the damn thing would actually float so moving it would require someone to invent an anti-gravity device to actually move it up river. It would be the same as moving all of downtown Detroit (parking lots and all) without disturbing any buildings and putting it in the middle of Lake St. Clair.”
Unlike the 237,493 Detroit residents who left between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, Belle Isle isn’t going anywhere.
Since Belle Isle staying put, maybe everyone can just drop the histrionics about taking it away. Instead, as the city is perched on the brink of bankruptcy, we should pivot the discussion to how best to maintain, operate, and program the park for the public’s use.
City Councilman Gary Brown perhaps said it best on Facebook Wednesday: “Belle Isle is a jewel in Detroit but it's in disrepair. The City of Detroit alone does not have the resources to maintain and improve the quality of Belle Isle. Since Detroiters also pay state taxes that support state parks, I strongly believe with the right plan a partnership with the DNR can occur to improve our jewel for all Detroiters and visitors to fully experience all year-round.”
Belle Isle is an important, but expensive, public space. It needs to be preserved as a useful public space as opposed to a Grey Gardens-like affectation of fleeting political power. If that means shifting control (and cost burden) from city to state, then so be it. The picnic sheds and beaches work the same even if the signs say Michigan DNR or Metroparks instead of Detroit Parks and Rec.