Belle Isle Part II: Troubled Present

Author's note: This is the second of a three-part series that I wrote for the newspapers I work for in Metro Detroit. On Friday, Aug. 31, the series started with a look at "Belle Isle's Troubled Present", and the Sunday, Sept. 2 installment will focus on "Belle Isle's Uncertain Future". 

Troubled Present
Belle Isle draws 5 million visitors each year for good reason: It offers an attractive outdoor space for a variety of recreational opportunities.

But within those 5 million are enough bad apples to give Belle Isle a reputation as unsafe, unclean and — given its present financial course — unsustainable.

The perception among many both inside and outside Detroit is that the grounds are trashed, the historic buildings are falling apart and you take your life in your hands if you go there at night.

Belle Isle Park Manager Keith Flournoy acknowledges that perception exists, but said he and others do the best they can with the little resources they have.

He also insists “there’s very little crime here.”

“I work here 70 to 80 hours a week, and I wouldn’t be doing that if I didn’t feel safe,” Flournoy said early this month. “We’ll have the occasional knuckleheads and I can’t say that some stuff doesn’t happen, and I understand how people who don’t ever come here might think otherwise, but it’s a safe place.”

Attempts to contact the Detroit Police Department, which has a station on Belle Isle, to contribute to this story were unsuccessful.

Flournoy said the biggest problem is people trashing the park. With less than a handful of employees to clean up after 5 million annual visitors, it’s understandable that this problem exists.

“We’ll take heat for how trashed this park looks at times, but we get it done,” Flournoy said. “We may not get it done as quickly as we want, but we get it done. … We’ll start at one end of the island, then work our way across until we’re done. With only a handful of people doing it, that’s going to take some time.”

As for the conditions of the historic buildings, all are in various stages of disrepair. Again, Flournoy said, they do the best they can with the little resources they have, but many buildings are in need of significant restoration, among them the Detroit Boat Club, the Belle Isle Zoo and various restroom facilities.

On a bright note, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium, workers recently installed a new roof on the 1904 Aquarium building. After having been closed due to budget cuts several years ago, officials said they hope to reopen the aquarium this year.

Flournoy is quick to point out that the people who work on Belle Isle go above and beyond the call of duty. The island park has a way of infecting your spirit, he said, so you have a deeper sense of commitment to its well-being.

“That’s one of the reasons why we can do what we do with so few people,” he said. “They care about this park, so they care about their work.”

Again, despite its warts, Belle Isle remains a popular attraction.

A group of teens said they come to the park all summer long for many reasons.

“I like to come out here and chill,” said Jay, 19, of Detroit. “It’s a nice little environment.”

“I still like to play on the playscape,” said Donielle of Highland Park. “That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m 19 years old and I’m still sliding down the slides.”

“We’ve been coming out here since we were young kids,” said Derek, 19, also of Detroit.

“My first year out to Belle Isle was 1993; that’s the year I was born,” Donielle said . “We have family reunions here, get-togethers, barbecues.”

“There’s a lot of things you can do out here,” Jay said, then with the others’ help he listed the beach, giant slide and water slide specifically.

Up Next: Belle Isle's Uncertain Future