Rarely in the United States do you find breathtaking views of two nations settled composedly in one accessible location. The American Midwest is home to hundreds of thousands of square miles, with the state of Michigan encompassing roughly 97,000 alone. The state echos much of the country by boasting a jovial tapestry of urban and rural landscapes, offering a variety of compelling, idiosyncratic locales to visitors.
One such attraction is Detroit’s Belle Isle Park. Resting in the heart of the Detroit River less than a mile from Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, it affords guests impressive international views. Being the largest city-owned island park in the country comes with historical responsibility, and Belle Isle has earned its title following decades of financial and societal pressure.
For years, the island was a well-known sanctum for local criminals looking to abscond the law, due to the city’s lack of oversight and regulation. When the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, the state proposed converting the island into a state park to prevent its inevitable closure, citing its cultural significance within the city. The city council rejected the notion shortly after, but Michigan’s Emergency Loan Board opted for the state’s proposal and the island became a state park in 2014.
Since then, the state has made millions of dollars in improvements to the park, including maintaining its beaches, trails and infrastructure. The park also includes a free Aquarium, Conservatory, Nature Zoo, Fountain and Great Lakes Museum for the one-time price of vehicle admission. The Belle Isle Aquarium, in particular, is a must-see for architecture enthusiasts. Opened in 1904, it was the oldest operating aquarium in the United States when it closed in 2005. It reopened seven years later and maintains its captivating underwater aesthetic, featuring dozens of species of freshwater fish for educational purposes.
The conservatory includes ecology from around the world, including a variety of cacti, vascular plants, moss and flowering plants. A strikingly large water slide towers over Belle Isle Beach, the ultimate summertime activity for the young at heart. Every year, the park hosts the Belle Isle Grand Prix and various other street car races, a massive feat for the city after it faced the automotive economic crisis in 2008.
“Belle Isle used to be a place many of us natives avoided, especially if we had kids, because of the reputation that preceded it,” Jema Johnson, a longtime native of Detroit’s Briggs neighborhood said. “It was overrun with criminals and, really, was a safe space for Detroit’s underbelly up until a few years ago. Now I bring my nieces and nephews here nearly every weekend to grill and swim.”
The park’s true character is reflected in what the state has yet to ameliorate, including abandoned graffiti-laden tunnels, overgrown meadows and aged, oxidized vehicles reminiscent of the city’s past. Taking a hike off the beaten path reveals hundreds of acres of riotous fields of diamondleaf willow trees and elaborate cobwebs, divulging a world taken straight from a Jonathan Swift novel.
“The fields are easy to get lost in if you’re not careful,” Kevin Lanet, a frequent visitor and Detroit native said. “I’ll come out here to read, hammock and catch my breath. The city can be exhausting and this place is replenishing.”
Next time you’re in the Motor City, take a short drive down MacArthur Bridge and soak up the freshwater air. Belle Isle offers innumerable possibilities for anyone bringing a sense of adventure.