Belle Isle: Discovering Detroit's Crown Jewel

This project was undertaken from 2010-2012 on Belle Isle, an island park in Detroit. It became a self-published photo book. Below is the introduction and epilogue to that book, followed by its photos (in the order that they appeared).



Belle Isle is Detroit's 985-acre island park located in the middle of the Detroit River, a stone's throw away from neighboring Canada, and about a mile upstream from downtown. It is a mere 18 to 24 inches above the river in most locations, and is the largest island city park in the United States. Somewhat surprisingly, Belle Isle boasts 142 more acres than New York's famed Central Park. As you'll see on the following pages, Detroit's island gem is filled with gorgeous landscapes, and an abundance of creatures, plants, and flowers. It has fishing piers, bicycle lanes, nature trails, beaches, lakes and connecting creeks, lagoons at its east and west ends, and roughly 200 acres of deciduous forest. Of course, much like the city it's in, Belle Isle is also stricken with blight and abandonment. The island hasn't been taken care of by the people who use it. All kinds of trash can be found littering the island, mostly on the island's west end (the "beaten path"). However, since Belle Isle is rich in its nature, it has the potential to reclaim its long-standing title as Detroit's crown jewel. In 2010, I first stepped foot on Belle Isle. Since then, I've been discovering what it has to offer. What I've discovered over the past two years is a magnificent island still deserving the title as Detroit's crown jewel.


Belle Isle is an escape from the city. At least it's supposed to be. But, when I find myself biking across the 89-year-old, half-mile bridge, it's nearly always to one side, the east end, which looks out to Lake St. Clair. In the warmer months, it's not entirely devoid of people, though it's close. Aside from the occasional dog-walking couple, swimmers, and fishermen, the east end has nothing but grass, the lagoon, and the lighthouse. Ironically, this quiet, nature-filled area was man-made in the 1920s. While the state is looking to take over and clean up the park, they're also looking to urbanize it, as was done to the west end (picnic shelters, bathrooms). While I support a possible state takeover, I'm not for destroying nature. I'm not for the urbanization of what's supposed to be an urban getaway. The photo illustration above shows an "after" photo of Belle Isle's east end in what I see as a ruined state. (Editor's Note: The city-made illustration, which I cannot locate, showed the urbanization of that part of the island). Gone are the dirt trails and prairie grass, as concrete sidewalks and manicured lawns take their place. That's not what Belle Isle is about. I've discovered that it's about nature. Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing initially proposed a 30-year deal for the state to lease, operate, and make millions of dollars in improvements to the island, according to the Detroit News. Visitors entering by car would need to have a $10 state park pass. City Council rejected the proposal, saying it lacked any guarantees that the city would benefit from the deal. The fact is: Belle Isle needs to be cleaned up. It needs the removal of logjams in the Nashua and Sylvan creeks, which connects Lake Okonoka to Lake Muskoday (the creeks meet and become Lake Tacoma to the west end). This will allow kayakers and canoeists to once again use these waters. Belle Isle needs trash thrown away, updated facilities, and rebuilt fishing piers. However, its dirt trails do not need to be widened. It's called a "nature trail" for a reason! It isn't meant to be paved, nor was a boardwalk intended. Belle Isle is Detroit's shining achievement. It needs to be restored, not destroyed. Don't cut trees when there are ramshackle buildings waiting for renovation. Instead, work on what's broken. Nature is not broken. I've discovered that nature is why Belle Isle should hold its title as Detroit's crown jewel. I've discovered a true gem. I've discovered an island worth saving.