Wah-Na-Bee-Zee, so named for its abundant white swan population by the First Nations people who originally inhabited the island, is a prized jewel in the City of Detroit. We call its 982 acres Belle Isle, Detroit’s first major park. Though much of what we see and experience in the park today is man-made—roads, fountains, museums and yacht clubs fabricated to make it easier to bike, run, or cook up barbecue for our loved ones—the island has retained much of its natural beauty.
A bird watcher’s playground, the park is forested across 230 acres by more than a half dozen species of trees and a variety of other small wildlife. Totally surrounded by the Detroit River, it’s one of the best places to catch a fish and a glimpse of Canada. With offerings for both nature lovers and timid outdoors people of all ages, the Detroiter without a fond memory on the island is rare.
But even our favorites are not without their challenges.
The easy-to-Google history of Belle Isle often starts with the French in 1701. In fact, the Encyclopedia of Detroit, an online reference published by the Detroit Historical Society, outright states that the French settled the island and made it available to the public for storing animals. But, it should also be noted that the French are afforded this recognition because of the might of their militaristic imperialism. They took occupation of the island from the people who were already here.
The Ojibwe and Odawa had cared for much of the land surrounding the Great Lakes region—including the island they called Wah-Na-Bee-Zee—long before the French arrived. Not only were they here, but they also fought against the militaristic occupation of this land by European settlers. Michiganians know one prominent leader in this fight, Obwandiyag, by the name Chief Pontiac.
But eventually, authority over Belle Isle passed from the Ojibwe and Odawa, to the French, to the British, to wealthy private owners, and finally the City of Detroit. Detroit purchased the island for $188,000 (roughly $5 million today) from the Campau family on April 2, 1879.
Since then, the park has been a primary location for family reunions, romantic picnics, solo and competition bike rides, nature walks, canoeing and more, including, for roughly the last 30 years, the Detroit Grand Prix.
It’s a race in need of a new home, say environmental activists and even local residents who go to the park to get a reprieve from the bustle of the city.
The local group Belle Isle Concern declares “Belle Isle is a park, not a racetrack,” and protests throughout each year charging that the now 60-day race setup and takedown schedule impedes the park from residents during some of the best warm-weather months of the year. Access to the most popular parts of the island are restricted for the car race and, activists contend, in addition to noise pollution and excessive exhaust emissions, the Grand Prix has brought even more roadway development to the park, endangering the island’s wildlife population, killing vegetation, and contributing to flooding.
But the Belle Isle Conservancy and Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources don’t see it that way. From their perspective, the Grand Prix generates a great deal of money to fund improvements to the island and operational costs like staff salaries.
And with the city retaining ownership of the park but allowing the state to take over its operations in a 30-year lease agreement during the unprecedented Detroit bankruptcy filing of 2013, those funds (and facility improvements) are hard things to let go of.
Places of note to visit:
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory – The oldest continually-running conservatory in the United States is one of Detroit’s most popular destinations, housing one of the largest orchid collections in the country. Donated largely by Anna Scripps herself, among the orchids are some rare blossoms rescued from Britain during World War II.
Dossin Great Lakes Museum – This museum is dedicated to the history of the Great Lakes and houses artifacts from a number of ships with long memories of the water, including the bow anchor of the doomed SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the Gothic Room from the City of Detroit III passenger steamship, and the pilothouse of the retired and scrapped freighter, SS William Clay Ford.
Belle Isle Aquarium – Designed by Albert Kahn and George Mason, the oldest aquarium in the United States has recently undergone over $1 million in facility improvements. It is home to one of the largest collections of air-breathing fish in the world, including the only known collection of all seven species of gar in North America.
Angela Lugo-Thomas is a Highland Park resident and member of Belle Isle Concern, a citizen-powered organization with activism centered around removing the Detroit Grand Prix from Belle Isle Park. NOTE: Three months after this recording, the City of Detroit announced possible plans to remove the Grand Prix from Belle Isle beginning in 2023.
David Pitawanakwat is an Ojibwe person of the Anishinabek Nation. Raised in the Wikwemikong Unceded Territory, Pitawanakwat is currently a Detroit resident and law student at the University of Detroit and the University of Windsor.