Further Reading on Belle Isle

Belle Isle Conservancy is a great place to start when wanting to know more about the Island. It is a host website which is run by private support of the community of organizations dedicated to improving Belle Isle. It provide current attractions and news about the Island, hosts a historical photo gallery, has a history written about the park, and volunteer opportunities if you would like to be involved.

  • Boggs, Grace Lee “Detroit: Place and Space to Grow,” in The Next American Revolution from Miller, C. (1997). Miller, Char. Out of the Woods: Essays In Environmental History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Grace Lee Boggs, a distinguished activist and resident of Detroit, MI over the last 60 years; has brought her vast firsthand knowledge of activism to turn toward the future.  Her book criticizes corporate exploitation, in favor of a more organic movement forward, paying attention to the people living who the community. As a member of the community herself, her passionate argument for Detroit to be built on grassroots organizing is persuasively arguing for a change. This book is helpful to look at how Belle Isle could be changed as well.  It is useful to see how Belle Isle functions and has been shaped through grassroots organization like the Belle Isle conservancy, and be a space which builds more cooperation between the city and planning of the park, and for people to work together as this project moves forward.

In an analysis of the original plans for Belle Isle, Joseph Cialdella discusses Olmsted’s legacy on the park. He writes that Olmsted “sought to make Belle Isle a more pleasant place for residents of Detroit to enjoy the outdoors, while also preserving some of the island’s important natural features” (Cialdella).  Concerning the waterways and recreation, Olmsted saw much potential in the design of streams through the island while still maintaining a natural appearance.  Cialdella concludes that this organic design has since been changed, but there are still steps we can take to preserve the original beauty activity especially relating to the waterways.

Cialdella’s article presents many aspects from the original plan for the island.  He includes photos of the island from as early as 1888, and maps of the original planning and design of the island’s features such as the ferry dock and waterways.  Cialdella is interested in preserving the legacy through historical research as the city moves forward in modern times to turn Belle Isle into a state-owned park.

The City of Detroit has a listing of opening and closing hours for events on the Island, with a list of the attractions. It also provides an overview of the history of Belle Isle, including a timeline, which we added to this website.

  • Cronon, William “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Out of the Woods: Essays in Environmental History, Char Miller & Hal Rothman, eds (Pittsburgh:University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 28-50.

In his assertive essay, Cronon discusses the idea of wilderness and how it functions in both modern society as well as how the concept manifested historically.  He presents two categories of representations: wilderness as the sublime (religious, spiritual, transcendental), and wilderness as the frontier to be conquered.  From analysis of these interpretations, he develops the argument that wilderness is ultimately a construct, that wilderness can never be “untouched” again. It cannot return to tabula rasa, despite any romanticization of wilderness being a sublime escape from modern industrialization.

Like Samuel P. Hays’s analysis of the concepts of conservation and environmental movements, Cronon contrasts the terms wilderness and nature.  However, he infers that they are both constructed concepts.  He posits that we must find a happy medium in approaching issues of preservation, conservation, and construction of nature and the wilderness; harmonious coexistence of nature and humans.

The inclusion of other sources such as descriptions of nature from Thoreau and Wordsworth really carry Cronon’s argument.  I found it to be enlightening that these writers and many people during their time viewed nature in such a romantic way.

The City Beautiful movement, as described in the Encyclopedia of Urban Studies, was an attempt in the late nineteenth century in America to combat the urban crisis. Many people in the upper class moved to the suburbs if they could, but the working class flocked to the cities looking for work. There was overcrowding and unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The City Beautiful movement, spurred on by the ruling elites, sought to reverse some of these conditions and beautify the city. By making a better urban environment, social order would be restored. The Chicago World’s Fair put the efforts of this movement on display. Many cities throughout the country and throughout the world took inspiration from this and emulated the style of architecture present in Chicago.

This is useful because Detroit is one of those cities. Nods to this movement can be seen throughout the city, including Belle Isle. The entire park was designed in the spirit of the movement, a place to escape the dirty conditions of the city. The architecture on the island is very reminiscent of this time period. Included in this are the fountain and the casino.

  • Melosi, Martin V. “The Place of the City in Environmental History.” Environmental History Review 17, no. 1 (1993): 1-23.

In his 1993 essay Martin Melosi’s aim was to provide a broad overview of the development of the relatively recent emergence of the specific sub-fields of Urban and City studies in the context of the overarching study of Environmental History. Beginning by slightly redefining the concept of the Urban Environment to encompass both history of the natural landscape and built environments and importantly the areas in which they intersect, Melosi ensures that he escapes the narrowness of some of the field’s previous literature and academics such as Joel Tarr and Christine Rosen. He admits however that Urban Environmental History still suffers from “elemental weaknesses”; that the place and role of the city is ill defined, the study of the field is grounded in little theory, and the study of cities is generally too narrow and empirical.

Melosi argues that Graeme Davison’s extremely influential concept of the city as a natural or organic system has been overlooked in much of the contemporary literature and should be further integrated into academic thinking which is prone to create an inflexible binary between the natural and man made worlds. The role and categorisation of the city as both/or an urban and natural environment is problematic for Environmental History and needs to cemented in the main discourse not just glossed over in “bridge literature”; connecting discourses but lacking clear focus. Melosi does not argue for either side however, stressing the mere importance of it’s presence in interdisciplinary debates from sociology, urban planning, ecology, to public health and education.

Melosi’s paper is a useful source as is clearly lays out all of the influential papers in Urban Environmental History thought providing the basis for further research, up until 1993 however. He presents an even summation of the key thought and works in the hybrid field, and encourages all angles of investigation. Melosi’s endorsement of the concept of the city as an organic being or system is helpful for our Belle Isle project as it places the recreational island as a space fundamentally different from any other part of the city of Detroit. Seen as an independent organ Belle Isle’s importance for all the people of Detroit is highlighted as a democratic area for relaxation, free of all work.

  • Pope, Karen “Belle Isle Aquarium Worth Keeping,” Detroit Free Press, February 16 2005, A9.

Karen Pope’s article serves as both a reflection of the popularity the Belle Isle Aquarium held in the past as well as an argument for protecting the aquarium from being shut down. She argues that the aquarium must remain in operation if Detroit wants to restore Belle Isle to its former glory.  The aquarium and conservatory (both originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted), she says, are the anchor of the island.   To let them go would be to let go the potential for the island to be in the ranks of a city attraction such as New York’s Central Park.

The potential she cites for the conservatory and aquarium includes educational, entertainment, and scientific research purposes.  Although Pope includes many persuasive arguments against the closing of the aquarium, she does not seem to have an economic grasp on how this can be achieved.

This source can serve as a testament to the pride and nostalgia Detroiters feel for Belle Isle.  Pope includes the stat that the aquarium had 1,682,000 visitors in 1929, but attendance figures since then have dropped much below that.  Obviously, Pope wants to refuel the desire of Detroit citizens for going to the aquarium.

  • Russ, Johanna “The 1943 Detroit Race Riot”, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, (accessed February 7, 2014).

In Johanna Russ’s article on the 1943 Detroit race riot, she discusses the contributing factors that sparked the riot. Russ looks past the mere rumors and popular beliefs held by the citizens at the time of the riot. She lists many of the underlying causes that built up tension between the white and black communities that finally culminated in a riot. Most of the issues dealt with housing and employment. Many African Americans came to the city looking for work in the factories, that were booming due to rise in production for the war effort. Strikes would often be called when a black worker earned a promotion over another white colleague. Another main point of contention was the lack of housing with the sudden rise in the city’s population. A particular example that Russ gives is when a new tenement was opened to be used specifically for African American workers. This was all being sponsored by the federal government. The white community grew upset and decided that they wanted the apartment complex for themselves. The government wielded to their demands, but not without public outcry. They then went back to it being black housing, but the white community members protested outside the building on move-in day. These and more were some reasons that lead to the riot on June 20, 1943.

This is beneficial because the entire riot started on Belle Isle and then spread throughout the city. It is important to look at because, while the park at Belle Isle was known to be integrated, there clearly was still quite a bit of tension present. Just because multiple races were sharing a physical space, it did not mean that the citizens were all a peaceful and united people. There existed deep-rooted prejudices and institutionalized racism that reached a boiling point in 1943.

  • Spirn, Anne Whiston, “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted” 

The legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted was a grand one indeed.  Spirn’s essay about his landscape architecture work showcases this, by exploring his work “constructing nature” specifically in Yosemite national park and Niagara Falls.  She presents Olmsted as sort of a middle ground between John Muir’s preservationist movement and Gifford Pinchot’s utilitarian vision of nature in terms of his vision for landscaping and designing natural spaces.  The essay shows that Olmsted’s plans were very comprehensive, detailed, and innovative, and would go to extensive lengths to conceal the artifice of human constructed “natural scenery”.

Spirn argues that although Olmsted was skilled at predicting physical and biological processes pertaining to his plans, he did not often consider the social and political processes (maintenance of the landscape, public opinion of the design, etc.).

This is an important and rich source in analyzing the environmental history of the development of Belle Isle, “Detroit’s backyard”.  Olmsted was commissioned for the original plan in 1881, and his plan was reflective of his other visions for Yosemite and Niagara Falls, in that he wanted to build and change the land, but wanted to conceal the artifice.  Spirn’s argument and evidence also shine light upon why his plan was not fully adapted.

  • Winner, Langdon “Do Artifacts Have Politics?,” in The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology, ed. Langdon Winner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 19-39.

In his article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, Langdon Winner discusses how the very structures within a city can help to either promote or hinder social equality. Some of the consequences of these structures are unintentional. They were built without the intent to hurt or help one specific class or race, but that is what happened nevertheless. Such as the case with the tomato harvesters. The advancement in technology was made to increase efficiency, but as a result, many migrant workers lost their jobs. Other structures have more intended purposes lurking beneath the exterior. The bridges built by Robert Moses on Long Island were created at very specific heights for very specific reasons. The bridges were built just high enough that the cars of the members of the upper and middle class, mostly white, could pass under to reach some of the best beaches. They were too low, however, for buses to pass under. This kept the individuals who did not own a car and had to rely on public transportation off the beaches. These were mainly non-white and lower class citizens.

This is useful because it explains how the building of a bridge to Belle Isle had a democratizing effect. Before a bridge was available, Detroiters were forced to take a ferry over to the island, and that ferry cost money. By building a bridge and making it free for the public to cross allowed all citizens to enjoy in the park, not just the ones that had the expendable income to afford the ferry.

  • “Wah-nah-be-zee,” Detroit Free Press, June 25, 1879, pg. 8.

This article details the beginnings of the island we now know as Belle Isle. It goes through the numerous owners throughout its history, the many names that it has been known by, and the plethora of uses that people have seen fit for the island. It has been used for pasturage by the military. Lieutenant George McDougall was given permission to occupy the island, and then bought it off of the Ottawa and Chippewa Native Americans. During the Revolutionary War, it held rebel prisoners. William Macomb eventually gained ownership, whose heirs then sold it to Barnabas Campeau. Campeau would go on to sell it to the city of Detroit.

This is useful because it discusses the early history of the island and describes some of the varied uses of the island. It shows that many different people have claimed the island as their own, and they all saw fit to use it in different ways. This article shows that a park for recreation is just one of the ways that the island has been used, but that there were many different possibilities for how the island could have ended up.

  • Detroit Grand Prix:

The Encyclopedia of Detroit entry on the discontinued Detroit Grand Prix is an outline of the major event’s brief history the many changes which the race underwent. As arguably the world’s auto capital, Detroit remained an obvious omission to the first class motor racing circuit until 1982 when an annual Formula 1 race was held on the streets of Detroit’s downtown. When the downtown course became problematic, it was planned to be moved to Belle Isle, however an agreement could not be reached and the Formula 1 Grand Prix race was relocated to Phoenix. In the following years the Belle Isle track was used by various smaller races, until they were all cancelled in 2007 due to the economic crisis only to return in 2012.

As a source the entry is rather brief but provides a suffiecient history of the presence of world class motor events in the former ‘Motor City’. The information is presented in a clear, historical fashion typical of the reliability of Encyclopaedias. It was useful to our project as it is yet another example of Belle Isle as a recreational space for the people of Detroit. Belle Isle is also placed in context of having the potential to be a world class park, especially one to rival Olmsted’s other famous design, New York’s Central Park. It is also reflective of the impact that the 2007-08 economic crisis had, especially on Detroit as many of Belle Isle’s attractions were closed in this period. A narrative of restoration and is also invoked as a form of Grand Prix returned to the Isle in 2012.

  • John Sinclair Artist Biog

Allmusic is an online music review, guide and discography database also providing detailed biographies for influential figures. The artist biography of John Sinclair describes his avid lifelong appreciation for various styles of music and his entry into the avant garde and hippy scenes thriving in Michigan and especially Detroit in the late 1960s. Described as a “self styled revolutionary” Sinclair is placed at the epicenter of the Detroit music scene and an agent for social change until his imprisonment on drug charges in the early 1970s.

As a source the biography is useful as it describes the interconnected and volatile nature of the counter culture movement in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and the importance of central figures like Sinclain. Relating specifically to Belle Isle, Sinclair’s promotion company organised several jazz and funk events at the park bandshell in it’s heyday. This source describing Sinclair as a figure to study can also be very useful for other groups research also.

  • Belle Island Master Plan (2005 Revision)

The Belle Island Master Plan is a document issued by the Detroit City Department of Recreation which updates the original plan from 2000, providing a technical and progress report for the last 5 years, and a Physical Needs Assessment. Developed by a team of specialists such as architects, environmentalists and urban planners the report is a comprehensive summary of the condition and problems faced by the island public Park. The report contains sections of the Park’s history, current useage and facilities, management and maintenance, and planned future renovations.

This source is extremely useful to our project as it presents the City official  position on the challenges faced by the park in the final years under which it was under their control and funding, in an in depth, comprehensive and reliable form. The report officially acknowledges that “Belle Isle is in crisis” and demands that drastic action must be taken to restore it to it’s former glory. Renovations of Belle Isle are deemed (at least by the Department of Recreation) to be a vital part of the City’s revitalisation and rebirth plan for ‘Next Detroit’. Actual figures are stated highlighting the deficits between the considerable costs of running and maintaining the park and the funds available to the struggling city in 2006. The Master Plan will be helpful to our research as it shows how neglected the park formerly was under the City administration, allowing progress under the State to be measured in the future. Most importantly the Plan highlights the importance of a free (or cheap) recreational public space for the people of Detroit, firmly placing very high value on Belle Isle as a “respite from the frantic pace of urban life” and rejecting any notions of outdated nostalgia.


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