Synchronized swimming on Belle Isle, 1955

Detroit River Water Quality

Image: The Aqua Follies perform a synchronized swimming routine at one of the lagoons on Belle Isle, possibly during the Riverama celebration, Detroit, Michigan, in 1955. Photo by Tony Spina, courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

The prewar discussions about environment surrounded conservation, and the use of managing the quantity of resources on the natural environment. You can read more about how this affected the fishing industry here. The postwar period experienced a different form of environmentalism. Detroit has increased the production capacity of the city while transforming the industry of WWII, which you can read more about here.

A consequence of the Arsenal of Democracy was an increase in the production capacity of the city, including 100% employment, but also an increase in unregulated pollution. The water of Belle Isle became unsafe. A 1962 report from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare about the pollution of The Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and Western Lake Erie described current water quality issues and their main causes.

Belle Isle is a “Water Oriented Park”, with 1,400,000 visitors in 1960.  Pollution made it unswimmable, due to possible ingestion of sewage-contaminated water. This made swimming, boating, and fishing (all very popular activities on Belle Isle) unsafe.  The Department report concluded that more stringent measures must be taken to reduce sewage waste and industrial toxin dumping. Between then and the publication of the 1962 report, many measures were taken to combat industrial and residential dumping into the river, which showed some progress, but there were still high levels of contamination.

Despite these ongoing controversies, the 70s reflected a general sense of optimism from the gains in environmental policies of industrialized nations around the world. Indeed, an earlier report from the Department of Parks and Recreation planned to recreate public spaces of leisure which reflected the surrounding environment; they boasted that 12 swimming pools were to be built in Detroit, including two on Belle Isle.

This urban renewal project also is related to the “City Beautiful Movement” of the early twentieth century. The movement described beautification of cities, saying that this aestheticism can provide civic virtue and social order to a city’s population, because the space is more desirable.  It came as a response to the urban crisis during the Industrial Revolution.  Belle Isle as a recreational park provided the space to achieve this harmony between industry and recreation. The postwar economic boom also gave citizens more leisure time to enjoy Belle Isle, more disposable income for the canoe rentals, and an increase in education to be more involved in social activism and quality of life issues. Beginning in the early 1970s, they advocated for preventative measures to protect their natural and urban environments.

  • Alessandro Busà, “City Beautiful Movement,” in Encyclopedia of Urban Studies, ed. Ray Hutchison (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010), 1080.
  • “Fishing in downtown Detroit? It’s done now,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 29, 1975, 1.
  • “Pollution of Waters of the United States in Lake St. Clair, The Detroit River, and Western Lake Erie”, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, March 1962 (Cincinatti, Ohio),http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015071271947;view=1up;seq=5.
  • Samuel P. Hays, “From Conservation to Environment, Environmental Politics in the United States Since World War II,” in Out of the Woods, Essays in Environmental History, ed. edited by Char Miller and Hal Rothman (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 101-26.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

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