Recreation on Belle Isle

Image: “Athletic Field, Belle Isle Park, Detroit, Mich.” Postcard, 1910, Detroit Historical Society.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

Since its founding as a city park in 1879, Belle Isle has been a space for relaxation and fun for all of the people of Detroit. Designed with recreation specifically and centrally in mind by Olmstead, the island has evolved to provide space and facilities for leisure activities to suit all ages and abilities. While some sporting options may have fallen into disrepair of late, or even been closed, the self described “playground of the people”  is still a thriving island of sport and fun for everyone who visits.

By its nature as an island park, the first recreation activities which emerged on Belle Isle were maritime. For aquatic enthusiasts who lacked the resources, vessel, or time to join the Yacht Club or Boat Club the obvious option was to swim in the Detroit River. The Detroit Boat Club was the launching point for many water sports enthusiasts including light motor boats, sailing, but the primary sport and most competitively successful was solo and team rowing, until the city of Detroit’s acquisition and closure of the club in 1996.

In the warmer months thousands of Detroiters would flock to the island to bask on one of its beaches and cool off in the water, take some refreshments in the Pavillion or unwind in the less crowded Bath House. Unfortunately for approximately a decade in the 1960’s pollution from Detroit’s industry made the water unswimmable, but this is much less of a problem now as there is a maintained, safe beach which even has a waterslide!

a 1910 postcard of the main beach on Belle Isle

Swimmers escaping the heat at Belle Isle’s main beach. Postcard, 1910, Detroit Historical Society.

Another popular water based activity was canoeing through the canals of Belle Isle. Visitors could rent a canoe and glide under the trees and bridges of the small rivers that snaked through the island. This practice was also deemed unsafe when the waterways became too polluted.

Canoers on a waterway by the old Band Stand, 1910

Canoers on a waterway by the old Band Stand, 1910. Postcard, Detroit Historical Society.

Not all of the action on Belle Isle happens in the water, as the islands vast network of roads, paths and trails is perfect for exercise on two legs, or wheels. Belle Isle is a Detroit favourite for taking a walk, jog, run or ride with it’s many miles of open space track, a luxury for urban residents. Since 1969 the island has played host to thousands of amateur runners every New Years Eve for the annual Family Fun Run, with entrants offered a light 2km run or walk and a more demanding 5km circuit.

As early as 1910 Belle Isle had developed a recreation culture of the more organised kind, centred on the new Field House and bicycle pavilion (see cover photo). The Field house and it’s administration ran Little League competitions in popular sports  baseball and football, and had an athletics club and track complete with hurdles for the more zippy children. The Field House slowly expanded to incorporate more sports for young people; courts for basketball, fields and goals for soccer and rugby, to today with the most recent addition a set of racquet ball courts. Today sporting facilities are also used by community organisations who host large youth events such as the Metro Detroit Youth Day; over 37,000 children enjoyed a day of sport and game at the 2010 event.

The final and most notably absent recreation activity which was extremely popular on Belle Isle is the Golf Course. Built in 1922 as the first Golf Course open to the public in Detroit, the playing on Belle Isle was an affordable and leisurely pass time until the closure due to lack of maintenance funds in 2008. A proposal has recently been given to the City of Detroit to resurrect the course in a slightly unconventional manner; as a Frisbee golf course requiring far less maintenance. With the money well needed money that has come with the lease by the State of Michigan plans have also been made to restore the internal waterways for canoeing use!

  •  Record Youth Crowd Overpowers Belle Isle’s Athletic Field,” Washington D.C U.S Newswire, 7/14/2010

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

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