In 2015, when I returned to Detroit after 22 years away, my morning bike ride included the 5 miles around Belle Isle, a gem unsurpassed anywhere. Yet each spring, barricades and fences would intrude for two months, an unsettling reminder that a billionaire was using a state park as his private racetrack. During meetings on the third Thursday of every month, I’d use my three minutes of public comment time to denounce this travesty. I’d write articles exposing the lies the Penske team employed to excuse the Department of Natural Resources’ cockeyed priorities.
How many other cities have a place like Belle Isle? Few, if any. How many others would allow their best public space to be so defiled for so long? None that I know of.
Public opposition to the Belle Isle Grand Prix kept increasing but had no effect. We explored a legal remedy but found none. All we could do was keep speaking out.
Then this week I woke up one day to the shocking news that we’d won – Penske was exploring moving his race back downtown!
In fights between ordinary people and the power structure, logic and morality don’t often prevail. And the bosses certainly will never admit they lost to a ragtag group of nobodies. But they’ve been lying all along, so why expect otherwise?
Penkse’s slick apologists will claim he generously supported Belle Isle. In fact, he destroyed too much of what makes it so special for far too long. And the leaders of the state and the city enabled them to do so.
Ten acres of a concrete paddock — once a grove of trees, a memorial to Detroit children slain by gun violence — that’s the permanent scar Penske left behind. And the state still runs the city-owned island. Based on what it’s done so far, I deeply distrust what’ll happen during the rest of its lease, which runs through 2043. But at least springs on Belle Isle will be quiet and gorgeous again.
And maybe all those words we spoke at all those meetings wore them down. Maybe money doesn’t always win. For now, we’ll take this as a victory.
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