A sermon on Belle Isle, and who gets to enjoy it

The Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellerman gives quite a sermon. We've run pieces from him in the past, but none as long and engrossing as his latest essay, which appears at the website of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. Many of those who get the gist of it will react with outrage that Lansing's noble, altruistic mission to gussy up Belle Isle is questioned at all.

But among those who actually read the piece, they'll find an articulate and personable writer tackling an issue that few have earnestly covered (although we did a story on it not long ago): how the changes on Belle Isle have changed the population using Belle Isle.

The good reverend really goes deep in this almost-5,500-word essay, reaching back centuries and bringing us up-to-date on the island park's heritage. Like a good sermon, it starts with the personal and the positive, before diving into the issues of race and class.

To be clear, it doesn't seem that anybody is complaining about Belle Isle's physical improvements. Working restrooms are a plus, and in cash-starved Detroit a little bit of infrastructure money goes a long way. Even Wylie-Kellerman doesn't condemn upgrades to the park's physical plant.

The crux of the matter is: Who benefits from the improvements? Traditionally, Belle Isle has been a place for everybody to enjoy. The Rev. Wylie-Kellerman calls it "the commons" — that resource that nobody owns and we may collectively avail ourselves of. And he details the ways in which private events, aggressive and selective policing, and the influence of private businesses and nonprofits can have a chilling effect on some people's ability to recreate on Belle Isle.

Wylie-Kellerman writes: "When the state took over the Island last summer, one of the first things to happen was the dispatching of the integrated Detroit police force. They were replaced by State Police (almost uniformly white) and DNR authorities (likewise). Moreover, they immediately began doing stops of vehicles for any sort of minor violation and checking the ID not just of the driver, but all occupants of the car. News stories tallied the arrests for child support, outstanding warrants, and the like. Never mind undocumented folks hearing loud and clear: Don’t take the chance just to enjoy wind and water. ... Last fall a group of African American elders who for three decades have jogged the Island together and now walk it, told Kim Redigan they were done. Not just age, they no longer feel welcome in their own place."

He continues: "[T]he latest corporate and conservancy video boosting Island redevelopment ... begins with a mock scrapbook remembering the good old days. Earnest corporate and nonprofit folks (all white) share their memories with grainy black and white images to confirm and assist. But then comes the full color future with formula one racers speeding away and young people exhilarated on their water boards. Bottom line: The corporations who do business in Detroit have a social responsibility, it’s said, 'to make Belle Isle become what it once was.' In Detroit, that is a loaded and coded phrase. Listen for it. To what, precisely, is the city or its park coming 'back'? How many decades do we have to go back to get there? The answer to that is actually pretty precise."

If you disagree with the premise of the essay, there's all the more reason to plow through and read the whole thing, if only to understand the complaint. It isn't that Belle Isle shouldn't be improved. The important question is: Shouldn't access to an improved island park be for everybody? That's what "public amenities" used to mean.

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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