Culture Convo: Belle Isle Beauty

Is the Jewel of Detroit all it could be?
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is over 100 years old. // Photograph from Adobe Stock

It took me a long time to see the beauty in .

Detroit鈥檚 island gem always felt like too much car congestion, not enough nature. The roads felt like an asphalt noose wrapped around the greenery that is there. Way too much of a literal Motor City vibe leaving me choking on exhaust instead of feeling like I鈥檇 escaped from the city.

There鈥檚 beauty in the historic architecture that鈥檚 there today, but I鈥檓 not really sure it should鈥檝e been built at all.

No matter who is running the place, the maintenance of what鈥檚 built there has always been an issue in my lifetime. Just look at the recent fight to save the Belle Isle Boathouse, which should be preserved instead of torn down. Or the vast investments that have been made in the past decade to reconnect the natural ecosystem of Belle Isle with the Detroit River.

I鈥檝e got the original designer of Belle Isle on my side with that one. Pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted wanted it untouched by the human hand, too. A 鈥減ark for Detroit鈥 was the goal, Olmsted wrote, where the natural wonder of 鈥渢he fields, the meadow, the prairie, of the green pastures鈥 should take center stage.

Let the city be the city, Olmsted argued, with its 鈥減icturesque鈥 architecture. Let Belle Isle be wild. 鈥淥penness is the one thing you cannot get in buildings,鈥 Olmsted wrote. 鈥淲hat we want to gain is tranquility and rest to the mind.鈥

Although the hit its 10-year anniversary of running Belle Isle in February 2024 and has studies and community input sessions being conducted about what it should look like as the second most visited state park in the U.S., I鈥檓 realizing it鈥檚 truly the public that has helped me find beauty in the 鈥淛ewel of Detroit鈥 by seeing how beautiful we make it just by being there together.

This sense of beauty is captured in the photos of . His photos of friends, family, and Belle Isle lovers helped me see that while I was struggling to find my escape on the island, others were making the most of the water and the views, including the sunset you can watch from the western point of the island as the sun slowly engulfs the skyline.

鈥淚t鈥檚 like a big exhale as the sun goes down,鈥 says Williams, who has a great knack for capturing people in their element.

And getting away to Belle Isle is clearly a big exhale for those who make it what they want 鈥 by embarking on a romantic getaway on the westside tip, turning a picnic shelter into a stage for an epic family reunion, or getting as lost as you can in the woods to the east.

For me, that鈥檚 been the secondhand effect of seeing Belle Isle through the lens of Williams. Like some of the couples he鈥檚 captured with his camera, I鈥檝e fallen back in love with this 982-acre island park by seeing how much it means to others and getting more creative about how I use it.

As in the rest of the city, there are stunning patches of beauty littered throughout Belle Isle. But just like Detroit, it doesn鈥檛 beg you to find them. And just like the rest of the city, you can make it exactly what you want it to be.

Ryan Patrick Hooper is the host of , Detroit鈥檚 NPR station (weekdays from noon to 3 p.m.).

This story originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of 黑料网 Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of 黑料网 Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on July 8.