After a year, Belle Isle still welcomes people of color, but...

It has been a little more than a year since the city of Detroit leased Belle Isle to the state of Michigan, a deal that officially made the city park into a state park. For many Detroiters, it was yet another blow, though symbolic, to old Detroit, when everything in the city’s bounds was city-maintained. For nearly everyone else, it was a necessary step forward in the city’s ongoing recovery.

Last year, I was hesitant to accept the changes at Belle Isle, because with the state lease came an influx of law enforcement. I wasn’t against law enforcement, nor the state takeover in full, but I was concerned about intimidation, and the fear already instilled in many Detroiters, myself included. Not fear of getting caught, let’s be clear. But just the fear of police itself.

There was concern at the time that Belle Isle would essentially be whitewashed, that the park would become a haven for New Detroit – young, white newcomers and the suburbanites who love them (but their tax dollars more) – at the expense of old Detroit. A year later, did all the black people disappear from Belle Isle?


I’ve been to Belle Isle twice so far this summer, once for an evening picnic with a friend and once for an outdoor brunch with a group of friends I trade recipes with. I figured both times were appropriate to count the black people there – not including myself.

The island was sparsely populated during the evening outing. Yes, it’s beautiful to watch the sun set over the river, and it’s also quiet. I’d recommend this if you’re looking for a cheap way to appreciate the city. But during the Sunday brunch? Belle Isle was just like it had always been.

Just like always, you’re met with countless family-reunion signs, guiding loved ones to a coveted spot. And the vast majority of those reunions were black families. There were folks like me everywhere that day. There were black parents with their children at the Aquarium, black people fishing in the streams, black people riding bikes. There was a black guy in the Gatsby-themed wedding – filmed with a drone, because in 2015 that’s what we do now -- in the Conservatory. More importantly, there were more black people than you could count, which seems to be different from – ahem – other observations on life in this changing city.

And it wasn’t just my people. We sat near a Latino family trading Spanish and English in conversation while listening to Adele, watched mothers in hijabs wrangle with their high-energy children, interracial couples taking in the sights. If you want to know what America In 2015 looks like, maybe Belle Isle is the place.

The police presence varied on both days. Light on the day of the Sunday brunch, but heavy on the day barely anyone was there. Either way, it’s enough to strike that fear.

I remember describing last year various incidents with the police that people close to me had experienced, and getting reactions ranging from “not all police” to outright dismissals of any possible wrongdoing at the hands of law enforcement. A year later, it is impossible to not have any concern that maybe, just maybe, there’s a problem in how officers conduct themselves.

You don’t have to look to the case of Sandra Blank, the woman found dead in a jail cell after being cited for a traffic violation. You don’t have to look at the case of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore youth whose spine was severed in police custody. No, just look down the road, in Inkster, to the case of Floyd Dent, the motorist savagely beaten by an Inkster police officer who later planted drugs on him. That case is indisputable, rightfully costing the officer his job and putting the Inkster in a financial bind.

It’s because of Dent, Gray, Blank and many others – but especially Dent – that I still tremble when I see a cop in my rearview mirror. It doesn’t matter if it’s Detroit Police, DNR, MSP, or any other agency. It’s an unshakable feeling that even if my license is good, my plates are good, my insurance is valid, I have the little “P” on my tags that shows I paid for the annual park pass and I’m driving at 25 mph and not a single mile over, that they’ll still find some way to stop me and make that day my day.

And guess what? It’s a fear people of color live with. So no, the black people haven’t stopped coming to Belle Isle. But how many people may never return out of anxiety? And how many of us that still visit the park feel our bodies go cold at the mere sight of one of those royal blue patrol trucks?

You can’t remove the force, because the response will be a lawless free-for-all on the park. But until we fix the problems in all of our law-enforcement departments, it will never be a totally pleasant experience on Belle Isle, no matter how clean and safe it may feel now.

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Fri, 08/07/2015 - 4:11pm
Love and appreciate your work...thank you for being a TRUE Detroiter and always keeping it 100! :D
Fri, 08/07/2015 - 11:20pm
I appreciate Mr. Foley has reasons for his reservation ['I was concerned about intimidation...'] of the 'police' or at least their presences. From all he writes about in this article none of it suggests that those fears are applicable on Belle Isle. That raises a concern that his expectations of the ‘police’ are so deeply rooted that it prevents him from recognizing a changing reality and that caused him to use Belle Isle as a means to write about events everywhere else. I think how Mr. Foley describes his Belle Isle experiences speaks of an appealing future, it offers a glimpse of hope for Detroit and Michigan, it tells of a place where families of all nature can enjoy relief and community without the fears they may find elsewhere. This article makes me wonder if Mr. Foley is like so many professional media pundits that cannot see change, cannot see opportunities to help change, cannot become part of change. A simple remark, “ people.”, suggests a reluctance to be part of a changing future. I hope my concerns prove wrong, but I am afraid it will take Mr. Foley too long to realize that the moments of change we see today are opportunities he will have lost to be part creating a better future.
Sat, 08/08/2015 - 11:10pm
Duane, you're being a little too reserved. Let me fill in some gaps that Mr. Foley neglected to include in his piece regarding Belle Isle, pre state takeover. Belle isle was a dump! Literally. Trash containers around the island were overflowing due Detroit's maintenance. Food containers would be blowing around. Alcohol bottles and drug paraphernalia were strewn about. And those are the things that I can mention while keeping things "family friendly" on this site. Need to use a restroom? Good luck with that. Detroit would maintain the restrooms whenever they felt like it. This meant that they were restocked and cleaned on such an irregular basis they eventually needed to be padlocked due to their negligence. They were "temporarily" replaced with Portal-johns, which also became filthy and unusable over time due to lack of maintenance. Looking at visiting the island with your family? Hopefully you won't mind the drunks, prostitutes, cars racing around the island (what 25 mph speed limit?) and people comparing sound systems that could blow the roof off of the Joe Louis Arena. I can continue, but I believe that I have made my point. Post state takeover was a sea change in how the park operated. The trash was picked up (and on a regular basis). Improvements to the infrastructure on the island were made, including cleaning and re-opening the restrooms on the island (while maintaining them on a regular basis). And the DNR literally did their part to take out the trash. Increased patrols got rid of the drunks and prostitutes. Speeders, like Detroit City Clerk Janice "Speed Racer" Winfrey were stopped (more on this in a bit). And you no longer need to listen to the latest rap song from the other end of the island. Writers like Mr. Foley and Detroit Politicians don't like to mention anything I wrote above, and use red herrings like the tired "I-fear-law-enforcement" meme, because to not do that would be an implicit acknowledgement that Detroit cannot government itself with its current leadership. It took people with a little more responsibility from Lansing to go in there and literally clean up someone else's mess. This is an anathema to those Detroiters attempting to hold onto power, so they fall back onto the tired race-hustling rhetoric (something Janice" speed racer" Winfrey invoked after her traffic stop) in order to engender sympathy from readers on why Detroit degenerated into a no man's land. I'm a firm believer that Detroit can come back and become a great city like it once was (and like it has done numerous times in the past already), but in due time. But part of that comeback involves not giving race-hustlers like Mr. Foley any credence whatsoever. Accepting "excuses" from him and those who think like him only promotes the conditions that drove away the majority of Detroit's population and right into bankruptcy in the first place.
Sun, 08/09/2015 - 2:42pm
KG, I have hope that Mr. Foley is truly interestd in change and particularly in a Detroit that is a place for people to succeed, for family to grow, and a place where children build a foundation of caring and learning. I do have a concern that Mr. Foley is at that tipping point where a person becomes lock to the past, they become bound to their anquish about the past that they miss opportunities to create a future that avoids all the reason for that anquish. It is difficult for someone, anyone that is so immersed in this situation to recognize it and to step back to choose what they want their future to be. I hope he can, that he will seek someone from outside his circle to have a frank discussion about what he is doing and whether it is time to break from the past and consider how he might contribute to a better future. I hope he will make the choice to break out of his place of comfort, his mental comfort zone, and create a new way of thinking about making change happen. If Mr. Foley doesn't/can't change how he looks at problems, how he presents his views about people and events, I will continue to read Mr. Foley because he will be describing one of the enotional barriers to change. It willhelp people learn to work around it rather then invest the time to break through it. I have found that such a mindset can only be changed from, it cannot be opened up by others' reasoning.
Sun, 08/09/2015 - 6:20pm
Duane, I'm going to be arrogant to claim know what is in Mr. Foley's heart or mind, but I can tell you that I've dealt with people who promoted that kind of thinking for over 30-years now. Based on my experience dealing with that mindset and contrasting that to what he has written, I'm not holding out very much hope that anyone/anything will change the line of thinking expounded in his article above.
Sun, 08/09/2015 - 9:34pm
KG, I understand, but I just have to try. He is in a postion that could have a positive impact and I think he will regret [I have heard it from others with a similar point of view] missing this opportunity in later years so I wanted him pause for a moment and consider where he wants to be. I would hope at least he would challenge my comments so he might consider the different perspective. Unless we hear something here I think you will be right.
Mon, 08/10/2015 - 1:35pm
I share a similar perspective. I'm a native Detroiter. I spent many a day on Belle Isle as a white kid a long time ago. I was there the summer before last for the first time in many years. Belle Isle is an urban treasure for all types of folks, not just 'my people' as the author referenced. I found that troubling, but more sad than troubling.
Sat, 08/08/2015 - 10:53am
Mr. Foley fails in this article, to provide solutions or move the conversation about race in Detroit forward.
Sat, 08/08/2015 - 6:07pm
Yeah, Aaron, get on that.
Sun, 08/09/2015 - 6:59am
Excellent article Aaron Foley on work that still needs to be done to increase the inclusiveness of Belle Isle.
Bobbie Lewis
Sun, 08/09/2015 - 8:21am
I was stopped by the Belle Isle police last week, who said I had made a rolling stop. They gave me a warning, not a ticket, noting the need to drive very carefully because there were lots of children around. They were super polite. Still, being stopped by cops is not a nice experience, and this white older woman thoroughly understands the concerns of black people, especially men. The Belle Isle police are in a tough spot. They need to keep the island safe and pleasant for all while not harrassing visitors. The officers I met did just that. We should give them our support.
Floyd Black
Sun, 08/09/2015 - 9:54am
Before the State lease agreement I was fearful of getting off the island at night. Taking a family and staying after dusk was pretty intimidating as well. I think the choice, especially when the improved conditions of the park are included, is pretty obvious who we prefer to be in charge.
Sun, 08/09/2015 - 1:14pm
This article is a misfire. No direct link between any single incident and Belle Isle's transfer is made that justify characterizing the state authority as notably more threatening or racist. The "but..." in the headline implies a substantive reason to be wary of Belle Isle specifically, but Mr. Foley's fears of the police, even if justified, aren't shown to be relevant to the broader issue of MSP's treatment of persons of color on Belle Isle.
Mon, 08/10/2015 - 9:05am
Considering the width, depth and breadth of the nationwide problem of police bullying and violence, this is a thoughtful and understated opinion piece. We have too much respect for uniforms and authority and not nearly enough for all our other fellow human beings. I hope you continue to write about these problems as long as it takes for the folks wearing blinders to be more respectful, decent, empathic and start being part of the solution instead of living in denial, or as someone here stated "...will make the choice to break out of [their] place of comfort, [their] mental comfort zone, and create a new way of thinking about making change happen." In the meantime, after reading some of the comments here, I guess you could cut and paste this into your next essay: "I remember describing last year various incidents with the police that people close to me had experienced, and getting reactions ranging from “not all police” to outright dismissals of any possible wrongdoing at the hands of law enforcement."
Mon, 08/10/2015 - 5:38pm
Belle Isle is cool. They were kinda harrassing residents, but the mayor and city council prez talk to them about it. The officers are nice and will stop and chat with you, they know everything and what's getting fixed next.
Nina Bailey
Tue, 08/11/2015 - 9:57am
Thanks for the follow-up Mr. Foley--great article! I appreciate the follow-up...I'm a Detroiter and Black mom of two who's loved Belle Isle for year-even before the state takeover. It certainly had it's problems, but it was a haven and the new police presence has dealt with some of my hesitations when visiting in the past, (the rampant open marijuana use I didn't want my children to see or smell). However, I too feel that stomach-tremble when in the line of sight of a trooper and know it's based in my knowledge of frequent instances of police overreach in interactions with people of color. Also, you reference a "Sandra Blank" in the end of your article...did you mean "Sandra Bland"? Thanks again!
William C. Plumpe
Wed, 08/12/2015 - 9:52am
So. You seem to imply that you are so frightened by police presence that you would feel more comfortable in a Park where illegal activity is going on openly and people are acting in a loud, rude and obnoxious manner with no rules? I am an older, well educated straight Caucasian male and sometimes the police intimidate even me but I'd rather put up with them and feel a whole lot safer and not have the riffraff on Belle Isle because it makes me feel "more at home". Is illegal activity so ingrained in the black psyche that you don't feel really comfortable unless illegal activity is going on nearby? If you feel more comfortable in a Park where there are no rules, illegal activity is going on all the time and people are loud and rowdy---and very "black"---if that makes you feel "more at home" then I suggest you go to Maheras Park at the foot of Alter which has turned into a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes, rowdies and old men fishing. Of course then you might want the police to show up because it's not safe. I opt for increased police presence and safety and security. Maybe you too need to work on your attitude.
Tue, 08/11/2015 - 11:14am
The Black community needs to understand that much if not most of every other ethnic community shares the same fear, particularly in southeastern Michigan. Whites are not exempt from LE abuse.
Tue, 08/11/2015 - 2:37pm
I tried my best to sympathize with Mr. Foley and to take the article seriously. I really did. But sadly at about the 3/4 mark it melted away into just another racist, woe is me diatribe that has run its course. In the end I was left only with sympathy for Mr.Foley for having to venture out each day into a world blurred by his own misconceptions of reality. Sad.
William C. Plumpe
Tue, 08/11/2015 - 4:37pm
Hhhhmmmmm. I am an older, straight well educated Caucasian male who lives about a mile from Belle Isle, I grew up in Detroit in the early 50's, went off to college and came back at age 35 to work and live in the City for 25 years. I am now retired and hang out on Belle Isle almost everyday. I finally feel safe and welcome now that it is a State Park and there are probably two police cruisers of some type on the island at all times---meaning one cop car for every 3/4 of a square mile---probably safer in that regard than anywhere else in the City outside of a police station. And the loud and rowdy teenagers and other very disturbing folks are gone and there is a peace to the island that I don't remember. And while I think the police may have been somewhat picky and fussy initially I don't believe that any major incidents have occurred that would cause you to be afraid. Does the Island have to be loud and boisterous all the time to be "black"? Would that make you more comfortable? It might make you comfortable but it would disturb me. And is there something wrong with having rules? If you want loud and wild and boisterous I suggest you go to Maheras Park at the foot of Alter that appears to have become a hangout for "folks in the hood". No cops there to make you uncomfortable but you might not like some of the rowdy folks that hang there doing very possibly illegal things. I like the peace and quiet on the island and hope it stays that way. I think maybe you should change your attitude and get over your fears. I really don't think the police on Belle Isle are being heavy handed at all--- just making a safe oasis in the middle of the City where people of any color can go for peace and quiet and not expect loud music, rowdy behavior or drug use.
Wed, 08/12/2015 - 5:06pm
Tired. So very, very tired.... It seems to me that Aaron is in a heated race with Darrel Dawsey on who can become completely irrelevant the quickest. This article is completely lacking in substance, except for letting the reading public know how fond you are of trading recipes.
Elizabeth lurie
Mon, 08/31/2015 - 8:19am
After reading the comments, I Had to re read the article because some of the comments seemed so,off base to me. The article is very strait forward. The author was concerned about the state takeover of the park fearing that black people would no longer feel comfortable there. That didn't happen, but as a black male he is still intimidated by the presence of so many police. Anyone who doesn't understand the residue left from the incidents of police brutality against blacks when stopping them for either minor problems probably doesn't understand why when I, a white woman am waiting for an elevator, I will wait for the next one if all I see is one man in the car when the door opens. This is just prudent action. It doesn't mean that I don't trust all men or hate all men. What would you want your daughter, your wife, mother to do?
Tom Wagner
Wed, 09/02/2015 - 4:37pm
Intimidated by a police cruiser with flashing lights in your rear-view mirror? Who isn't! I'm a 73 year old white male and was pulled over for going 40 miles/hour on an empty Belle Isle road. While I didn't fear for my life, I didn't speed again.
Tue, 09/22/2015 - 9:49am
What is the point of building something up in the main part of your article, giving hope for the Isle, then to only indicate that it is not enough? What did you hope to gain? Don't complain but make recommendations to improve. This is far more productive. You need not to have to point out our differences in color to get your point across. It appears your agenda proved to be more of a racist trigger to shoot down what positive things are being done. I am not going to point out my race, color, gender, religion, age but will speak only as a fellow human being and yes we can come together on that point. Good luck on moving forward
Shelley Diekman
Tue, 09/29/2015 - 4:26pm
Mr. Foley -- Thank you very much for your piece. I am distressed by the number of racist comments (many of whom, in the current parlance, accuse you of racism), but I guess that is now usually the case in all comment threads. Thanks again for your insights.