Is Belle Isle doing enough to attract young Detroiters?

For generations, Belle Isle has been a Detroit destination for family gatherings, school field trips and scenic wedding photos. And for Black Detroiters, the island has held a special significance as a refuge for celebrations and culture. 

But the iconic island park has lost a bit of its luster, according to some younger Detroiters. 

“There’s not anything there for me,” Jaye Fisher, a 21-year-old Detroiter, told BridgeDetroit. “I went there with my family when I was a kid, but I haven’t had a reason to go there since high school, when I couldn’t really hang out in other places in the city.”

There have been many changes at Belle Isle since the state took control of island operations under a long-term lease negotiated amid Detroit’s bankruptcy. The shift brought more outside visitors, funding and upkeep to the island. But some Detroiters, advocates and city officials say it also led to more challenges with park access and a heightened presence of state police and conservation officers that some young people say has created an atmosphere that makes them feel less welcome.

Belle Isle is an iconic Detroit destination, but some younger people feel that there aren’t enough activities and spaces that make them feel welcome. (Photo by Bryce Huffman)

Even City Council President Mary Sheffield has noticed fewer young people on Belle Isle. Sheffield said she regards the island park as a “jewel,” but made clear to state parks officials during a recent public meeting that young people don’t always see it that way. 

“Overall, I believe that the state troopers, coupled with the entry fees, have deterred youth from feeling welcomed and patronizing the island,” Sheffield told BridgeDetroit. 

Sheffield told the state Department of Natural Resources during an annual update with council members this spring that she believes the lack of youth interaction with the island is partly related to the changing demographics of downtown Detroit – about three miles from the Belle Isle bridge. The issues began, she said, when the state took control of the park in 2014. 

There’s been a shift of activity, she said, from Belle Isle to Greektown and to the Riverwalk. 

“When I talk to our young people, I often hear that (Belle Isle) is underutilized, there’s nothing to do on Belle Isle,” Sheffield told DNR officials in May. “They want to see more (welcoming) activities take place.”

Ayo Thomas, a community engagement associate with the Belle Isle Conservancy, said she’s noticed a change in the way the island is perceived by some Detroiters since the state stepped in. Many, she said, disengaged with the park after sentiments of a “state takeover” escalated during the bankruptcy. But she reiterates to people that Belle Isle is still owned by the city of Detroit. 

“I think people need to just understand that (Belle Isle) has not been taken,” she said. “It’s still a park for Detroiters.”

The increased presence of Michigan State Police officers has many younger residents “feeling watched” land “being monitored,” added Fisher. 

According to the Michigan State Police, from May 2022 through June of this year, there were 43 stops, 17 citations, 32 verbal warnings, three misdemeanors and two now-closed homicide cases as well as one juvenile apprehension on Belle Isle. 

First Lt. Michael Shaw, the public information officer for MSP, told BridgeDetroit that MSP’s goal is to “make everyone who visits the island feel safe and secure.”

“If someone’s intent is to come on the island and bother other people trying to have fun, or violating state laws or park rules then yes, we will have a conversation with them,” Shaw said. “We continue to see large crowds on the island and receive many great comments from young and older (visitors) alike about their experiences on the island.”

The DNR Law Enforcement Division (DNR LED), which also patrols the park, keeps separate statistics from MSP. From January 2022 to December 2022, the DNR had a total of 24,874 contacts with park visitors but wrote just 515 citations. The most common citations – roughly 30 percent – were for parking violations. Another 28 percent were issued for speeding motorists. The department also arrested 323 people who had outstanding warrants.

First Lt. Todd Szyska, with the DNR, said in an email that he understands “people have varied experiences with law enforcement” and that not everyone views police presence in the same way.

“Our conservation officers undergo cultural sensitivity training as a routine part of their overall education,” he said. “We seek to understand and effectively serve all the communities we are charged with protecting.”

people enjoying a sunny day in Belle Isle DetroitBelle Isle file photo (Cybelle Codish)

Angelica Williams, a 20-year-old Detroit resident and Wayne State University student, said over-policing concerns are certainly a contributing factor to the lack of young people on the island. Having a greater presence of police officers and security guards can be a good thing, she said but it doesn’t always make people feel safer.

“In the state of our current world, I do think that there’s a level of sensitivity to the presence of police,” Williams told BridgeDetroit. “And I think that this is definitely true when it comes to state police because Detroiters look at state police and city police very differently.”

Williams said something as small as the shift from seeing Detroit officers to state police officers reminds her of the overall changes to the way Detroit spaces feel to her as a lifelong Detroiter. 

“We kind of are in this period for the past decade where we saw this slow shift from Detroit being a space for Detroiters to Detroit being a space for what other people think Detroit should be,” she said. “Belle Isle is just one more space in the city that gives off that feeling.”

As it relates to attractions, Thomas said “everyone loves Belle Isle.” Karis Floyd, park manager for Belle Isle Park and Milliken State Park, said that the state is actively working to get younger people more involved on the island. 

Floyd said that the DNR reaches out to schools and recreation centers across Detroit about activities for youth at Belle Isle, which is the second most visited state park in the country. 

Thomas, a Detroit native, said she grew up taking field trips to Belle Isle and visiting the park regularly from a young age. But Thomas has noticed “a group of current teenagers and young adults” who are less familiar with the park.

“With things like the Belle Isle Zoo and the Aquarium and even the Giant Slide not being open – or at least not being opened in the same capacity for many years – there is a whole generation of Detroiters who simply don’t have an attachment to certain things on the island,” Thomas said.

The city’s troubled public transportation system doesn’t help the problem, either, she said. 

There is always the issue of getting people to and around the island, but conversations are ongoing and a multimodal mobility study is underway to alleviate some of those challenges at the park, she said. 

Paul Jones III, an urban planner and mobility advocate, is a Detroit native who last year published the map “visioning a better future” for Belle Isle. 

Jones imagines the island making better use of the shuttle system it introduced last year, adding several stops to the route. He also suggested Detroiters get more involved with the entities that make decisions about Belle Isle’s use, such as the Belle Isle Conservancy and the DNR. 

Jones said he sees Belle Isle as a big “missed opportunity” to create a park that lives up to its potential. 

“The DNR is really good at doing conservation work. They’re really good at restoring habitats, doing really important ecological work that goes into parks but they are not really skilled when it comes down to thinking about programming and how people actually use the space,” he said. 

Thomas said the conservancy sees “lots of teens with their families and school groups” at its Keep Belle Isle Beautiful programming, which started in 2017 as an anti-littering campaign on the island. The park also sees a lot of participation from teens and young adults during art exhibits, such as the World Ocean Day exhibition in June, she noted. 

Previously, the DNR partnered with Michigan State University to create the Stepping Stones program, which took kids ages eight to 15 to parks in metro Detroit, including Belle Isle. The program introduced young people to outdoor recreation activities like camping, fishing, water studies and archery. The DNR said more than 3,000 children participated in the program, but there aren’t any numbers around how many participated at Belle Isle specifically. Stepping Stones has been in limbo since program head Gary Williams retired in 2020.

Aside from Stepping Stones, Metro Detroit Youth Day is held every July on Belle Isle and is geared toward kids between the ages of 8 and 15. The DNR organizes school and summer camp field trips on the island with State Park Explorer Guide programs and the Belle Isle Conservancy hosts field trips in partnership with Detroit’s public school district as well as schools from across the state. Other activities include guided tours of the aquarium and conservatory, kayaking and birding programs. 

girl standing outside a play groundBelle Isle file photo (Cybelle Codish) 

Sheffield said she will continue to work with the Belle Isle Conservancy to “ensure inclusivity of Belle Isle.”

“I remain committed to receiving feedback from community members and the youth on programming and activation that will encourage attendance and participation,” she said. 

Thomas said the conservancy and Sheffield’s office have been in conversation about what additional youth programs and attractions might look like and “we’re still very much figuring it out.” 

Sheffield has suggested to DNR officials that an amusement park on the island might spark more interest for young people who are too old for some of the educational programs, which are mostly aimed at people under 18. 

Fisher said an amusement park “sounds like a cool idea” and Williams said she would love to see a ferris wheel as one of the island’s summertime attractions. 

“As far as how they could get more young people involved, I think it’s about giving us some creative control in the layout of the island, or maybe even art exhibits that let us have some creative footprint in the way new attractions look,” Williams said. “The bottom line is (the city and the state) need to include the demographics they are trying to get on the island.”

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