“Several Detroit City Council members slammed the state’s management of Belle Isle…after hearing the city clerk was pulled over by a State Police officer who claimed he was keeping ‘riffraff’ off the island.” –Detroit Free Press, April 30, 2014
Belle Isle rests like a pendant charm where Lake St. Claire narrows into the Detroit River. Both banks widen as if to accommodate this island suspended within a subversion of our understanding of the world—the one place on the map where Canada, by curve of land, is south of the United States. Stand in the isle’s deciduous forest and you’re equidistant between two nations. But gaze from a Detroit high-rise and you see suggestion that the banks and island were once one, the way the land could snug together if pushed. You can imagine how humans, from the Pottowatami, to the Detroit city fathers, to families of all colors could hunger to own this beauty and believe that once claimed, it would always be theirs.
Let’s go, I say to my son after his summer camp finishes for the morning. We drive down I-75 to Jefferson Avenue, grand and wider than traffic calls for and cruise the rented SUV across MacArthur Bridge. We’re visiting from New York and I want him to see what’s important to me. His four year-old mind may never retain visual memories of this trip but I know his body, his heart, will remember all landscapes of his childhood. I want him to know my Detroit roots.
I don’t prize Belle Isle because its master plan was created by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed New York’s Central Park, or because Albert Kahn designed the Casino, the Conservatory, and the Lighthouse. Or because the great white fountain that shoots water 125 feet high was designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the U.S. Supreme Court Building. Yet I benefit from their elegant impositions on the land. Because no one stripped and sold everything that can be shipped down a river, because there’s never been a guard at the bridge telling me I can’t come in, I can slow-drive the same circle I’ve done for years, letting my gaze go for miles in a way impossible on the hard terrarium floor that is New York City, with its building grid that will hide you, outlive you. Maybe today we’ll even glimpse the black deer. On our island, nature is the mirror as well as the dream.
We veer onto the perimeter road and I am a flooded by familiarity. My son plays on the iPad but I take in the lush treetops. The wall of clouds. And downriver: the Renaissance Center, now known as the General Motors world headquarters.
I think to stop. Those clustered silos of glass and metal are as Detroit to me as the Parkcrest or the Madison/Lenox—or any home, standing or demolished, that once was mine. I claim a Detroit that is part monument, part memory mirage over weedy fields. Maybe someday I can convey the old realities to my son. But despite being a writer and being in the business of trying to recreate what no longer exists I am doubtful: born in 1974, I carry no memories of this boomtown in full gilt, and the void is felt. Like hearing stories of your family’s rich old days once the money is gone. Regardless, the tableaus of resurgence and decay have always drawn me. I could park at the island’s western tip and take pictures that plant our flag, let the world know we are here, right now, in July of 2014. But I keep moving. I want to find a playground for my son.
Before moving to New York I led writing workshops in Detroit schools. My students wrote poems of their Friday nights here and I retain their memories of rowdy fun but never gunshots as in other parts of the city. I never thought of Belle Isle as dangerous. I think summertime bliss—of black family BBQs and flirting and a Monte Carlo blaring Frankie Beverly and Maze. Even if in 1967 the men’s bathhouse, long bulldozed, was used to house overflow of arrested rebels, or rioters, depending on your politics. Even if at the end of the 17th century, it’s said the Pottawotami transformed the shards of a destroyed shrine into rattlesnakes and spread them across the island to keep out the French. My memories are the sun-drenched chords of Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me.” The horns of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
But now I curve left and fishermen throw their lines, or talk and gather their gear as I pass, slowly, trying to adhere to the 20mph speed limit. Not too many people around, perhaps because this is a summer noontime on a Tuesday, but I note the fishermen as white guys with the build of men who’ve never feared labor. I am also noticing that the other slow drivers, and bike-riders, and walkers I see are white, and I haven’t seen any black people, not yet.
In 2013, The City of Detroit leased Belle Isle to the State of Michigan. A 30-year lease that is turning the island into a state park. With troopers and an eventual admission charge. A bankrupted city had so far avoided selling off the contents of its world-class art museum but they pawned this jewel to the state. I now hear black people speak of racial profiling. Of State Troopers checking plates. And on this summer’s day, I don’t see any of them.
Where are the black people?
What if Belle Isle really was no longer ours? And then to think: would anybody know we were here? There are no statues of black people. No plaques. Aquariums don’t mark social history. Detroit’s black neighborhoods carry plenty of markers of white residents past. Sometimes it’s the road names like Van Dyke and Lafayette, or custom-designed Tudor houses sold on the cheap or a now-evangelical church bearing Stars of David. Come to think of it, maybe it’s time to declare Belle Isle the capitol of white ghost Detroit, with its fountain erected with funds from a despised rich guy who wanted something built in his honor, the same fountain spurting water as if it were just water, as if there weren’t Detroiters right now with taps turned off for nonpayment. Yet, the Belle Isle of my youth was full of all kinds of people, and so many of them were black, and everything felt natural, the way of the world.
My son and I pass a cottage with vaulted ceilings and sand-colored walls. I’m taken with the park bathrooms-cum-bunkers of such tidy dimensions, built sturdier than new American construction. So much effort made for buildings I try hard to avoid, never knowing how clean they’re kept or what illicit activity could be hidden inside. We pass close enough to see the sign: “comfort station.” I immediately hear “comfort women” the euphemism created to describe those enslaved for sex by the Japanese Army in World War II. Black and white portraits of Chinese, Korean, Filipina women montage through my mind. They named the bridge to Belle Isle after General Douglas MacArthur, titan of the Pacific Theatre. Did no one else see comfort women when they read those words? Probably not. I don’t know. I keep driving but I’m thinking about comfort women hidden in comfort stations. Violence hidden in language. What we don’t see unless someone makes it plain.
The island keepers don’t wish to encourage these associations, I’m sure. And nowhere have I seen mention that Belle Isle was nicknamed Bella Jima during World War II. For the U.S. Navy and Marines used this island as practice. How to conquer an island. How to seize control. I don’t even know this nickname until later, once I do research, after I have cause to think more deeply about this place that for so long I just took for granted.
Right now, I’m still looking for a playground.
There is a State Trooper parked on the shoulder. I take the foot off the gas. I’m at 25mph which is mighty slow but still over the limit. I’ve heard even the new white mayor has been pulled over on Belle Isle. I eye the cruiser, so much like an alligator at the side of the road. He doesn’t move. My son sings along to Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff.” I shield him from guns, real and imaginary, but the song feels like a folk-song and I let it play.
We round the southeastern curve of the perimeter road and there it is: a jungle gym. The structure stands in the middle of a green field, far, yet visible, like a shrine. There is a parking lot and I pull in, park away from another car. Maybe there are two other cars. On the road, there’s an older white couple biking, a husband and wife, or divorcees on a date, but I see no one else here. In the mind’s quick math I know my son and I are isolated yet visible, and with instinct, or despite instinct I kill the engine.
We’re here! I jump out to open his door and free my son of the seat’s restraints. He climbs out and we racewalk together, excited. I tie my jacket around my waist for the wind is coming off the water. In one hand, my keys, my other hand, my phone. I take photos of my son each day to send to his father, who is back in New York working while we visit my parents. My son in a spectacular setting will push me to take several shots and I am walking and snapping as my son runs towards the structure.
As does a woman. She must have approached fast for I missed her earlier. She is dressed in an athletic tanktop and shorts so perhaps she ran here and was so quick off the drive that she bested my usual awareness.
The phone trembles in my hand. The text reads Welcome Abroad! To call back to the US, dial +1 followed by 10-digit number. Please be advised international rates apply.
AT&T thinks I’m in Canada and there is a flash of unease inside me, for I am here but a mighty voice has said I am not. The flash is not unlike those scenes in movies when the phone cord gets cut. I worry about extra charges, calls going through. I worry about my coordinates being correct. Our phones pinpoint our locations at all times in a way many find dystopian but I find reassuring. 911 is a miracle of human cooperation and I wish to live within this network of call and response. To live believing that if I call for help, I will be answered.
I’m holding my phone in one hand and my keys in another when I look again at the woman. Mid-20s. White. She reminds me of a tough crew woman on a varsity team. But she doesn’t look at me. Or, she looks, but she does none of the things I’ve learned to do to telegraph peaceful intent to a stranger, especially one alone with her young child. She offers no smile. No words of hello. No friendly engagement with my son. No nod. I am looking at her, ready to be friendly, waiting for eye contact. I live in New York now and every walk outside requires hundreds of assessments, blinks of size-up to know: is the oncomer friend or foe?
And suddenly I am putting my phone and my keys in my jacket pockets for I don’t know what kind of moment this is. I may need my hands. She is a woman without keys and phone. A physical force moving. Her look is intense as she jumps up to the jungle gym’s horizontal ladder and makes her way across. I watch my son as he climbs up a short stairs, and I watch her, watch her every motion, for she could be here to rob me. She could be here for worse. My phone thinks I’m in Canada. From the perimeter road, we are just three figures. So much can happen in the time it takes for others to know your distress. And in this moment, there is no cavalry. There is just me and whatever I must do to protect my son.
The woman jumps to the ground. Maybe she is cross-training and so engaged with her workout she has pushed us to her periphery. She still doesn’t smile. Doesn’t say hello. My son investigates a small slide and I see the cobwebs near the poling. Whoever mowed the field has not edged the grass—there are tall, weedy tufts clutching every pole where it meets the ground, something I’ve never seen at well-used jungle gyms back in New York. What kind of ghost playground have I brought my son to I wonder, never not-looking at the woman, never not-looking at my son, my hands free of encumbrance. My heart clenched with the not-knowing.
Then the woman leaves. Like that. Gone. Relief washes through me and I climb closer to my son, to see what he sees in a plastic tunnel. It’s a dingy washcloth. My son walks away but I am disgusted. I can’t help but think of intimate clean-up, the kind of hygiene the comfort station was meant to hide, and even if the sex was consensual, and I am assuming that sex was involved, it was here where children should be safe from the will to fuck and be fucked, on this territory built just for them.
Let’s leave soon, OK? I should say now but my son is investigating the tallest covered slide. When he squeals: there’s insects in here! I say let’s go. I scoop him up and he does not resist. We never look back. We just get in the car and once he is belted, we drive out of the parking lot. I’ll point out the weeping willow. Later, I will hope that’s what he remembers. For when I will see the jungle gym in my mind it falls apart into snakes, snakes slithering fast away, and there is not even the dust fall of an imploded building left behind, there are just a sky full of clouds, breaking apart.
In the car, we pass the nature center, and for the first time I see black people—children, for they are on a field trip and the bus marks them as from suburban Farmington Hills. We pass the driving range, and curve westbound once more, pass the empty beach, completing the circuit, and as slow and steady as possible we depart the island.
But not before I see two kayakers who look strong, and old—old enough to remember this island before me. A white couple, near the boathouse. Paddling, steady, one oar dips, then the other. They hug close to the island, look focused on the exercise. I imagine their concern is each other and the river, that neither is worried about their car, whether the door is locked or not, for everything seems better now, quieter, safe.
Stacy Parker Le Melle is the author of the memoir Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House (Ecco/HarperCollins) and served as the primary contributor to Voices from the Storm: the People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath (McSweeney’s). She serves as workshop director for the Afghan Women's Writing Project.