Monday, December 13, 2010

Boat(s) #142, A Tour of Detroit - Canoeing at Belle Isle

Belle Isle is a 982 acre island park that sits smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River. It's the largest island park in the country and at 982 acres it's larger than Central Park in New York City. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. To reach Belle Isle you drive (nobody walks or bikes in Detroit, it's considered blasphemous) over the scenic MacArthur Bridge:Unlike most locations in Detroit, Belle Isle is still in use today. When I was in college I used to attend a weekend pickup soccer game on Belle Isle that resembled a UN summit—Poles, Czechs, Russians, Africans, Lebanese, Mexicans, and of course white kids from the suburbs, all playing together. It was a far cry from Belle Isle's sordid past. Notice anything creepy about the picture below? Look hard. Yep, only white people.

Detroit was way ahead of the rest of the country when it came racial tension. Throughout the early twentieth century Belle Isle was unofficially considered a whites-only resort. On June 20, 1943, two decades before Watts, a race riot broke out on Belle Isle. The riot lasted for three days, killing 43 and wounding 433. Federal troops were brought in to quell the violence. It was no small event so it's peculiar that it seems to have been lost from popular history. Most likely it's because the narrative of the riot doesn't jibe with that of other more well known riots from the latter half of the century—Watts and Detroit in the sixties, L.A. in the nineties. We typically frame those riots as a rising up of the oppressed black minority. The Belle Isle riots were something much much uglier—the white majority instigating violence to create a sense of terror. Ugly stuff. No wonder we'd rather forget.

No comments:

Post a Comment