Like most Detroiters, I have a special fondness for Belle Isle. I've lived close to the Detroit River since 2005, and even when I don't walk or bike on the island or enjoy the solitude, which I do fairly often, knowing that our island sanctuary is there provides respite to the soul. So I must say that the thought of a mini Dubai on the river has made my blood run cold.
While that may seem strident, mine is a love justified and echoed across Detroit. Belle Isle has been a source of consolation, refreshment and even poetic inspiration for me. I wrote "Ice Music" several years ago upon hearing for the first time the mysterious sound of ice breaking up during a March thaw. I memorialize a friend in a poem titled "The Extinct Fresh Water Mussels of the Detroit River," listing the beautiful names of vanished mussel species (deer toe maple leaf, fat mucket, snuffbox, rainbow shell) that I found in an exhibit at the Belle Isle Nature Center. For the last two winters there has been no ice on the river. So local instances of global warming and the extinction of species have exacerbated my despair at the notion of Belle Isle as a privatized commonwealth.
As we know, Belle Isle is the handiwork of the great 19th century leader and urban landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted. It's worth remembering that as an egalitarian Olmsted was not only a pioneer for common green public spaces that would enhance the well-being of all members of society. He was also a well-known journalist and abolitionist whose eyewitness reports exposed the miseries of slavery both in the U.S. and abroad. He organized three African-American regiments in the Civil War and was one of the founders of The Nation. His other gifts, such as Central Park and Prospect Park, all wind through moneyed and hardscrabble neighborhoods, bringing disparate people together. To suggest that this jewel fall into the hands of modern-day Birchers (thank you, Stephen Henderson), and on the eve of Martin Luther King Day no less, dishonors both men's legacies and the inclusiveness and faith in the march of ideas that they stand for.
On Jan. 22, four young poets from InsideOut Literary Arts Project will exemplify that faith as they take the stage at Orchestra Hall opening, as we have for the past five years, for Wayne State University's Annual MLK Day Tribute Luncheon. You can view a video (four minutes) of the dynamic 2011 performance here.
I will feature the text and videos of the 2013 poem soon.
In this year's poem composed specifically for the occasion, our youth draw connections between the life they see in front of them and the legacy of Dr. King's dream. This year's poem cites "teddy bears... crucified on telephone poles...white outlines on the playground not drawn by children" and "tragedy made possible by fools with guns." Yet despite our bleak landscape, the youth assert
the opportunity to be green,
the opportunity to take in the sunlight when it comes.
We have this potential
just as they affirm that, through family and education, "visions of survival take root" and help them "grow, dare to imagine, and create... despite the oblivion of darkness."
Our students' affirmation of survival also represents a legacy, a legacy of resistance, from the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement forward, that must be preserved. Fortunately, our city has also been presented with a flexible, integrated, comprehensive and visionary guide for multi-purpose development to promote growth in the future. One of the most hopeful elements of Detroit Future City for me is the notion of establishing neighborhood-based schools, public schools, as community anchors, places that can serve as literacy and cultural hubs where youth can be supported and encouraged to share their light.
And if youth truly are our future, as we adults so often tell them, there's no way Detroit can welcome a supposedly utopian plan that so clearly ignores their promise. Fortunately, as Henderson and Laura Berman point out, the commonwealth idea is gaining little traction. Thanks to support from the Kresge Foundation and the thousands of hours of community conversations and planning undertaken by Detroit Works, we can see a more optimistic alternative before us, one that preserves legacy, confronts economic and environmental problems, and is founded on respect for our city, its citizens and its treasures.