Day 4: Detroit (Belle Isle)

Belle Isle

There appears to be no train into Detroit from the South (ironic or appropriate as that may be). After the red-eye from Buffalo, Amtrak transfers us to a bus for the service into Motor City.  A stuffed panda joins the group.

Waking up to Detroit.

On his journey to the South in 1853, on commission for the New-York Daily Times, Olmsted produced (his biographer Rybczynski notes) fourteen articles in two weeks in Virginia, and “only” four more in the following six weeks. I feel lucky to be able to squeeze off six blog posts in the first half of my journey; three weeks later, I am still writing the seventh installment.

The walk to my hotel: unimaginable destruction. The pedestrian view and the view from the car are different. Only the maimed and the insane walk the streets, it seems, leaning into the viscous air or sitting back on the slope. Even the revitalized downtown circulates on an elevated tramway, two stories above—from casino to casino. The first park I find is the Veterans Memorial Park of Detroit.

and a bit down Woodward, Detroit Condos

looking on eyeless buildings

with a camouflaged outhouse

The Fox

signal is strength.

“Several spheres are working together to create the single entity.”

On Fort, a police officer ditches her motorcycle into a mail truck.

Free Press


A ride to Belle Isle with the hotel shuttle. “Belle Isle!?” the driver exclaims, “What do you want to go there for?”

“We used to use it all the time in the ‘seventies.  I used to take my kids there—they loved the Giant Slide.  There’s a legend they called this snake island, then pig island.  They put the pigs there to eat the snakes.  They don’t keep it up no more.  Just, you know, if you want to drive your lady there, do some smoochin’.”

Central Avenue, Belle Isle

Wah-na-be-zze (White Swan) Island, according to the Ottowa and Ojibwa. Rattlesnake Island (1620). Isle lay Marguerite (1701). Isle au Ste. Clair (18th century). Isle aux Cochons (1759). Belle Isle (1845), in honor of Miss Isabelle Cass, daughter of Governor Lewis Cass.

Whether the hogs were put on the island to eat the snakes, or to protect the hogs from coyotes, or to protect crops from the hogs.

James Fisher’s family murdered there in Pontiac’s siege of Detroit 1763.

Lieutenant George McDougall occupies the island (by fiat of King George III) in 1768. Purchased from the Ojibwa and Ottawa for eight barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, six pounds of vermilion, and a wampum belt.

Belle Isle deed and Wampum belt from Ottawa and Chippewa nations to Lt. George McDougall for Hog Island in the Detroit River on May 5, 1769. The animal figures serve as the signatures of the Native Americans on the contract selling the island to the British. (Photo and caption from a Detroit News feature on the Detroit Public Library’s special collections.)

In 1780 the King’s cattle and a Mr. Riddle moved to the island.

After 1851 it became a summer resort, with ferry service.

Chief Sleeping Bear hid his beautiful daughter in a covered boat on the Detroit River. The winds blew the covers off that boat and it floated past the keeper of the water gates, who brought the young beauty into his tent. The enraged winds beat the keeper to death and returned the daughter to Chief Sleeping Bear, who placed her on an island in the Detroit River, surrounded with snakes. The Great Spirits immortalized her by transforming her into a white doe, also known as Snake Goddess of Belle Isle.

The water-gate keeper was buried on Isle au Peche, where his spirit remains. His voice is heard as wind in the trees, only by those prepared through fasting and meditation. Chief Pontiac spent a week on Isle au Peche, before his war against the English, to fast and seek the wisdom of the water-gate keeper.

The city of Detroit purchased the island for $180,000 in 1879 and changed the name to “Belle Isle Park” in 1881.

After building parks in Manhattan (1858-76), Brooklyn (1865-95), Buffalo (1868-), Chicago (1870-95), Montreal (1873-93), and Boston (1878-), amongst other projects, Olmsted is hired in 1881 to develop a plan for Belle Isle Park. He will resign from the project in 1885, although his plan was accepted by the Detroit City Council.

Olmsted’s Means

Olmsted approached Belle Isle as he did every project, with attention to the particular “genius” of the place. The prevalence of the three Brownian (after Capability Brown) landscape elements—great lawns, clumps of trees, sheets of water—in his park designs obscures their variety, the extent to which each proposes a unique solution to the particular opportunities and problems of a given site. “Trees, turf, rural beauty, and open air” would remain “essential” constants, yet Olmsted’s design for San Francisco (which the city chose not to adopt) differs as much from his designs for New York as the climate of the Bay Area differs from that of the lower Hudson valley. And both differ significantly from his plans for Belle Isle.

Olmsted’s designs also,  increasingly as his career develops, pursue a pragmatic notion of economy: “if economy lies in a close adaptation of means to ends, it equally lies in a close adaptation of ends to means” (The Park for Detroit;  all further Olmsted quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from this privately published open letter to Detroit). Economy is gauged to the effect the park’s “distant prospect” will have on its users—educating their imagination, their taste and habits of recreation.

The temporality of the “inner park” is bound to the extra-human time of trees. It is hard to imagine that Olmsted never fully experienced the grandeur of his parks as we know them. It is equally hard to imagine the resistance he met with, in proposing and executing his designs. The conundrum is that, “a plan for a park adapted to the conditions . . . and to the existing habits, demands, and expectations of the people . . . is unlikely to fully accord with views that will later be taken of the matter.” Economy of means entails taking into account not a fixed effect but a learning curve, hybrid, liminal: a spatialization of signs and a signifying space, in degrees of consciousness. “Those things in a park, which, when first seen, excite the most interest, soon fail, as a rule, to hold attention, and are often a disturbing element, rather than an enhancement, of the pleasure of its habitual frequenters.”

Olmsted objected when Detroit tied financing of the park to city politics and to regular appropriations from the city budget, subject each year to tax-payer approval: “the outlay shall be limited from  year to year by concurrent votes of both branches of the Council, to be taken in the midst of the park working-season; so that those in charge, when setting about work in the spring, will be uncertain of their means for carrying it on.”  This flawed arrangement would lead to Olmsted’s resigning from the project for Belle Isle (having learned his lessons from twenty-five years of dealing with Central Park).

Identifying the consistent, long range “genius of place,” and what aspects of it might be achieved economically in the short term, Olmsted pursues what he calls “The Necessity of Consistency of Style to Economy.” First moves are crucial, as when a housekeeper “sets out to furnish a room, the first article she [sic] buys for it, though but a single chair or table cover, settles much as to everything else.” The choice of investment must be long-range.

One invests not in things but in an effective sequence: “the degree and method of [the park’s] action [on the minds of those using it] will be more determined by the order, sequence, and relation one to another, of different objects, than by their intrinsic qualities.”

One invests not in a goal but in the efficacy of the gesture. The damage in “catchpenny, smart, ‘decorative’ things” is not in their cost but “in the injury to everything else which comes with their introduction.” Thus, “the constant complaints of shabbiness, and the futile attempts to relieve it by additional finery, in certain parks.” The park-maker, faced with present means, heeds the Morris injunction: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

The present means to which the park-maker adapts ends, then, is at once environmental, economic, social, cultural. Finances are only the beginning of means. And yet finances are fundamental. Olmsted would take the Pinchot path, appealing repeatedly to the bottom line; transcendentalism à la Muir creeps into his prose mainly as endless variations on “groups and masses and single outstanding trees, with glades giving light onto them.”

At the same time, the bottom line is transcendental. Identifying the economy of the park and locating the “general tone or character,” what Olmsted calls the “poetic theme” of the park, are one and the same: “economy . . . to avoid disturbances, interruptions, and discords of the poetic theme.”

Olmsted locates the work of the park-maker in the imaginary, in this phase of persuasion with limited means: “a critical period, during which the advantages to be attained by it will not be known by experience; when they will be wholly imaginary, and will be taxing imagination in fields far outside of the ordinary business experience of most Detroiters, when the taxation in behalf of the park will inevitably be large relatively, not only to the benefits immediately available, but even to those plainly recognized to be distantly coming due.”

An imaginary, but an imaginary with a price tag.

The practical and the poetic (or impractical) continually cross and fuse in Olmsted, like the two senses of “taxation,” a snake biting its own tail. The contortions and amplitude of his undulating syntax, taxed with orienting sensibility toward an imagination the writer ultimately doubts (“taxing imagination in fields far outside of the ordinary”), groan with the longhand work of arguing the impractical in practical terms. (“A sufficiently full verbal explanation . . . will better serve a sound public opinion than discussion of a finished drawing.”) In contradicting himself, he resembles his contemporary, Whitman.

Olmsted might have been happier writing poetry. Instead he chose to confront and resolve his contradictions in politics, in the sphere of material, public commitment.

“You must have a few simple, distinct objects in view, and must provide for these in a liberal, strong, quiet, and thoroughly satisfying way, guarding with all possible care against inconsistencies and discords.”

What long-lasting features of the site can be brought into play more quickly?

“By thus bringing considerable parts and features of a park rapidly into a condition of complete fitness for use, the public of all classes has been influenced to cheerfully accept at once whatever rules were necessary to the proper enjoyment of it, and thus to fall easily into customs, habits, and demands, harmonious with its design.”

If his arguments ring of the social engineering all too ingrained in so much urban planning, what’s notable is that Olmsted places blame for any failure of the park squarely on the shoulders of the park maker. And he subjects the design ultimately to the ratification (however teasingly “educated”) of the democratic masses.

Olmsted located the “poetic theme” of Belle Isle in its woods. “Shall it, for example, be fine, delicate, and subtile, like most written poems, or shall it have more of the quality of Burns’s verse, racy of the soil?” He was attracted to the unique geography of an island park (and indeed Belle Isle remains the largest island city park in the United States), where “the foil and vantage for perspective of broad openings of unbroken greensward . . .  is served by the broad expanses of water with which its woodland scenery must be associated.” Olmsted insists, “The essential merit of the park will lie in the extent, purity, congruity, and unsophisticated quality, of its main body of woodland.”

A year later, in his follow up pamphlet, Olmsted repeats the point: “An economical management of Belle Isle will never be possible if the necessity is forgotten, in discussions of its plan, of considering the relations of every feature to the purpose of maintaining the larger part of it, congruously, in the condition of a great, unencumbered, open-wooded, sun-penetrated, and breeze-swept pasture.”

Olmsted modeled most of his parks on spaces he had experienced in Europe; plans for Belle Isle emulate the tracts of forest plantation one finds throughout France and even in England, the original “parks,” or “parks-proper,” to be distinguished from the “kept grounds,” of great houses and chateaux. Olmsted specifically mentions the “Royal Park of Windsor”—where “large numbers of cows and sheep, as well as deer, are appropriately and profitably pastured”—also Fontainebleau.

Belle Isle, then, was to provide unadulterated forest, and country pasture (minus the typical picturesque features), for the relief of Detroit. Olmsted’s proposal would incorporate a third element—canals—with a nod to the “island park” of Stockholm: “highways of pleasure, in which boats would be used instead of carriages.” Canals would draw on the flow of the Detroit river to drain the low, wet areas of the island , eliminating pools “available to the propagation of typhoid, malarial, and other zymotic poisons.” For Olmsted—who in the couple of years prior to the Belle Isle commission had begun a massive drainage project disguised as a park in Boston’s Back Bay Fens, to improve a sewage overload on the Muddy River—the poetic theme almost always begins with drainage.

In some respects, Belle Isle today, in broad outlines, retains the key features of Olmsted’s proposal. It even has (or had, until recently) its white deer. The park must be measured not against what it was but against what it continually strives to be.

Naturally, I was eager to discover the woods.

First, Union General Alpheus Starkey Williams, consulting a map. Williams was a general who never received much public recognition. Despite fighting in important commands, he remained — outside the West Point network, stationed in the Shenandoah Valley, not a self-promoter with the newspapers — a brigadier general throughout most of the war. Author of the well-regarded book, From the Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters of General Alpheus S. Williams.

Then the water slide

and the zoo.

Zoo Exit

These attractions Olmsted’s plan would have confined to the western end of the island, convenient to the ferry landing, the only means of access at that time. These were what the hotel chauffeur missed about the island. These were easy to photograph. However instinctively I did not photograph people.

The driver dropped me on Shadownook Street. The wild end

with its snakes

and its thickets hiding white deer.

“To this day, the maiden’s spirit can be seen . . .

dancing in the wind . . . the Snake Goddess of Belle Isle . . .

often mistaken . . . as a deer.”

Working together to restore our communities.

Sentences on Trees

“The essential merit of the park will lie in the extent, purity, congruity, and unsophisticated quality, of its main body of woodland”

“comparatively few completely fine, and many distorted, decaying, and sickly trees”

“of species the most valuable that could be selected, by openness to breezes, cooled and ozoned by passing over the adjoining flowing waters”

“characteristics that will always distinguish them from trees originally springing up apart, or in small groups in the open, and grown each with all the food and elbow-room and sunlight it could ask . . .

expressive of lawn-like luxury, dressiness, and fine accomplishments”

“a gradual process of development of beauty in groups and masses and single outstanding trees, with glades giving light to them”

“the disposition of the woods, the direct, truthful vigor of necessary constructions, and the refined fitness of details”

“other large parts are marshy; and in these there are constant pools, with rushy and bushy borders”

“a healthy, moderately open, and scattered but sturdy and umbrageous forest development”

“low and moist and poachy in the spring”

Nectar feeders on Belle Isle

I have reached Blue Heron Lagoon, at the east end of the island.

This must be the “nature” end of the park. With interpretive signage, sponsored by the Nature Zoo (sequel to the zoo).

Bringing the wilds of Michigan to the heart of Detroit

In armies

and knots

Aliens and


and answers

Gone fishing

by the boardwalk

around the lagoon.

“This ground would appear a simple meadow, with an umbrageous border on one side, and the river on the other.”

The road to the William Livingstone Memorial Light

listening for the water-gate keeper

Carbon Neutral Superbowl XL

plants 2,500 seedlings (in 2006)

The Greening of Detroit

Albert Kahn’s marble lighthouse, completed in 1930, the only all marble light in the nation—a gift from the Lake Carriers Association and the citizens of Detroit.

Beyond the lighthouse, looking toward Lake St. Clair. The water gates

the waves, crickets, and cicadas grinding their scissors. Motor City traffic.

Droning hypnotists competing for your sleep.

Grilling station. “To restore the balance

these plants must be removed.”

The lagoon, from the east end

More interpretation

and sumac.

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