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City Kids: Belle Isle kicks off a kid-friendly spring








It has been a hard winter in Detroit thanks to the polar vortex and a record amount of snowfall.
 
But the voice of the turtle can be heard ever so faintly as sunshine and green things replace wind chill and blackened snow piles.
 
As we start to poke our heads out of our houses again with stirrings of hope in our hearts, many of us will wander to Belle Isle State Park, formerly the nation's largest city-owned island park.
 
The State of Michigan took control of Belle Isle earlier this year, and not without controversy. Yet there is hope for better times. Could Belle Isle finally be a place where parents bring their kids to play without fears of broken glass, nonfunctioning bathrooms, and what one desperately hopes is bird (not human) poop on paths and surfaces?
 
Michele Hodges thinks so. Her group, the Belle Isle Conservancy, has worked hard to revitalize the island in recent years. And she is optimistic about the island's future under state control.
 
The Conservancy will continue its traditional roles: providing programming on the island, fundraising, and maintaining some of the island's historic structures, such as the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. The Conservancy's efforts, however, will benefit greatly from the help of its new partner and its deep resources.
 
For its part, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will provide educational programing around environmental stewardship, wildlife, forests, and fisheries. The DNR also promises to expand fishing opportunities on the island this year.
 
The DNR is also taking significant steps to upgrade the island's infrastructure.
 
Picnic area and bathrooms are already seeing improvements. The DNR has repaired missing boards on picnic tables and re-roofed shelters. Perhaps the most noticeable and crucial upgrade that families with young children will notice is that bathrooms are working again.
 
In another big score for the Conservancy, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, long dormant, will be flowing on weekends for the first time in many years.
 
"It's a beautiful gift to the community, and we're really excited to bring it up to modern standards," Hodges says. "I hope it's seen by the community and shows how much we care about the park and want to make sure it's operating at its highest level."
 
Another favorite stop on the island, the Belle Isle Aquarium, has some exciting news. Now open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Aquarium is expanding hours starting in June and will be open both Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.
 
This year is a milestone year for two of Belle Isle's most storied institutions. The Aquarium celebrates its110th anniversary this summer and the Detroit Boat Club Crew (the oldest continuously-operated rowing club in North America) will celebrate its 175th anniversary at its boathouse located on the island next to the McArthur Bridge. 
 
Another longstanding Belle Isle tradition, the annual koi transfer, will take place on Saturday, April 26 at 10 a.m. The koi fish that live in the Conservatory's ponds have spent the winter hanging out and staying warm in the basement of the aquarium. Saturday marks the day they get reacquainted with their outdoor pond with the help of bucket-toting scouting groups.
 
"There are lots of and lots of them, and it takes several hours," Hodges says. "The kids really get into it. One of the koi is 80-plus years old."
 
In addition to the koi transfer, there's also the 9th annual spring 5K run at 8 a.m. and the annual spring cleanup of the island on Saturday (visit the Conservancy's website for details).
 
The island’s improvements are not limited to outdoor facilities. The Dossin Great Lakes Museum underwent a major renovation in 2013.
 
"Just about every square foot of the museum is brand new," says Bob Sadler, director of marketing and sales for the Detroit Historical Society, which runs the museum.
 
In addition to exhibits like the Miss Pepsi 1950s hydroplane boat, the SS William Clay Ford's pilot house, the gothic room from the City of Detroit III, and a ship model collection, the Dossin has added a brand new permanent exhibit called "Built by the River," which shows how Detroit's position in the center of the Great Lakes has influenced the way we work, socialize, and play.
 
"The exhibit highlights how Detroiters have used the river and lakes around us to build our industries, engage our neighbors, and pursue our recreational passions," Sadler says.
 
The Dossin Museum is also expanding its hours, open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays and weekends starting June 13 through Labor Day weekend. Sadler says they have already noticed a significant surge in attendance. On April 12, for example, 443 people visited the Dossin -- almost three times an average Saturday during this time of year.
 
A park for the people
 
Belle Isle is a place where people from diverse social groups can interact and get to know each other. Gather around the playscape on a nice afternoon and you will see kids (and their parents) who represent all kinds of Detroiters thundering around playing tag and hide and seek with kids they've just met and might never otherwise get to know.
 
On a recent Friday, Jesse Clark of Southfield was there with his two kids, ages 5 and 2. He said he goes to the park a few times a year and would love to see better maintenance.
 
"I would like to see more renovations of these historic buildings," he says. "I've been to other state parks and the facilities are open and they are nice and clean."
 
Amy Rhoades, who lives in Detroit's Green Acres neighborhood, has been visiting Belle Isle for years with her family and was there with a big family group for a picnic and baseball game. She feels undeterred by the admission fee (motorists pay $11 annually for a State Parks pass, though the island remains free to cyclists and pedestrians), and hopes the state lives up to its promises so the city's resources can be spent elsewhere.
 
"If they do what they say they are going to do, it frees up Detroit parks money for other parks," says Rhoades.
 
Michelle Hodges of Belle Isle Conservancy says the island represents something really important to the people of Detroit.

"People are looking for something very authentically Detroit," she says. "There is a level of connectedness that is something other parks across the country can only dream of."

Photos by Marvin Shaouni www.marvinshaouni.com

Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Model D's "City Kids" series.
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