A 3-part series. Photos by Stephen Hilton.
The colors are washed out, hazy. The waves pound against the jagged rocks and then spiral back to the river – white noise fills my ears, relaxes my mind. Above me, trees sway and chatter, scruffy and hunched like old men. Ants crawl on the pebbles at my feet, and in the murky depths of the river, fish swim and live their lives. The ephemeral scent of sweet flowers takes me to a place at one with nature.
But there’s another smell -a tangy, rich, and smoky aroma – that distracts me, wakes me up from my reverie. It’s coming from a barbecue. Booming from someone’s car speakers, I can hear what sounds like gunshots, swelling electronic strings, and – should I say this? – an angry black man.
“I’m here now, you ol’ news
Gotta couple ol’ porches, couple ol’ schools
I’ll line ya ass up, push ya tape backwards
‘Cause I’m a real nigga and I don’t like rappers”
Speedboats cut through the water, kicking up white, foamy spray, and people are fishing, eating, swimming, and laughing. This is Detroit, and this is the 982 acre park known as Belle Isle, surrounded by the mighty Detroit River. Across the river, I can see the stop and go traffic along Jefferson Avenue and the sunlight as it scatters against the glass surface of the Renaissance Center.
Young Jeezy keeps on rappin’:
“All the gangstas, they gon’ ride to this
They gon’ grind to this
They gon’ shine to this
This is gangsta music, this is gangsta music, this is gangsta music,
This is gangsta music”
On the island’s infamous “partier’s row”, young inner city black kids stand next to their tricked out sports cars and trucks on the park’s circular three-lane road, red plastic cups with “dark” or “clear” liquor in their hands. They cast sidelong glances at passing cars and eyeball the girls wearing short skirts.
At the same time, a young black couple is getting married at the James Scott Memorial Fountain and a young white couple at the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the families and their friends dressed in nice suits and long dresses.
Sure, so maybe they closed the island’s zoo, and the aquarium is only open one day a week and the there isn’t enough money to keep the greenhouse at the right temperature. It doesn’t really matter too much in the grand scheme of things – this still a beautiful, beautiful park, lush and green, designed by the same guy that was behind New York City’s Central Park. It was another gift from the river, which had already given the city so much to be thankful for.
The Detroit River, after all, was what made Detroit an important, strategic port in the first place. In fact, there wouldn’t have been a city here otherwise.
The Detroit River connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie, and even today, over $100 billion in trade between the United States and Canada crosses the river on the Ambassador Bridge and through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Old factories – a few still open – dot the shore, like gravestone reminders of the river’s past as an important shipping lane. Here, the resources of the world where assembled into products that would in turn change the world. How could we forget?
Of course, industrialization would also turn the Detroit River into a toxic stew of chemicals that its ecosystem is still recovering from, but that was a price we paid for success.