Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Blast from the Past – Belle Isle

Blast from the Past –
Detroit’s Belle Isle
(Beautiful Island)


It was hot enough for me to put on the air-conditioner last weekend. That’s one thing about Michigan, you’re either hot or cold, there’s no in-between. Back when I was a kid, air-conditioning was a luxury. Father ran a noisy fan propped up in the windowsill on a hot night. During the day we really didn’t notice it as kids. On a hot day, we’d seek shelter under a tree, splash around in the sprinklers, ride around on our bikes, or go on the swings at the park, which kept us pretty cool. I recall those rare days when mom and dad would take a day “offu” from work to take us to Belle Isle. Any Chinese kid knew how rare that was because Chinese parents always worked, they just about never took a day “offu.”


The Uniroyal tire plant (as it stood Jan 1980) signaled that Belle Isle was quickly approaching.


The giant stove stood at Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard heralding the entrance of Belle Isle.


Entrance to Belle Isle located at Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard in Detroit – (Uniroyal sign behind the tree).

Belle Isle adventures were always a Big Event! Special tasty treats were prepared which would be placed on a communal table. It was as if a special feast for the gods were taking place. Only the best ingredients would be used, only the prettiest pieces worthy for inclusion would be selected. The pastries and meats would be loaded into special metal multi-tiered lidded trays and placed into the spacious car trunk along with a couple of blankets. Once the kids piled into the backseat of the car…off we’d go…to Belle Isle, Detroit’s beautiful island on the Detroit River where it was cool and breezy – a perfect place to spend a hot summer’s day!


The ride to Detroit made me sleepy, but mom made sure I was awake when we crossed the bridge, it was so grand seeing the Detroit River and the gorgeous landscaped trees and beautiful flowers along the park’s entrance.


We knew we were getting closer to our final destination when we saw the Scott Fountain…it was a majestic sight to behold. The splashing water tempted the kids to touch it on a hot summer’s day, and the water spitting out of the turtles’ and lions’ mouths delighted the kids and the young-at-heart.


The Belle Isle Casino

The Chinese section was located somewhere nearby the Casino and Scott Fountain (I’m unsure of the exact location). We would find a place to park on the streets and unload our trunk with our friendly offerings. It was a great time, a carefree time, a time to build and renew friendships. The adults would sit and gossip under the protection of the cool shade as the kids frolicked around and played tag about the bushes. We would spend the entire day there and never, ever, do I remember asking mom or dad when it was time to go home.


The Belle Isle Conservatory

Although there were many other diversions to partake of at Belle Isle, such as the Conservatory, we never ventured into these “foreign” places during the days of the Chinese community outings. The entire day would be consumed with socializing with friends, eating, playing, and just enjoying each other’s company. It would be many years later, when I would revisit Belle Isle on my own, that I would realize that Belle Isle had more to offer.


The Belle Isle Aquarium - outside view

The Belle Isle Aquarium - inside view

The Aquarium was situated right next to the Conservatory and housed the most incredible collection of fish I’ve seen for a no-fee aquarium. Decades later, out of necessity, it began charging a nominal admission fee to cover operating costs…still a worthwhile visit.


Merry Go-Round

The Merry-Go-Round was another activity I never participated in but was offered at Belle Isle. There were many other attractions offered at Belle Isle that I haven’t pictured here nor participated in, such as horse rides, free band concerts, nature center, boat club, trails, tennis courts, handball court, places to BBQ, picnic tables, beaches, canoes…I’m sure there’s more. But, the overall beauty of Belle Isle is what one appreciates and takes in when people come to visit.


Pony rides were available at Belle Isle

I love animals and wanted to experience a pony ride, but they looked so sad and tired, I just couldn’t do it. The people I saw, when I went, were being cruel and was whipping the poor pony. I felt sorry for it and decided not to patronize an establishment that didn’t police animal cruelty. Pony rides are no longer offered at Belle Isle.


View of Detroit from Belle Isle

Today, not only can you catch a cool breeze on a hot summer day, but you can also catch a great view of Detroit from Belle Isle.

Those were the days, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the Detroit Chinese would take a day “offu” and get together as a community and as a family. Slowly, the outings diminished, who really knows why. Maybe because, as previously stated, Chinese folks would seldom have a day off. Maybe the affordability of air conditioners allowed people to stay cool at home. Maybe the customers were pissed because all the Chinese restaurants were closed (kidding). Who knows why?

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Blogger Semen Rendi said...

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