Detroit’s Belle Isle Park threatened by privatisation

This video is called Belle Isle Park, Detroit, Michigan.

By Tom Mackaman in the USA:

Detroit’s Belle Isle, Frederick Law Olmsted and popular access to culture

28 September 2013

In his talk this summer, “The defense of culture and the crisis in Detroit,” WSWS arts editor David Walsh noted that “popular access to culture was a product of social revolution, in this country (above all, the Civil War) and globally,” and that the “destruction of the slavocracy was seen as a blow against the aristocratic principle. … The generation, the population that emerged from the Civil War, which had gone through tremendous hardships to defend the Union and defeat slavery, was hungry for knowledge, progress, culture.”

Frederick Law Olmsted—America’s foremost landscape architect—was guided by such sentiments in creating the original 1883 design for Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, which, like the masterpieces in the Detroit Institute of Arts, has been sized up by politicians and the financial elite for sale or liquidation. Disgustingly, developer Rodney Lockwood has proposed, for example, to buy Belle Isle for $1 billion and “turn the island into a private city-state with a focus on free market capitalism and limited government.” (CBS Detroit)

The 983-acre island is the largest municipal island park in the US and has been enjoyed by generations of city residents, although budget cuts have resulted in serious deterioration. In addition to Olmsted’s design, which was never fully realized, the island boasts Scott Fountain, designed by Cass Gilbert, and the Albert Kahn-designed Whitcomb Conservatory.

Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle

Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle

Olmsted (1822-1903), born in Hartford, Connecticut, began his astonishing career as a landscape architect with the design for Central Park in New York City in 1857. In the course of the next four decades—interrupted only by his direction of the US Sanitary Commission (a forerunner of the Red Cross) during the Civil War—he and his firm designed some of the most beautiful and enduring public spaces in the US and Canada, including scores of public parks, nature reserves, college campuses and grounds of government buildings.

Frederick Law Olmstead

Frederick Law Olmstead

It is not possible in this article to list all of these, but of particular note are public park systems in Milwaukee and Buffalo, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, Highland Park in Rochester, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, Cornell University, the University of Chicago and Trinity College campuses, Niagara Falls State Park and the grounds around the US Capitol building in Washington. The list goes on and on.

The democratic spirit at work in Olmsted’s designs, like that of many of his generation, arose from his political experiences and especially the struggle against slavery. According to historian Charles E. Beveridge, “From his New England heritage [Olmsted] drew a belief in community and the importance of public institutions of culture and education. His southern travels and friendship with exiled participants in the failed German revolutions of 1848 convinced him of the need for the United States to demonstrate the superiority of republican government and free labor.”

Olmsted’s opposition to the aristocratic principle was crystallized by his work as a journalist before the Civil War, when he produced one of the more penetrating and enduring analyses of the Old South in his first-hand Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom. In a remarkable passage, Olmsted described the damaging effect on culture and public life that the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the Southern slavocracy engendered.

“It is hardly worthwhile to build much of a bridge for the occasional use of two families, even if they are rich. It is less worthwhile to go to much pains in making six miles of good road for the use of these families. A school-house will hardly be built for the children of six rich men,” he wrote. “[I]f all the wealth produced in a certain district is concentrated in the hands of a few men living remote from each other, it may possibly bring to the district comfortable houses, good servants, fine wines, food and furniture, tutors and governesses, horses and carriages, for these few men, but it will not bring thither good roads and bridges, it will not bring thither such means of education and of civilized comfort as are to be drawn from libraries, churches, museums, gardens, theatres, and assembly rooms.”

This description of the Southern oligarchy in its last days would, with only minor changes, also fit today’s financial aristocracy, whose attitude toward museums, libraries, schools, and indeed infrastructure, is similar. These are either to be sold, privatized or left to rot.

In his landscape architecture, Olmsted opposed the private ownership of natural treasures. In a report to a commission appointed in 1865 to oversee the transfer of Yosemite Park and Mariposa Grove from federal authority to the State of California, Olmsted said the following:

“Men who are rich enough and who are sufficiently free from anxiety with regard to their wealth can and do provide places of this needed recreation for themselves. … There are in the islands of Great Britain and Ireland more than one thousand private parks and notable grounds devoted to luxury and recreation. The value of these grounds amounts to many millions of dollars and the cost of their annual maintenance is greater than that of the national schools; their only advantage to the commonwealth is obtained through the recreation they afford to their owners … less than one in six thousand of the whole population. … The great mass of society, including those to whom it would be of the greatest benefit, is excluded from it.”

And further: “It has always been the conviction of the governing classes of the old world that it is necessary that the large mass of all human communities should spend their lives in almost constant labor and that the power of enjoying beauty either of nature or of art in any high degree, requires a cultivation of certain faculties, which is impossible to these humble toilers.”

Olmsted rejected this, and warned that if measures were not taken to protect such spaces “from the grasp” of such wealthy individuals, “all places favorable in scenery to the recreation of the mind and body will be closed against the great body of the people. … The establishment by government of great public grounds for the free enjoyment of the people under certain circumstances, is thus justified and enforced as a political duty.”

Olmsted’s egalitarian convictions infused his landscapes. He sought to create an overall aesthetic experience that would have a largely subconscious influence on the individual. For this reason he subordinated decorative detail to the whole. The proposed park would have “an effect on the human organism by an action of what it presents to view, which action, like that of music, is of a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words.” This Olmsted called “the elegance of design.”

He also insisted on adapting a given space to the nature of the region, rather than imposing curiosities, for example imported ornamental plants. The purpose was instead to unlock and exalt “the genius of place,” as Olmsted called it. His creations were meticulously studied in the detail, with light, perspective, reflection, boundaries, layering and contour developed through the lush use of plants and pre-existing natural features. But Olmsted’s designs did not have the feel of being studied. They felt natural.

Architect Daniel Burnham said of Olmsted, “An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views.”

Olmsted sought in all his designs to make nature accessible to everyone, regardless of wealth. He wrote, “It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced a plan Thursday to freeze the city’s pension plans, wiping out benefits for thousands of workers: here. See also here.

The campaign by the Socialist Equality Party and the International Youth and Students for Social Equality to defend the Detroit Institute of Arts is winning worldwide support: here.

Detroit’s Belle Isle to be leased to state, ending free access: here.

15 thoughts on “Detroit’s Belle Isle Park threatened by privatisation

  1. Developer Rodney Lockwood has proposed, for example, to buy Belle Isle for $1 billion and “turn the island into a private city-state with a focus on free market capitalism and limited government.” What a great idea. Hats off to Rodney!


    • Though the idea might sound good on paper to some readers, practice probably would turn out to be less good. The market would turn out to be “free” only for a minority. And the government would not really be that limited, as armed mercenaries would be employed to forcibly keep out Detroiters who might want to go to Belle Isle, like they used to do for over a century, when it still was a public park.


          • Yes, indeed. The Detroiters were not good caretakers of their public property. They allowed the government to spend them into oblivion by giving handouts to the public unions (in return for votes). Now there is no money remaining to maintain the park. So Detroit must sell it to a private person or conglomeration; who would indeed maintain it. It is a sorry story that will repeat itself all over the USA if the citizens do not wake up and reign their governments (all levels) in.


            • If Rodney Lockwood’s plan would go ahead, then Rodney Lockwood would become dictator of Belle Isle; whether he would use the words “limited government” one time, a thousand times, or a billion times. Dictatorial government is UNlimited government.

              If Detroit has an elected government, and if police then kill or wound someone rightly or wrongly suspected of theft, giving someone the death penalty without trial, then, at least in theory, the police people in that case are accountable to the people. Elected organs may dismiss or otherwise discipline them.

              Now, to Rodney Lockwood’s Belle Isle potential monarchy. If Rodney Lockwood’s armed mercenaries would kill a Detroiter for wanting to visit Belle Isle Park, like happened for over a century, and was the intention of the park’s creator, Olmsted, then those mercenary killers would be accountable to the dictator only. Will they get sacked? Or, rather, promoted?

              Thomas Jefferson’s comment in an 1825 letter to William Short: “Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats, &c. The latter fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society; the former consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent.”



              • You have made several suppositions to support your argument and then quoted an aristocrat who helped set up the electoral college because he and the others knew they could not trust a pure plural vote to make the correct electoral decisions.
                Well, he was correct. The minute that Detroit was able to elect those who would give them things then the whole thing collapsed on itself; just as the pure democratic system in ancient Greece collapsed on itself with a pure democracy and is now collapsing again because the Greeks found out they could live an easy life if they elected the “correct” people.
                May a higher power save us from ourselves.


                • There was no pure democracy in ancient Greece. In Sparta, there was a mixture of monarchy and aristocracy, which collapsed, just like “democratic” Athens collapsed.

                  Athens was not a pure democracy either. It excluded women, slaves, and “perioikoi”. So, “pure democracy” was not the cause of the decline of ancient Greece.

                  In Greece, most people voted against the European Union-IMF imposed disastrous “austerity”. Nevertheless, the government consists of the “centre” right ND party, with the “center left” (in name) PASOK as junior partner. They continue “austerity”‘s downward spiral.

                  Bankers, European union bureaucrats, Greek shipping billionaires, etc. are to blame for economic disasters in Greece; not the majority of Greek people.


                • Yes. It was bankers and EU and the 1%s just like in the USA. Too bad that the politicians wanted to get more votes so they insisted that the USA banks give mortgages to people who could not afford them.
                  Then rather than tell the truth about what they had done, which would have meant telling the people that they had been screwed over by their own elected officials, they went on TV and said “Look, look, look over there – – – look at those terrible bankers – – – its all their fault.”
                  So as long as we have a vulnerable populace we will have politicians that will sell them to the highest bidder; whether that be a union, a private enterprise or another form of government.
                  You should have seen the scenes on TV yesterday as the salesmen/ladies for the Affordable Health Care (Obamacare) went around neighborhoods telling people to go to the exchanges and sign up. A large number of people had never heard of it and had no idea what it was. AFTER FOUR YEARS of TV and radio and many, many speeches by our president.
                  It sure doesn’t give me a warm feeling about what the population is aware of – – – or not aware of.


  2. The people got mortgages, because the banks wanted it. And when the crisis broke out, the bankers got bailed out with billions of taxpayers’ money. Not the people who lost their homes.

    Bush did not call bankers terrible. Neither did Romney. Neither did Obama.


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