The Little Aquarium That Could

Like Detroit, a tale of rise and fall and rise again

A postcard featuring the Belle Aquarium (New York Public Library Digital Library)
A postcard featuring the Belle Aquarium (New York Public Library Digital Library)


On Saturday morning, Steven and I round up our reusable shopping bags. We brave hordes of suburbanites and city folk alike, and stroll Detroit’s Eastern Market in search of fresh veggies from local venders, ciabatta from Avalon Bakery’s kiosk, and Lyons tea from Ireland. The market’s located off Gratiot (say it like Detroiters—start with Gra, then add shit), so we’re close to Jefferson Avenue. From there it’s a straight shot to Belle Isle, Detroit’s 982-acre island parkland—Over 100 acres bigger than New York’s Central Park! says Steven in his tour-guide persona.

So, why not? we say, and drive across MacArthur Bridge, which connects Belle Isle to the mainland. We tootle at 25 miles per hour along the wide road that runs the island’s periphery, until we reach the conservatory/aquarium building—designed by Albert Kahn and opened to the public in 1904—where Steven squints at the jam-packed parking lot, then zooms to a secret spot in back. Look, he says after we shuffle our sacks of market goods to a shady place under the dashboard. He points to the building’s roof. That’s where we found the skylights layered over with roofing material. And look at them now! Sure enough, the uncovered glass fairly twinkles in the morning sun, and I know when we get inside the aquarium, the ubiquitous green tile will wink and shimmer in the new light. It will shine benignly on all the air-breathing fishes the aquarium’s known for, on the seven species of gar, the giant gourami and electric eels, on the alligator snapping turtle who, like always, will be merrily wiggling the worm-like appendage on his tongue to lure stupid little fishes (and perfectly clever schoolchildren).

Steven’s a long-time supporter of Belle Isle’s pintsize aquarium, and he’s brought me here this fine Saturday to witness the latest changes wrought by himself and his fellow volunteers who, over years, dragged Belle Isle Aquarium back from the padlocked-and-left-for-dead. Never mind that, in the depths of its bankruptcy, Detroit leased Belle Isle to the state of Michigan, so now it’s managed by the Department of Natural Resources, or that the aquarium is run by the Belle Isle Conservancy, which serves as overlord to the stalwart volunteers. Never mind these are issues of no small controversy for long-time Detroiters (and are the subject of several pages in the bulging Scrapbook of Detroit Divisions).

As an aside, the conservancy recently named Steven as BIA Volunteer Subcommittee Chairperson. (Yay Steven!) As far as I can tell, this means he gleefully does everything, from counting visitors to construction to event-planning to tank-scaping. And something to do with the volunteers, too. I think.

It’s fair to say that Belle Isle Aquarium is now thoroughly ensconced in its second life—thus echoing Detroit’s own rebirth from the ashes of insolvency. However, Detroit’s tendency to crash and burn, then surge again, is a pattern older than its recent, municipal bankruptcy. Take, for example, the city motto dating from just after the great 1805 fire. Carved in stone atop BIA’s entranceway—just above grumpy-faced Neptune—it reads, Speramus Meliora; Resuget Cineribus, which translates to, We Hope for Better Things; It Will Rise from the Ashes.

As another aside, I’m fine with the second half of that statement: the phoenix imagery, the declarative affirmation. Go city! But the first part—I’m not so sure. How tepid the verb choice: to Hope. And, Better Things? What things, I wonder? What did those words mean to Father Gabriel Richard, who first penned them? I ask Steven if he’s got a clue, but he doesn’t. On my drearier days, I fret that Detroit will never get past its long slump when the mandate to dream vague dreams is encoded in its very DNA.

But, no. Because Detroit’s a scrapper (in the best possible way) from way back—as evidenced by our little aquarium, among lots of other examples. And if we Detroiters sometimes quarrel amongst ourselves, or don’t (for so many reasons) always see projects through to completion, well, we’re still plodding forward. And the BIA is going like gangbusters, so every weekend it’s packed like—sorry about this—a tin of sardines. The same aquarium, mind you, that Detroit unceremoniously shuttered in 2005—after 101 years of fishes displayed like living portraits on its glossy walls. This occurred on the watch of Kwame Kilpatrick, our larcenous, former mayor (star of yet more pages in that Scrapbook of Discords). And so he snapped his fingers, and the fish were schlepped out of town—this followed by a seven-year fallow period for the BIA, a volunteer-led campaign to revive it (complete with fishy picket signs), and success in 2012.

Of course it’s more complicated than this, because everything is when it comes to our knotty city. Because even as we celebrated the reopening, the infrastructure of the place—the plumbing and electric and filtration systems—had gone kabloowie. So for the past five years, the jolly band of volunteers (mostly jolly—see that Scrapbook again) have, with the help of curators and aquarists, by hook and crook, by duct tape and gnashed teeth, been resuscitating the aquarium one soda cichlid and sea horse and sting-ray baby at a time. Never mind the occasional sand filter or heater that crumbles to dust, or explodes, the graffiti’d glass that’s dissolving at its corners. Never mind the one tank leaking 200 gallons a week. Anyway, we have plenty of water around these parts.

Final, happy thoughts: like suburbanites, beavers have apparently returned to Belle Isle after a protracted absence! This means the Detroit River (once home to little more than sludge monsters) is now clean enough for the pesky, yet adorable, mammals to clog up the waterways. Furthermore, in June the Belle Isle Aquarium updated its open-air koi pond at long last, heralding the end of the Great Koi Wrangles—when volunteers donned waders, grabbed buckets, and lugged the big fish in and outdoors at the start and end of the cold season. With new filters in place, such sloggery will soon be a thing of the past. In the meantime, Paul Shuert, BIA’s curator, is slowly reintroducing the stir-crazy koi to their new digs. It’s a work in progress—like the aquarium, like Detroit as a whole. But for once, everybody seems to be cheering us on.

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Laura Bernstein-Machlay teaches literature and creative writing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Her work has appeared in the The Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, The North American Review, and the The Massachusetts Review. She is the author of Travelers, a collection of essays.


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