Kevin Treadwell, 56, left, held off his brother Martin, 55, in a spirited racquetball match on the nicely maintained outdoor courts at Belle Isle. (Neal Rubin / The Detroit News)
No question, Rico said, Belle Isle is looking better.
It’s bad for business, but it’s true.
On the sporadically stormy Tuesday after the long Memorial Day weekend, Rico’s business involved salvaging returnable cans and bottles from the island park’s trash cans.
He had a pink plaid canvas tote slung over the shoulder of his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, and the tote seemed reasonably packed with items that would soon become transformed into dimes.
But Rico, 55 — who declined to offer his last name — said it’s a different world now that Belle Isle is a state park.
“They clean up a lot faster than the city used to do,” he said. “It kind of hurts.”
Overflowing trash cans had been a dependable part of the landscape the past few years as Detroit’s finances cratered. The park that earlier generations remember as bejeweled became routinely be-junked.
Despite the warm and busy holiday, a spin around the island turned up exactly one erupting volcano of a trash can and precious little scattered debris.
By that measure, in the middle of the Detroit River, the tide is already turning.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources officially began managing Belle Isle on Feb. 10. Months before that, it was chipping away at dead trees, overgrown pathways and the other obvious problems that made the park almost inhospitable.
With the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix rolling onto the island Friday through Sunday, the time seemed right to take an exploratory lap around the 982 acres.
Some of the improvements were obvious. When Bob Bond of Williamston needed a men’s room, he found one not only open but clean, and the Kid’s Row playground where his granddaughter mastered the monkey bars was so tidy that a crushed Faygo Grape can and an empty water bottle stood out.
Some were more subtle, like multiple sets of fully functional swings. And some might have been imaginary: Did all 10 tennis courts have nets before?
They should have, and today they do, and you’d be astonished if they didn’t.
Maybe that’s the most important thing the state has brought to Belle Isle:
Graffiti is humorous
Of course, the chain saws are nice, too.
Ailing trees have come down. Pathways have been cleared.
There’s still graffiti — on the way to the Livingstone Memorial Light at the eastern tip of the park, vandals have tagged two tree stumps — but there isn’t as much as before, and the light is on.
Besides, at least some of the graffiti is funny.
“No Swimming in This Area,” reads a sign at the Blue Heron Lagoon. Beneath the last word, someone has painted an explanation:
The state committed $2.5 million to Belle Isle in its first year. The city, meanwhile, expects to save $4 million to $6 million by stepping back and letting someone more capable run things.
Not that the city didn’t do some things right, or at least not get around to messing them up. Kevin and Martin Treadwell, for instance, can vouch for the outdoor racquetball courts.
Kevin, 56, retired as a police lieutenant in Fairfax County, Virginia. Martin, 55, retired as a sergeant in Detroit.
Now Kevin is a pastor, and Martin, a fellow graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy, is an elder.
“We’re Irish twins,” Martin said, and they both laughed.
In a spirited match with a 15-minute rain delay in the middle, Kevin had prevailed.
“I noticed the lights are on,” he said afterward, his voice echoing off the far wall. “They shouldn’t be this time of day.”
But that was their only quibble on a court they’ve never had a problem with and will likely come back to the next time Kevin is in town.
Back at the playground, Cele Sanchez of Dearborn said he’d heard pros and cons about having the state lease the park for 30 years. To his way of thinking, the pros won.
He was with his wife, Mayra, and their 15-month old daughter, Salma.
Salma “wants to touch and feel everything,” said Sanchez, 35, and now he was willing to let her.
He grew up in Detroit. Mayra didn’t, so a few years ago he drove her through Belle Isle.
“It looked kind of rough,” he said. They didn’t stop.
This trip, he expected something better ... and he found it.