White Rock and Belle Isle, a Tale of Two Cities

A family chore last night prevented me from attending a big community meeting about a proposed restaurant at White Rock Lake, but stories on Channel 8 and in the daily paper this morning gave the flavor. The community is looking at the idea of building a commercial restaurant on parkland at the northern tip of the lake with about as much enthusiasm as it might view a proposal to open up the lake again to all-night drug sales.

Wish I had been there just to see it. On TV I heard members of the public standing at the microphone expressing a passion for the park surrounding White Rock Lake in East Dallas but also giving voice to even bigger ideas, as in the concept expressed by one man that not everything in life can or should be "monetized." Who knew we'd ever have to say that? Now we know we do.

White Rock was the first big public place in Dallas I viewed when I moved here from Detroit 150 years ago, and I thought I knew all about it the second I saw it. I had come here to work for the The Dallas Times-Herald. I drove out there one evening with Rone Tempest, an old buddy I had worked with at The Detroit Free Press.

I saw crumbling benches, blowing trash, lots of people drunk, some of them doing what looked a whole lot like buying and selling dope in plain air. We drove past a boat club where a bunch of beat-up grit-encrusted sailboats looked like they hadn't been off the dock in decades. Tempest told me you couldn't really sail anymore because the lake was silted in and about 2 feet deep.

At one point a guy staggered across the road in front of us, walked up on the lawn of a big house fronting the lake, unzipped his fly and relieved himself. I immediately thought, "Oh, I know this place. I even know that guy. He's a slob. And this is Belle Isle Park 20 years ago."

Belle Isle is what still ought to be one of the nation's most gorgeous urban parks, an island near the American shore of the Detroit River, leafy and green, ornate with meandering water paths, hiking trails and focal points built around charming fountains and follies, most of it designed in the 1880s by Frederick Law Olmsted, the guy who designed Manhattan's Central Park. The "20 years ago" I was thinking of back then was back when Belle Isle was already beginning to be seriously down-at-the-heels, but you could still go out there in the evening without an absolute certainty of getting beaten, robbed or killed.

Belle Isle continues to suffer today, taken over recently from the bankrupt city of Detroit by the state of Michigan. It was the center of recent controversy when the state, which wanted to host some events out there for a convention, announced it would close the island to the public while the conventioneers were on the island. That got called off at the last minute, but I believe it was an honest attempt to prevent the conventioneers from getting beaten or killed.

I wish there were some way to compare Belle Island and White Rock today without dripping in schadenfreude. I still love Detroit, weep for Belle Isle and firmly and passionately believe Detroit will figure out a new better destiny for itself. But I also have to be honest with myself here about my first-blush take on White Rock those many years ago. I was dead wrong. It was not Belle Isle.

White Rock was not just another major urban asset in America a little behind Belle Isle on an irretrievable slide into ruin. Dallas was not going to turn its back on White Rock.

In the decades that ensued since I first saw White Rock, citizens banded together and forced the city to dredge out all that silt. The same citizens insisted that the city change traffic patterns on the lake to put an end to the nightly cavalcade of incontinent slobs. The city sent the cops out there to make sure it got cleaned up, and the city, in partnership with a growing community of philanthropists large and small, has continued to spend serious money on infrastructure at the lake.

The people I heard on TV at that meeting I missed were expressing a protective parental wrath in defense of a place that has become their beloved child. Theirs is not only a love of the lake. In their devotion to White Rock, the lake's defenders give voice to love for the city itself.

They are saying they will not be pushed out of this place, will not give up, will not let things slide until those things are dead and gone. In keeping White Rock alive they will keep Dallas alive.

It has been one hell of a thing to watch over the years. Never felt so good about being so wrong.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze