Dead Fish and the Struggle to Save Detroit

Photo of Detroit skyline courtesy of Rob Terwilliger Photography.

by Keith Yancy


That’s the first word that came to mind when I heard the news today — that someone poisoned the fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit.

First, a bit of background: the Belle Isle Aquarium has been closed for years.  Once a key attraction on the beautiful island of Belle Isle, a small island in the Detroit River, it had long ago been closed and fallen like so many other city landmarks into disrepair.  Recently, a small group of volunteers had worked hard to refurbish the aquarium, and had at long last returned fish to the repaired fish tanks.  All this effort was to culminate in a public viewing before the Grand Prix race which was to be held on the island June 3.

For those who had worked so hard for so long, this was a milestone event.  And then, in the news today, stories were printed (incorrectly, it turned out) that, in an act of utter senselessness, someone vandalized the Aquarium’s tanks, pouring bleach into them and killing the fish.

Before I learned that this incident was misreported, I found myself surprisingly angry about it.  After all… people had worked, without pay, to try to give Detroit back a small jewel, just one gem on a city crown virtually stripped of every precious stone it had.  It’s a small symbol of what so many people in this region hope for — a renewal of a once proud city.  And while no one expected Detroit’s crushing problems to go away with the revival of an aging landmark, it was — and is — a sign that the city can rise up from its ashes to be great once more.

To many, at least judging by the comments in the news and on social media, it felt like a punch in the gut.  It hit me the same way.  Later in the evening, however, I learned that there was no vandalism; there was a mass die-off of fish, but there was no poison, no vandals, and that the aquarium and most of the fish inside were just fine.

But before the story was refuted, I was talking about it with my 17-year-old daughter (who was depressed about the news of the Aquarium also).  It occurred to me as we were talking that this incident, while sad, paled in comparison to what goes on in Detroit every single day.  Murders that happen so frequently, people become numb to the news of them (even when infants and children are killed).  Neighborhoods so blighted and burned out that city officials are considering the possibility of not fixing the streetlights — in essence, abandoning them.  A political system that seems only to produce scandals, incompetence, infighting, and a consistent, pervasive failure to overcome Detroit’s many challenges.

When I stopped and really, clearly thought about Detroit, it occurred to me that maybe the reason I was so annoyed and deflated about a few dozen dead fish was because I had forgotten a very essential point: turning around a city gripped in a 50+ year decline takes much, much more than cleaning up fish tanks and repairing crumbling city landmarks.

It takes finding leaders that care more about the city than their egos (and their wallets).  It takes — once and for all — cutting through the endless maze of regulations and paperwork that inhibits businesses from investing here.  It takes creating neighborhoods — not just landmarks and businesses — that provide Detroit with a stable tax base.  It takes providing children with schools, teachers, and funds necessary to break the bonds of poverty and give them the high-quality education they need to truly achieve success.  It takes Detroiters, suburbanites, and the rest of Michigan’s citizens working together for the benefit of all.

Bringing Detroit out of its death spiral will be long, hard, and costly.  The work of the Friends of Belle Isle, a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the island, is greatly appreciated by me and everyone else… but it will take more, much more, to bring Detroit back.  For every dead fish in that aquarium, there are three or four dead people every year, city residents who should be alive today… but aren’t.  For all the anger and disappointment people may have felt about this now-refuted senseless act of vandalism, there are decades of neglect, corruption and indifference that created an environment that such vandalism is commonplace.  For every landmark that today’s civic-minded activists attempt to save, there are entire swaths of land where neighborhoods lie in darkness, marked by empty, weed-filled lots, burned out houses, and rampant criminal activity.

Killing fish at the Belle Isle Aquarium, had it been true, would have been a heartless and stupid act.  Thinking back to my angry and depressed reaction to the story, though, made me realize that the forces that hold Detroit in its grip — poverty, crime, hopelessness — aren’t easily defeated.  I’m sure that the good people who worked so hard to refurbish the Belle Isle Aquarium see this as a minor setback rather than a defeat, and I’m glad that this false news report didn’t serve to demoralize other volunteers and workers who struggle every day to improve the city. 

To do so — to give up hope that Detroit can and should be saved — is the one sure way to ensure Detroit falls further into despair and ruin.  A failed, defeated and destroyed Detroit, contrary to popular opinion, is bad for the region, bad for the state, and bad even for the country. 

Thankfully, those reports of intentionally poisoned fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium were a false alarm, and that there was no crime committed.  Still, for those few hours when everyone thought the aquarium had been vandalized, those dead fish were a sad reminder that, sometimes, the good guys don’t always win.  Decades of crime, poverty and neglect can’t be easily or quickly wiped away by a small group of volunteers, no matter how dedicated they may be.  Margaret Thatcher, one-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, once said that sometimes you have to fight a battle more than once to win it.  I hope that people keep fighting, keep working, keep struggling to bring Detroit back.

The struggle is worth it.  People care.  The hope, motivation, and hard work shown by those who care about Detroit is far, far stronger and far more enduring than any single act of vandalism, and certainly stronger than a bunch of  unfortunate fish in a fish tank.

I look forward to seeing the Belle Isle Aquarium, restored, with new fish inside.  And I look forward to a renewed Belle Isle, a renewed Detroit, and better days ahead.

Until next time… 🙂


2 comments so far

  1. Jeninmich on

    I miss the belle isle aquarium. Very well written post.

  2. Fern Henley on

    We as humans can choose to live abundantly. Support HR1489 to protect Main St from Wall St and the likes of LIBOR then initiate NAWAPA to give Detroit and other similarly devastated areas a science driven economy. The alternative is getting acquainted with the dinosaurs. It’s high time we mature as a species and learn cooperation. Let’s circle the wagons as a global community of sovereign nation states and meet the challenges of a dynamic galaxy.

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