Hafsah Abdullah

I take Interstate 94 eastbound from Dearborn. It’s September 10th,
nearing the end of the summer, and the shining sun and light breeze make
up a wonderful afternoon. After about 30 minutes, I turn into Inselruhe
Avenue and I drive over a bridge illuminated by bright lights. As I pull into
Belle Isle Park, the smell of freshly cut grass and the sounds of birds chirping
surround me. As I look around me, I see people of all different colors, shapes,
and sizes fishing, sitting, and jogging in small groups. As I walk closer and
climb about 15 steps on a staircase, I see a carved white marble fountain
where water leaks out of human heads, lions, dolphins, turtles, and animal
horns. And as I look closely at the fountain, I see portraits of men…hardworking men doing all different kinds of occupations. It’s a middle-class
haven. It’s Detroit. The Belle Isle Fountain is much more than a site to be
admired, but rather an answer to the question of who we are as the people of
Detroit. The fountain’s history and structure paints Detroit as a resilient city
that stresses social gatherings, nature, and diversity.
James Scott was a man of great wealth. He was described as “lazy,
eccentric, a prankster, and a real rapscallion.” His father left him a great sum
of money, but instead of working hard to expand it, he chose to gamble.
Though he did add to his fortune through real estate investments, James
Scott was not a man with a great reputation among the people of Detroit.
However, when he died in 1910, he gave away his whole estate to the city to
build a monument for the people. Although James Scott had a rough
beginning, he changed in the end by benefiting his community. He is no
longer known by his negative lifestyle choices, but rather remembered for his
final good deed. On the back of his statue in Belle Isle, there is a quote that
says, “For the enjoyment of the people and for the adornment of his native
city James Scott bequeathed to Detroit his fortune to be used in the
construction of this fountain. From the good deed of one comes benefit to
many.” The fountain is not only an illustration of Detroit’s identity because it
was built by someone from Detroit, but the person who built it is a person
that symbolizes Detroit himself through his story. The “Motor City” went

Hafsah Abdullah

through a difficult period of time characterized by job losses, a decreasing
population, racial conflictions, and much more. But like James Scott, Detroit
is changing and it will once again become the prosperous Motor City. The
man behind the foundation of this fountain contributes to the definition of
Detroit by once again showing that “Detroit is the great American success
story” (Why Not Paris?, Slide 18).
The story of how the fountain came to be highlights the beliefs of the
people of Detroit. The wealth of one man, James Scott, was used to build a
monument for the people for them to use as a place where they can gather
together and socialize or to use as a place for privacy and space as
Rybczynski stated most Americans desire (Rybczynski 33). The story behind
the fountain shows that the people of Detroit take from the few for the
benefit of the most, which is a democratic way of seeing.
Now, Belle Isle is a place for everyone, a place to go fishing with a
friend or having a barbeque with family or simply relaxing on the side of the
fountain with one’s spouse hearing the soft sounds of water flowing, which
depicts the importance of social gatherings to the people of Detroit. Although
the people of Detroit work hard and most have jobs from dawn to dusk as
portrayed through the meticulously drawn portraits of men working around
the fountain, they always have time to meet together and relax.
Upon seeing Detroit, Cadillac wrote, “Its borders are so many vast
prairies, and the freshness of the beautiful waters keeps the banks always
green” (Mapping a Wilderness, 20). Centuries later, Henry Ford introduced
the automobile and sponsored the development of the assembly line. As the
capital of automobile manufacturing, Detroit became a symbol of modernity
and the influence of American capitalism and the labor that constructed it.
Detroit was no longer the same as what Cadillac had seen. It had thrived and
expanded and transformed into what it is today, which is an industrial city.
“One decade favors modernity and pulls down old buildings in the name of
progress; the next decade discovers its heritage and promotes historic

Hafsah Abdullah

preservation” (Rybczynski 28). Belle Isle Fountain is evidence that Detroit has
sustained its roots in nature and agriculture. The fountain is characterized by
its natural beauty with water being the most important aesthetic element.
Water is spewed out of the different animal creatures, such as the turtles,
lions, and dolphins. It’s situated near the Detroit River surrounded by
beautiful, green landscapes and bodies of water.
The Belle Isle Fountain is a good representation of who the people of
Detroit are. The diverse animal creatures, the human heads, the angels were
all molded together into one beautiful creation. Detroit is unlike any other
city in the world. People from all around the globe, African-Americans, Asians,
Arabs, Whites, have come together and called this place their home. It is
home to people from various ethnic backgrounds, including people of Irish,
Italian, Middle Eastern, German, and English descent and this diversity is
reflected in parts of Detroit such as Mexican Town, Asian Village, and
Greektown. “In 1900 about a third of Detroit’s 286,000 residents were
foreign-born, and 4,711, or 1.5%, were black. By 1920, the number of
foreign-born had grown to 290,000…” (Martelle 85). People who encompass
different traits, different personalities, different cultures, and different
languages have all come together in this city to form one unique creation,
and this unique creation is Detroit.
In conclusion, the Belle Isle Fountain is a good illustration of who we
are. The history behind it shows that Detroit is a resilient city and it certainly
has gone through many obstacles, but it will only get better from now on.
The fountain and its location show that although Detroit is an industrial city,
it preserves nature. The structure of the fountain and the diverse sculptures
that it is made up of portray Detroit as a very diverse city. Overall, the Belle
Isle Fountain depicts Detroit’s true identity.

Hafsah Abdullah

Photos taken by: Hafsah Abdullah on September 10th

Bibliography
Rodriguez, M. J., & Featherstone, T. (2003). Detroit's Belle Isle: Island Park
Gem. Arcadia Publishing.
Detroit (Mich.). City Plan Commission. (1914). James Scott Memorial
Fountain: Statement of Progress (No. 5).
Austin, D. (2014, June 14). Historic Detroit. Retrieved September 26, 2014,
from http://www.historicdetroit.org/building/james-scott-memorial-fountain/
Martelle, S. (2012). Detroit: A Biography. Chicago, Ill: Chicago Review Press.
Rybczynski, W. (1995). City Life. New York: Touchstone.
Dr. Martin. (September 8th) Seminar Discussion Outline.
Dean Herron. Mapping a Wilderness. Retrieved from Blackboard.
Dean Herron. Why Not Paris?. Retrieved from Blackboard.

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