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The tragedy of the aquarium



Nicole hasn’t had an easy life. Her mother is an alcoholic; her father a drug abuser who is in and out of jail. They do nothing to help her financially, and very little to help her little sister, who isn’t old enough for school yet.

So she does what she can to support herself and pay for college and look after her sister, and the only way she knows how to do that is to work as a stripper in the various upholstered sewers by the airport or on Eight Mile Road.

That’s disgusting and occasionally dangerous work (she says it’s made her a confirmed lesbian who wants nothing to do with men), but she sees it as the price she has to pay for her dream of becoming an elementary school teacher, and finding a little house where she can live with her sister and her cats.

I’ve slightly changed her name and a few details to avoid embarrassing her, but you get the picture. Two weeks ago, she told me she was bored and wanted to do something fun with her sister. “Take her to the Belle Isle aquarium,” I said, knowing it was likely to close soon, and remembering how fascinated I had been by the giant electric eels and stingrays when I was a toddler. No way, she said. I’m not going to Belle Isle — that’s too dangerous.

Nicole is a white girl from someplace like Warren. She’ll brave coming out of Trumpps at 3 a.m., never knowing who might be tailing her, but draws the line at Belle Isle in broad daylight. Later that day, I asked a 22-year-old suburban reporter who grew up Downriver if she’d miss the aquarium when it closed. “I’ve never been to Belle Isle,” she said.

Small wonder, then, that the Detroit Zoo says the aquarium is losing so much money and drawing so few people that it will close forever on April 3. Ron Kagan, the zoo director, told me it’s losing something like $500,000 a year, and needs a new roof besides that would cost at least that much again.

In a voice tinged with regret, he told me he doesn’t really want to close the aquarium, but the city budget is in free-fall, the zoo’s appropriation has been cut by several million dollars, and there’s little choice.

That sparked outrage — but as is often the case, it seemed to be focused mainly in the suburbs, where baby-boomers are nostalgic for the aquarium in the same way they are for the Vernors plant and downtown Hudson’s.

They don’t visit it much anymore, though. Last year, zoo statistics show the aquarium logged 56,000 visitors. Not many, considering that some people may have visited more than once, and there are more than a million children in the Detroit metropolitan area. Ironically, city dwellers are even less supportive.

Sketchy survey information indicates that something like three-fifths of those who do visit are from the suburbs. Last week, I drove over to the aquarium early one afternoon. There were about two dozen people visiting when I was; three of them were black. Outside, a woman in a full-length fur coat who said she spent her days writing legal briefs handed me some save-the-aquarium flyers.

Later, I logged on to her Web site ( After weeks of work, they had managed to raise pledges of $21,319.49. That’s enough to keep the aquarium going, if all that money was in fact collected, for a little more than two weeks. Last year, the aquarium took in $105,000, and spent nearly $700,000, counting some repairs to the floors. “We’re tapped out,” a forlorn posting on the Web site said.

Frankly, the truth is that Detroit, a river town on the St. Lawrence Seaway, needs and should have a major aquarium as a tourist draw, and an aquarium like those magnificent ones in Chicago or Monterey. But the truth also is that while the city’s budget crisis has brought things to a head, there’s probably no way our present fish facility ever could be successful in either the long or short run.

For one thing, it’s too small, too primitive and too isolated. The Albert Khan building is beautiful and the fish tanks well maintained. But you can see everything there is to see in well under an hour, and then what do tourists do?

Time was when families and kids saw the aquarium and the Belle Isle Zoo as a package, but the little zoo closed, again for budget reasons, three years ago. Nor are there any restaurants or shops near the aquarium, which isn’t all that easy to find if you aren’t greatly familiar with the island.

Worst of all, the aquarium building doesn’t even have a restroom, and the only drinking fountain doesn’t work. Try telling families with legions of kids they ought to drive a fair distance to visit something without toilet facilities for the kids. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t come close to complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you’re in a wheelchair, you aren’t going to see much.

Ron Kagan, who has vastly improved the main zoo since he became director in 1992, wants Detroit to build a major new riverfront aquarium, at least 10 times the size of the Belle Isle site. That would cost, he estimated, $100 million.

“But it would bring that much into the local economy each year, together with a million visitors,” Kagan told me. That’s not just idle chatter, but based on a major feasibility study conducted by Deloitte and Touche. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some guardian angel stepped in to launch a capital campaign for a new aquarium, and if somebody provided enough money to temporarily fix up the old one and keep it going for a few years?

One actually wishes the Detroit Zoological Society had decided to prepare for something like that a few years ago. But they didn’t.

Here’s something fishy: Incidentally, there’s a way the city could keep the aquarium open, and not have to spend an extra dime. I’ll bet anything that if they gave Ron Kagan an extra $420,000 a year, he’d be very willing to swallow the rather minor remaining annual losses and keep the fish swimming for all.

That’s exactly the amount of money the city pays Mike Ilitch to “maintain” the abandoned Tiger Stadium, at Michigan Avenue and Trumbull, which is in fact city property. Let’s see, I’ll bet he hires a few minimum-wage security guards and mows the grass every so often.

What he really does, of course, is prevent the city from selling Tiger Stadium to anyone who might really buy it. That is, anybody who might put a minor league team there (to compete with Ilitch’s far more expensive and not very good team) and stage concerts, etc., there that might otherwise have to go to Comerica Park.

Nobody says so publicly, but the politicians fear he’d blackmail them — as, in a sense, he already has. Eventually, they’ll tear down the sacred old ballpark anyway. So anyone who thinks our bankrupt city should keep giving our Little Caesar $420,000 a year, raise your hand, and then call your psychiatrist.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to

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