There are several things I envy my parents and those of their generation for: the fact that making mix tapes was the norm, John Hughes movies in theaters, the ridiculous windbreakers. But the thing I perhaps am most jealous of no longer exists even in a hipster or vintage state: the ability to visit an international amusement park just a short boat ride from the city of Detroit.
Boblo Island was founded in 1890 on Canadian territory, taking what was an incredible long stretch of isolated land in the Detroit River and transforming it into a place of fun and excitement for visitors from the two surrounding countries. I first heard about this enchanting place while reading Coleman A. Young’s autobiography, and have been haunted by it ever since. Open from May to September, Boblo attracted more than 100,000 visitors a year and provided seasonal employment for about 1,000 people at its peak. However, before my second birthday in 1994, the park was closed due to declining attendance, rising maintenance costs, and competition from the nearby Cedar Point.
Even though I was technically alive when the park was still open, I never got to see it in person; and even if I had, it’s not like I would remember anything concrete at that young age. I feel like I missed out on something huge here; almost like I found out about Willy Wonka hiding tickets in his chocolate bars a year too late. Hearing my parents and my grandparents talk about their summer trips there absolutely enthralls me; and while I cannot get enough when it comes to stories about Boblo, it also makes me incredibly sad that I will never experience it for myself.
Just imagine: the ability to go to downtown Detroit, hop on a grand ferry a la the Detroit Princess, ride down the river past the Rouge plant, past Fighting Island and Grosse Isle, and finally landing in front of an entrance to one of the Midwest’s best amusement parks. No passport required, no harsh interrogations by border patrol. There were roller coasters, carousels, spinning rides, a Ferris wheel, a pirate ship, a train, a log ride. It just seems so unique, so magical…yet so completely out of reach.
It’s depressing, really. That island saw Detroit through its expansive boom in the early 20th century, all the way through its painfully slow-moving bust for the remainder of those hundred years. But instead of paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, they instead built a series of luxury suburban homes that aim to put the American McMansions to shame. The boats are gone; the warehouse on the Detroit edge of the river sits rotting away. The rides that were not sold and moved to other amusement parks around the country lie in a complete state of disrepair. And here I sit nearly twenty years later, watching YouTube videos of the old park commercials and a family’s day out recorded on a Super 8. There’s an emotional situation at hand here, and I feel an almost indignant sense of self-righteous anger. Who let this happen?
Who took this away from me and others my age? Why?
And who is to say that this would even be possible again? With the implementation of the new international crossing laws just a few short years ago, there would have to be a lot more manpower on the part of border patrol, monitoring the movements of park goers all summer long. In a post 9-11 world, Boblo Island seems even more dream-like. Perhaps we can try to get something back of Boblo, and incorporate it into this new Detroit. Let’s move beyond the Hamtramck Disneyland, beyond the Corktown mini-golf. Let’s create something fun for the masses, with no barriers to entry.
Detroit needs a Boblo Island now more than ever. Let’s restore a sense of whimsy, whether real or imagined, to the region.