Why ‘The Strip’ on Belle Isle is a cul...

Why ‘The Strip’ on Belle Isle is a cultural touchstone for Detroiters

“It meant the sense of pride of being born and raised in Detroit, a sense of community and something that's ingrained in our culture, especially if you're from Detroit."

Main image: Low riders on Belle Isle, 2015. Credit: Deb Nystrom/Flickr

Don Melson II recalls hanging out at “The Strip” — Detroiters’ unofficial name for a stretch of road on Belle Isle — like it was yesterday. Growing up on the Eastside of Detroit just a couple of miles from the island park, he was what you’d call “a regular.”

“The Strip was the main hangout spot for everybody — not only my age but also the generation before,” Melson, 40, recalled. 

Don Melson often went to The Strip on Belle Isle growing up.
Don Melson of Detroit. Courtesy photo.

“On the weekend or even sometimes during the weekday on warm summer days, The Strip would be packed — and I mean packed — like thousands of people on Belle Isle.”

Can’t get enough of Belle Isle? Check out Detour’s A to Z guide to Detroiters’ beloved island park.

Melson describes The Strip, located along The Strand perimeter road, as “one big parking lot,” where people from the city to the suburbs would gather to show off their cars and socialize. In other words, it was an outdoor club minus the cover charge. 

“I can remember going after high school graduation and going after prom with your prom outfit on,” Melson said. “That was the place to go to hang out, be in your new car, show off your new outfit and just be with all your people.”

The Strip on Belle Isle was also where Melson learned how to drive. He recalls scaring his driving instructor half-to-death as they approached the busy road of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

“I went on The Strip, saying, ‘Okay, let me master the stop-and-go traffic and the parallel parking,’” Melson said. “I wasn’t learning to drive on the freeway — I wanted to learn how to drive The Strip.”

The Strip on Belle Isle -- where it used to be.
The Strip. Annotation of DNR map.

Melson spent most of his formative years on The Strip, from the late 1990s to about 2005. Eventually, the island began enforcing stricter hours, eliminating the ability for people to be on Belle Isle until the wee hours of the morning. That was the beginning of the end of The Strip.

His trips to Belle Isle today look a little different than during that era: Now, it’s the place where he goes once or twice a week to take in the views by the James Scott Memorial Fountain. For Melson, Belle Isle is a place to find peace.

That hasn’t stopped him from reminiscing about The Strip — it was more than just a place to have a good time. 

“It meant the sense of pride of being born and raised in Detroit, a sense of community and something that’s ingrained in our culture, especially if you’re from Detroit,” Melson said.

“Whenever you talk to somebody that used to go to The Strip, all you have to say is ‘The Strip,’ and I guarantee you they start smiling.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Don’s Melson’s last name as Melton. We regret the error.

Allison Jacobs is the digital producer and lifestyle reporter for Detour Detroit. She was the former digital editor at The Detroit Jewish News, where she helped oversee their digital strategy and produced a four-part video series called “Bubbie’s Kitchen.” Over the years, she has contributed articles for The Detroit Jewish News and SEEN Magazine. She’s a stickler for honest reporting and creating content that educates, entertains and inspires. Follow her on Twitter: @ajacobs114