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Pay a dollar, grab a burlap sack and scooch down Detroit's slide of pain


It's the waning days of summer vacation, and many children spend their final, precious free days at a pool or a park. And in Detroit, that could include a ride on a celebrated slide. Ready, set, watch out.


SIMON: Ooh. That's got to hurt. These are people tumbling down the giant slide at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, an island on the border with Canada. The slide is one of those huge metal structures with a series of wavy ridges on the way down. You pay a dollar, grab a burlap sack and let yourself go.

BRENDAN RONEY: It's one of the major touchstones of kind of growing up in the city. If you grew up in the city, you went to Belle Isle. And if you went to Belle Isle, odds are you went down that slide at least a couple times.

SIMON: That's Brendan Roney of the Detroit Historical Society. The original slide opened in 1968 and was part of a planned amusement park called Funland, which was supposed to have...

RONEY: Not only the slide, but, like, mechanical rides, like a Ferris wheel and mini golf and a tilt-a-whirl and that kind of thing. But that year, there was a big construction worker strike, so the only part of Funland that actually got built was the giant slide.

SIMON: The strike, combined with some public disdain for overdeveloping the island park, prevented the rest of Funland from ever being built. The slide's been open for more than 50 years before the COVID-19 pandemic. It finally reopened last week...





SIMON: ...And promptly closed again after just four hours. And while closed, it went viral. Detroiters recollected all their close calls on Belle Isle. Basketball legend Jalen Rose told TV station WXYZ in Detroit he used to bounce down the slide.

JALEN ROSE: Just so y'all know, that's how it was when I was growing up. Like, we used to be flying. We'd be like, whee. We thought that was normal.

SIMON: Well, that's how you grow up to play small forward in the NBA. Detroit rapper Gmac Cash released an ode to the metal structure.


GMAC CASH: (Rapping) It's not the same giant slide we got on as children. This new slide looking like they jumping off of a building. This new slide, you got to take a Tylenol to get on. If your kids getting on your nerves, make them get on.

SIMON: But as it turns out, this is not the same slide on which Gmac Cash slid when he was a kid. Brandon Roney of the Detroit Historical Society explains.

RONEY: So the original slide that folks of a certain age in Detroit fondly remember had a fiberglass yellow surface on it. It was also a little bit shorter. It was, I think, about 45 feet high. And after a couple of decades of use, around 2004, it was in need of repairs. And rather than fixing it up, they replaced it with a new one.

SIMON: New slide is 15 feet taller. Add some maintenance before opening, a little fresh grease and...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right, buddy. It's OK. Just get up, and we'll deal with it.

SIMON: Local authorities say many of the sliders just weren't riding the slide correctly. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources released a video to show the proper way to use the slide. Sit on the steel platform. Fit your body into the burlap sack, and...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hold on tight. The biggest thing is you got to lean forward and stay leaning forward, and hold on tight.


SIMON: Well, easy for them to say. Park administrators said they're spraying water between rides to try to tamp down the speed. And that recalls a rumor that Brendan Roney of the Historical Society heard while growing up.

RONEY: Everybody had a cousin or somebody who surfed down the slide standing up.

SIMON: But that's strictly an urban myth - sit, scootch, then slide. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Danny Hensel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]