'We grew up on the playgrounds': Old friends fondly remember St. Martin neighborhood
Oct. 23, 2018
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.”
Stephen King never imagined he’d make it to the pages of Detroit Catholic. The quotation above is from King’s book, “Different Seasons,” a collection of four novellas, one of which, “The Body,” was later the inspiration for a memorable movie, “Stand by Me.”
The story I’m sharing could be titled “The Church,” specifically St. Martin of Tours Church in the southeastern-most corner of the city of Detroit: the Jefferson-Chalmers area, bordered by the Detroit River, Jefferson, Clairpointe, and Ashland; next door to Grosse Pointe Park.
People living there were closer to Canada than they were to Cobo Hall downtown.
Perhaps by divine design, the church is geographically, spiritually, socially located in the center – the heart – of the community on the corner of Lenox and Haverhill. It started out as a mission in 1912, designated a parish in 1923, closed down in 1989. At its peak in the 1960s, enrollment was about 800 in the elementary and high schools, about 900 youths attended CCD classes, 3,000-plus attended weekly Mass.
The schools, which included a temporary church, were built in the 1920s. A new church was opened in 1953. The old church was converted into the high school gymnasium.
Italians, Irish, Belgians, French, Germans and Poles were the dominant ethnic groups.
Jefferson bustled with theaters, drugstores, dimestores, clothing stores, restaurants and banks, while grocery and beer stores were located on side streets. The St. Martin neighborhood was a self-contained, close-knit community. It was the greatest place in the world for a kid to be raised. Three of those kids are George Schneedecker, Pat Preston and Jim Essian.
“Kids played in the parks or in the street until the lights came on,” Schneedecker says.
“But you had to be home by 5 o’clock for supper when your father came home from work. If you were late, you didn’t eat.”
He remembers how “you could walk down the street and not miss a beat of the Tigers game. The dads were sitting on the front porches listening to the radio.”
Schneedecker went to Wayne State and lived in Indian Village for a while until moving to Grosse Pointe Woods, where he lives now. His parents remained in the old neighborhood until 1994 when his father died. His mother moved to St. Clair Shores.
“We grew up on the playgrounds,” Essian says. He had little choice. “I had 12 brothers and sisters in a small house. I had to get out, go someplace where there was space.”
Sports had three seasons at St. Martin: football, basketball and baseball. Essian excelled in each, earning All Catholic and All State honors.
In 1969, favored St. Martin brought an imposing 25-1 record to the state Class C basketball finals against unheralded Marquette Bishop Baraga with its modest 12-10 record. Essian scored 24 points and grabbed 13 rebounds before fouling out with 3:44 to play. Teammate Ted Goolsby chipped in 19 points, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a disappointing 68-53 defeat. “Everything they threw up went in,” Essian remembers.
He had received a football scholarship offer from the University of Michigan. Two weeks before Essian was to report at Ann Arbor, the 18-year-old was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I chose baseball because it offered an opportunity for a longer career,” he says.
Which is exactly what has happened: 46 years, and counting, in professional baseball on both major and minor league levels. Between 1973 and 1984, as a catcher and occasional infielder, he played for the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians. Essian managed the Chicago Cubs for 122 games (59-63) when Don Zimmer was fired in the middle of the 1991 season.
A memorable moment: an inside-the-park grand slam in 1979 for the Athletics against the Toronto Blue Jays.
For the last two summers, Essian, 67, has managed the Utica Unicorns in the United Shores Professional Baseball League that plays at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica.
Preston, 71, who graduated in 1965, four years before Essian, doesn’t need much prodding to get him talking about St. Martin’s impact on his life. Here’s some of what I scribbled down:
In addition to football, basketball and baseball, he played hockey, too, on some of the dozen canals that fed off the Detroit River through the neighborhood, producing skating surfaces all winter long.
“I must have had a hundred stitches in my face,” he says, pointing to his forehead and eyebrows, “from getting hit with sticks and pucks.”
On school days, kids walked home for lunch. You had 55 minutes. It took Preston 20 minutes each way to cover the mile to his house for a quick 15-minute snack.
“One time in the fourth grade, I was two minutes late. Sister (they were IHM nuns) took away my baseball glove. I was crushed. After class, I stuttered and cried to get my glove back. She gave it to me. I wasn’t late anymore.”
Preston says he always asked for sports equipment for birthday presents. This became vitally practical when he played CYO football.
“There were 35 kids on the team, but only 22 had complete uniforms. When you went in to substitute, you used the helmet of the player you were replacing. One birthday, I got a (Notre Dame All American) Johnny Latter uniform with thigh pads.”
The mid-1960s were glory years for the Catholic League. Some 76 schools comprised 10 divisions. St. Martin competed in the 2nd Division East with Nativity, St. Philip, St. Bernard, St. Stanislaus, Annunciation, St. Rose and St. Charles. All of those schools closed between 1966 and 1972, including St. Martin in 1970.
Preston intercepted four passes in a game against St. Rose. “That’s still the league record,” he says.
He played third base in baseball, where St. Martin won its first and only CHSL championship, a 4-0 victory over St. Hedwig for the 2nd Division title. John Agbay pitched a one-hitter, his second of the season.
St. Martin has a place in Michigan High School Athletic Association history: On Feb. 17, 1948, Dick Seagram scored 83 points in a game against St. Philip, a state record at that rime. Now it’s fourth best.
Leading up to 1961, St. Martin had lost 60 basketball games in a row. “We didn’t do good in large gyms. Our floor (in the old church) was tiny, 65-feet by 32-feet. (Regulation size is 84 by 50). Our mid-court line was close to the foul line.”
On the day St. Martin was to play archrival St. Philip for a state district title, Preston’s mother, Madelyn, died. She was his biggest fan. “I played because she would have wanted me to,” he said. He scored 19 points to lead an upset 64-59 victory. It was the first of five consecutive state district titles St. Martin won from 1965 to 1969.
Preston’s college career covered about 10 years. It started at Wayne State, but was interrupted by his necessity to work at Chrysler and tend to his father, Howard, wheelchair-bound with Huntington’s disease, an inherited condition that causes the progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the brain. Eventually, he was placed in a nursing home.
Then followed nearly three years at Macomb Community College. The summer before he transferred to Michigan State, he met Norma Scheer in an East Warren bowling alley and fell in love. At MSU, he lasted just a semester. “I majored in pinochle and euchre,” he laughs.
Norma accepted his marriage proposal with one of her own: “I’ll marry you if you finish your education.” He did at the University of Detroit as a history major. He retired as a bank official.
They married in 1970. They have two daughters: Jennifer, who passed away three years ago at the age of 37, and Erin, a high school teacher in Tennessee, where her husband is on the University of Tennessee faculty.
After the July 1967 riots, over the next couple of decades, the neighborhood changed from mostly white to mostly black. Rampant drugs, crime and unemployment ruled the area.
In 2004, more than 500 people showed up for a St. Martin neighborhood reunion, an event that has been repeated every three years since. The next one is scheduled for 2019. Preston says, “It may be our last. One of the co-chairs has died and she had all the contact information.”
Today, across the street and down the street from the church you find a gated community of middle-income townhouses, apartments and a harbor. Across a canal that Preston used to play hockey on is another gated community with homes starting at $600,000.
On another canal that has become the home of high-end cabin cruisers is a subdivision of 7,500-square-foot homes costing $1 million-plus.
Still, in the center of all this luxury, on the corner of Lenox and Haverhill, stands St. Martin Church – forlorn, an eyesore, gutted, shuttered. Still, in the hearts of former parishioners and neighbors, it flickers with memories of days gone by.
"... when I was twelve."
Contact Don Horkey at email@example.com.