Bodyguards for Mike Duggan must have wondered about my plans when -- armed with a baseball bat – I strode toward the Detroit mayor. But I wished that day only to make an historical point about the hallowed ground where he stood.
This was almost two years ago at Hansen Park in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood in Detroit’s southeast corner. We were across the street from St. Martin of Tours church (no, not St. Martin DePorres, that’s on the west side).
Duggan was there to cut a ribbon and re-dedicate the playground with two beautiful new basketball courts, a fabulous play scape for kids and comfortable seating for the older folks.
“Who’s this?” the mayor asked as I pointed to the autograph burned by machine into the major league bat.
“Jim Essian,” I told Duggan. “He grew up here in Jefferson-Chalmers and this was one of his playgrounds. He learned to hit here 50 years ago. He graduated from St. Martin in 1969 and played more than 10 seasons as a major-league catcher, a lot of them with the White Sox and with Oakland.”
For two good reasons, I’ve thought a lot in recent days about Jim Essian, Hansen Field (as it was then known), St. Martin’s parish and the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.
One reason is that the city just announced an ambitious new plan to revitalize the Jefferson-Chalmers community.
The proposed major development, according to The Detroit News, will include a grocery at East Jefferson and Piper and affordable housing in a prime section of the city bounded by the Detroit River on one side and Grosse Pointe Park on another.
“These are things people are going to see happening in 12, 18, 24, 36 months,” city planner Maurice Cox told The News.
► Related post today: In Jefferson-Chalmers, Residents and Planners Don't See Eye-to-Eye
My second reason is personal and coincidental. Graduates of the long-vanished St. Martin High School are planning a major reunion for Sept. 7, for anyone who either passed through that school or that neighborhood in the 20th century.
In addition, the class of 1969 is planning a 50th-anniversary event the night before the big shebang, and we’re inviting the classes of 1968 and 1970. We were the final three graduating classes from the school at Lenox and Avondale.
If nothing else, the promised rebirth of our old neighborhood will give us something to talk about when we gather on the late-summer weekend after Labor Day.
The News' story showed a photo of cracked sidewalks at the vacant intersection of Piper and “Jeff.” In that this corner was my old bus stop, I decided to drive down Piper and all those other memory lanes on Tuesday afternoon.
Cruisin' the old 'hood
It was a sun-splashed winter day with blue sky and no wind and glittering fresh snow, the better to see how much has changed, how much has stayed the same and how much has improved. Some of the houses – a century old now – are in better shape than they were 50 years ago, on Riverside Drive, on Lakewood, on Chalmers -- and on Piper, across the street from Hansen.
The old Fisher mansion is still the Hare Krishna temple, just across the street from the St. Martin block, where the school and convent are gone, the church boarded up since its guts were stripped by looters. The rectory still stands.
Guyton School on Philip and Korte will be renovated into a community and residential building with 40 two-bedroom units, the city says, and the Vanity Ballroom on Jefferson and Newport will go retail on the street level. They plan to restore the old Kresge Building on Lakewood and Jefferson and turn it into a restaurant. If only we could get Sanders back.
I turned my car toward the river and stopped at places we used to call Lakewood Park (at the foot of Lakewood) and Angel Park (at the foot of Alter). Got out to breathe the clean air and watch the ice in the water and gaze at Canada, less than a mile away. Heard no freighter moans in the dead of winter but they’ll be back in the spring along with the fish flies.
Catholic tribe of boomers
Back in the car, I crossed Fox Creek at the Korte Bridge where the entrance to Grosse Pointe Park has been barricaded. We used to ride our bikes that way.
Back then, in Jefferson-Chalmers, with all those old elm trees, kids used to ride their bikes through burning piles of leaves in the autumn and, in the winter, “hitch” rides with their hands on rear car bumpers that would pull you through the snow, at great risk. Compared to today, parents let kids run wild back then, but there was a reason for it.
This was the era of Baby Boom, the 1950s and 1960s, and some families (it was a Catholic neighborhood) had siblings in the double digits. My family qualified with just 10. The Essians had more.
Everybody’s brother and sister knew everybody else’s brother and sister (and some still do). And all the parents knew each other and everybody knew everybody’s business, or some of it. We were a tribe.
Our parents had survived the Great Depression and World War II and brought us up in homes with a single wage-earner and one car. We had bus lines like the Chalmers Through and the Conner Through that twisted through our streets and up to Jeff and beyond.
The Bookmobile came once a week and parked between Hansen and St. Martin’s. Vendors in slow trucks hawked produce on megaphones up and down Drexel, Lenox, Dickerson, Emerson, Continental and Kitchener.
Walking to bars and barbers
People walked a lot, way more than now. You could stroll to little grocery markets and get that night’s dinner or to little sweet shops and bars and barber shops and drug stores on Essex and Freud (which, of course, was pronounced “Frood.”)
They’re all gone now. People don’t live like that anymore, but on a day like this you remember how they once did.
So you take the old route up Ashland and also go by Manistique, Algonquin and the red bricks of Marlborough and recently built gated communities with street names like “New Town.”
To be sure, you still see some dilapidated housing, but many of the abandoned and burned-out eyesores have been demolished in recent years. There is plenty of vacant land on which to build new things.
So will the new Jefferson-Chalmers bring back movie theatres like the Cinderella, the Lakewood and the Esquire? Don’t count on it, but a megaplex might be nice. For the first time in several decades, the old ‘hood looks to stand a real shot at a renaissance.
Perhaps that ceremony for the rebirth of Hansen Park was a harbinger for Jefferson-Chalmers. Maybe some of the St. Martin reunion people will cruise through it this September when returning from the far-flung ‘burbs or from out of town.
And I sure hope Jim Essian shows up because I must return his Louisville slugger.
Essian gave it to me in 1976 when we both lived in Chicago and I drove him to O’Hare Airport in my Volkswagen Beetle and his duffel bag was too full.
“Keep the bat, Joe-Joe!” he said.
That wood has darkened with age but still feels solid. It might not have too many more hits in it, but I suspect there still are plenty of memories.
► For details on the St. Martin/Jefferson-Chalmers reunion Sept. 7, contact email@example.com.