Sentry stands guard for 30 years

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published April 26, 2019

 The Sterling Heights Sentry was first  published 30 years ago on May 3, 1989.

The Sterling Heights Sentry was first published 30 years ago on May 3, 1989.

 Bethesda Christian Church senior pastor  Pat Visger stands in front of his church  building, which was dedicated in 1989.

Bethesda Christian Church senior pastor Pat Visger stands in front of his church building, which was dedicated in 1989.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 This city photo, as seen in the book “Images of Modern America: Sterling Heights,” shows an orchard along Clinton River Road that was sold in 1989 in order to be turned into a subdivision the following year.

This city photo, as seen in the book “Images of Modern America: Sterling Heights,” shows an orchard along Clinton River Road that was sold in 1989 in order to be turned into a subdivision the following year.

Photo by Colleen Miller Pawl, provided by the Sterling Heights Historical Commission


STERLING HEIGHTS — Much can happen over the span of three decades. And throughout those years, the Sterling Heights Sentry has watched and documented what has occurred within its territory.

May 3 marks the 30th anniversary of the Sterling Heights Sentry’s premiere publication. To celebrate, the Sentry is taking a look back at the times and conditions of the city around 1989.

A ‘closer-knit community’
As a real estate broker with around 45 years of experience, Sterling Heights resident and longtime public official Joseph Romano recalls living in Sterling Heights in 1989 because he wanted a place that his kids would enjoy, and he had heard good things about the city. All three of his kids went to Utica Community Schools, he said.

He described the city that he remembers back then as still “very rural” in spots.

“There was a farm on the corner of 16 Mile and Dodge Park (roads). They used to stop the traffic and make the cows walk the street where Heritage stands,” he said, referring to the junior high school.

“It was a lot more closer-knit community. The developers hadn’t gone in yet, and not every neighborhood was a subdivision. … On Maple Lane, you could go from 14 Mile to 15 Mile and never see a car.”

Today, Romano, 77, is a Macomb County commissioner who represents District 4 in Sterling Heights. Prior to that, he served on the City Council from 1997 to 2016.

When Romano first moved to Sterling Heights, Richard Notte was only a city councilman — he wouldn’t become mayor until 1993.

“He was my mentor. He was my friend,” Romano said. “He bled Sterling Heights. If it was good for the residents, Richard Notte would go for it. … He kind of kept the council in line and made sure that the residents got what they wanted.”

Romano said that back then, the City Council was laying the framework for what the city is today. He mentioned some of the officials who were around in those days, such as former City Attorney Paul O’Reilly and former City Manager Steve Duchane.

A seat at the table
The year 1989 was also the one in which Councilwoman Deanna Koski was first elected to the Sterling Heights City Council. She also mentioned that parts of the city were more rural back then, adding that she remembers the farm along Metropolitan Parkway.

Koski, 77, said she moved to Sterling Heights in 1969, which is the year after it formally became a city. She said Mayor Jean DiRezze Gush — Sterling Heights’ only female mayor — encouraged her to run for City Council in 1989. At the time, Koski lived in a subdivision near Ryan Road, north of 14 Mile Road.

“I said, ‘You want me to run for City Council, you get me a streetlight over here, because I can’t get out of my subdivision,’” she said. “I got my streetlight.”

In her first years on the council, Koski recalls seeing lots of developments and new subdivisions spring up. Customs and habits were in many ways undergoing a sea change from what they are today.

“When I was first elected, they were smoking at the council table,” she said. “When I got elected, that’s when they quit smoking at the council table.”

Sitting on the City Council in a less digital world posed its own challenges, with a strong reliance on copiers, fax machines and City Council informational packets full of paper.

“We had the backup material. It would get quite heavy,” she said. “They got so large that they had to get us suitcases on rollers, like your overnight cases.”

Koski said the city’s population in 1989 wasn’t as diverse as it is today — she recalls most residents back then being Polish, German or Italian.

Sterling Heights historian and librarian Debbie Vercellone said the city’s estimated 1990 population, per the census, was 117,800, compared to around 132,600 in 2017. She said that three decades ago, the city’s northwest quadrant didn’t have the “high-end housing” that’s currently there.

“According to the city calendar of that time, only 64% of the city’s land was developed,” she said. “Many roads had not yet been widened. Lakeside Mall was still a thriving commercial and social center where everyone went to shop, as Amazon was not even created until 1994.”

Vercellone explained that the city was also less ethnically diverse, and 1989 preceded the large-scale Mideastern immigration that was to come later.

More primitive technology meant that people interacted and communicated differently.

“Residents were not in constant contact for lack of cellphones, email and social media,” she said. “It was much more of a chore to obtain information needed to get through life in those days before home computers.”

Among other quirks and differences that Vercellone noted about the 1989 version of Sterling Heights:

• The Parks and Recreation Department offices were based in the Upton House.

• The 41-A District Court was inside the police station.

• Nelson Park had not been developed.

• The city’s park trail system, which first arose earlier that decade, “was just getting a foothold.”

• The current senior center did not exist, and neither did the addition to the Sterling Heights Public Library.

Dedicated to service
According to the book “Images of Modern America: Sterling Heights,” one of the major events to happen in 1989 was the dedication of Bethesda Christian Church, which is located at the corner of Metropolitan Parkway and Schoenherr Road.

Bethesda Senior Pastor Pat Visger said his church was originally founded in 1934 in Detroit, on the corner of Van Dyke Avenue and Nevada Avenue. The transition to move northward to Sterling Heights began in the early 1980s, and the new church building was dedicated on June 25, 1989, he said.

Visger said Bethesda purchased about 90 acres of space for its new church. He said his church has enjoyed the Sterling Heights community and is happy to be there.

“I think part of it was just the fact that this tract of land was available,” he said. “I do remember the day that they were looking at the property.”

Visger estimates Bethesda’s congregation in 1989 to have been around 2,200-2,400 per Sunday. Today, he said, the church gets about 500-600 people in weekly attendance, with around 800 on Easter.

“Churches in general have felt a little bit of pressure from the culture, but we’ve also recently gone through a pastoral transition in 2016,” he said.

Visger said Parkway Christian School — then called Bethesda Christian School — wasn’t initially on the Sterling Heights site in 1989. The school moved from Detroit to a leased spot in Warren and operated there for a number of years until an addition could be made to Bethesda’s property, he said. He said the school currently has over 500 students and is experiencing growing pains.

“We’ve been able to get engaged with the community,” Visger said.

Some long-standing local businesses also remember what it was like to serve the community 30 years ago.

John Jetts, co-founder of Jet’s Pizza, said he was happy to start his adventure of running the pizza empire in Sterling Heights in 1978. A full-page Jet’s Pizza ad appears on page two of the inaugural Sentry newspaper.

Jetts also remembers what the city was like in the late 1980s. He said that by the ’80s, Jet’s was handling pizza deliveries, and it continues to use its own employees to do so.  

“As you know, technology has changed everything,” he said. “(Before) it was just phone orders coming in. Today’s time, in 2019, they’d rather order on the app. Technology has really made a change to the whole pizza industry. Back then, not all the pizzerias delivered either.”