Saturday, February 23, 2019

Detroit's Greektown Stella - Iconic Homeless Woman Remembered

Photo taken of Stella Paris by a Detroit Policeman
I hadn't seen or heard of Greektown Stella for several decades, then several days ago, I found out that she had died almost seven years earlier on January 16th, 2011. When I saw her photograph on a recent Facebook post on the Old Delray/Old Detroit site, I knew that face and suddenly felt very sad. Whenever I go to a Greek restaurant or see the film Zorba, the Greek, I privately think of the crazy old Greek woman who patrolled the dimly lit Greektown neighborhood in Detroit from the late1960s until the early 1990s.

Stella was a modern day Cassandra that nobody wanted to listen to. Over forty years ago, whenever my friends and I would go to Greektown for dinner or shop at Trappers' Alley, Stella was often ranting something in Greek or broken English at the top of her lungs at all hours of the night. Stella's piercing voice would echo off the brick buildings. She was impossible to ignore. Because she was a permanent fixture on Monroe Street, we quipped that she was being paid by the restaurant owners to provide local color for the Greek neighborhood.

Several newspaper accounts at the time of her death list Stella Paris' age at ninety-five or older. No birth certificate, citizenship, or immigration documentation exists for her, so she was denied public assistance. Stella is believed to have been born on the Greek island of Samos.

Doug Guthrie, writing for The Detroit News on January 21, 2011, discovered that "(Stella) had come to this country in 1938 through an arranged marriage to restaurant owner John Perris. She raised three sons and never wanted to learn English (but she spoke broken English of necessity). Stella was four feet, ten inches tall and very trim. She passed away from a heart condition. Stella's body was laid out at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral on East Lafayette Blvd.

In life, Stella suffered from mental illness and the scourge of schizophrenia. She had family who tried to take her in, but she wanted to be in Greektown where she felt comfortable, even when sleeping outside contending with the weather and other aggressive street people. She carried a nightstick for her protection, given to her by the police at the12th precinct downtown. "The Greek community took care of her by giving her food, shelter, and love," said Frank Becsi. "Stella is buried at Woodmere Cemetery."

"Stella was a blessing to me," says Shelley Rigney, someone who remembers her fondly. "I was young and she would always tell the 'Wolf' types not to bother me because my Momma knew Jack Tocco (Detroit Mafia Don) & my Pappa was a big crazy Irishman & I was the only baby girl in a house full of Big Boys. She would laugh and tell me, 'Ya justa keep walkin'. Don't you let any of that Trash even stick to your shoe.' God bless her sweet soul & kind heart... I still have ribbons and all the things she gave me."

Stella led the hard life of a homeless street person. Even when she was in her fifties, she looked much older than she was. A retired Detroit policeman who wishes not to be identified walked the Greektown beat for years. He tells a more sobering, less romantic story of Stella's street life.

"(Stella) claimed to be some sort of Greek princess, or that her late husband was the king of Greece, or some similar story.... She would hear voices and stand on the street corner and yell at the voices... you could hear her half a mile away on a calm day.

"She was your basic homeless bag lady, and unfortunately, her mind was not all there.... Stella's favorite motel was police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien, just up the street from Greektown. Some (of the officers) took her in as a mascot, providing her with some old marksmanship badges, chevrons, and a nightstick (billy club) that she carried faithfully....


Stella on the street.
"I do know that many of the merchants in Greektown took pity on her regularly and provided her with food as needed. As I said, (Stella) was an icon. Actually, she was a perfect representative of so many mentally challenged people in the United States today."

Detroit policewoman Cynthia Hill said, "From our perspective, she never meant any harm. When I was working as a teenage police cadet, I noticed the officers let her sleep in the basement (of police headquarters) and bathe in our sinks in the women's restroom on the first floor. At first, she scared me. They told me, 'It's just Stella.' Later when I became an officer, I would see her on the street and feel the same way."

News of his mother's death came as a surprise to her seventy-year-old son, Anthony Perris of Livonia. He told The Detroit News that her life began on the streets when she was in her fifties. "The family assumed she had died fifteen years ago when she disappeared from Greektown," Perris said. "We didn't know that she had been ordered by a judge into an assisted care facility because she was brandishing a knife."

Stella Paris spent the last years of her life peacefully at the East Grand Nursing Home on East Grand Blvd. At the time, the facility desperately searched for any relative who could shed light on her immigration status. Because of the common misspelling of her real last name, the Perris family was never notified. Stella was indigent, so the nursing home took her under its protective care. But when Stella needed heart surgery, they were simply not in any position to pay for her hospital bills.

We have all seen homeless people in our communities. Some do their best to be unobtrusive or obsequious, while others rant and rave, wrestling with their personal demons. They are all desperate people living a tooth and nail existence. In our several encounters with Greektown Stella, my wife and I tried our best to avoid and not engage her in conversation because we didn't know what to expect. I regret that decision now.

Shelley Rigney laments, "Stella was a woman who was tossed aside by many, but she still managed to survive somehow. Now I wish I would have taken time for her. She had a lot to say and teach others."

Finding out about Greektown Stella's death brought it all back to me. Rather than our scorn and apathy, these people need acts of kindness and generosity, not only during the holiday season but throughout the entire year.

More on Stella can be found in this link: http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2010/01/greektown_stella_shouts_no_mor.html 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Detroit's Edgewater Park--A Fading Memory

Pay-One-Price Ticket
The Rouge River ran behind Edgewater Park--a twenty-acre amusement park on the West Side of Detroit. The park opened in 1927 on West 7 Mile Road and Grand River--just in time for Depression and World War II generations to escape the dire headlines while having some fun and diversion during hard times. 

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s--my era--the amusement park was one of the most popular recreation spots in the Detroit area. When we were kids, my parents took us to the park every year or so, but when my friends and I started to drive, Edgewater park was a regular after dark destination. We drove north up Telegraph Road from Dearborn Heights. It took no time at all to get to this oasis of affordable amusement and cheap thrills.

Popular rides and attractions were the one-hundred and ten foot tall Ferris Wheel with its great neon lighting effect at night, the Wild Mouse that would give riders whiplash, the always popular Dodge-Em cars, the reality-altering Hall of Mirrors, and the Fun House where many a male got to first base for the first time.

Clicking and clacking before The Beast's first drop.
Edgewater Park's premiere ride was a wooden roller coaster named "The Wild Beast." During the days of Pay-One-Price admission, some riders would see how many consecutive times they could ride The Beast in a day. I remember riding it seventeen times and having bruises all over my body afterward. One person claims to have ridden it twenty-seven times in one day, but I'm not certain how many of those rides were pre- or post- mortem. He must have worn protective clothing. The real record is lost to history.

In the 1960s, the Teen Scene became a popular weekend spot. Admission to the park and the concert were included in the ticket price. Popular Motown groups often appeared at the park--as did the likes of Del Shannon and David Cassidy. Corn dogs, Coney dogs, cotton candy, and real French fries with malt vinegar drew teens to the park in huge numbers.

Roller Coaster Ruins
Declining revenues and competition from modern steel roller coaster amusement parks like Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio proved to be more than the old park could handle. The last click of the turnstile was on September 13, 1981. The park operated for fifty-four years, but little is known of its history. Today, the site is home to the Greater Grace Temple.

Photos of Edgewater Park: http://photos.metrotimes.com/15-nostalgic-photos-of-detroits-old-edgewater-amusement-park/#16

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

When White Pine was Green Gold in Michigan

"Brag Load" of Logs and Ten Man Crew with a Team of Horses

The Michigan forest landscape was bountiful for early settlers. Rivers and lakes provided plenty of fish and wildlife while the forests and open glades provided game and fowl for hunters. Clearing the land was a slow process with timber cut with axes. The first order of business was throwing up some hasty shelter. Log cabins were built and railings cut for fences to pen livestock. What scrap wood was left became firewood. These small pioneer farms had minimal impact on the environment.

Rapid development of the American East in the first half of the nineteenth century depleted much of the lumber forests east of the Appalachians. By mid-century, New York lumber speculators discovered the vast virgin hardwood forests of Michigan's lower and upper peninsulas--especially the stands of old-growth white and red pine for building materials. Many of these trees were over 200 years old, 200 feet high, and over 5 feet in diameter.

With the invention of the steam-powered circular saw in the 1850s, the lumber business ramped up production. Fortunes were made by enterprising men who had vision and deep pockets. They bought large tracts of private and government land and were quickly dubbed Lumber Barons. They owned the saw mills and set up the system of lumber camps that made more than a few men rich. The "shanty boys" as the owners called the lumberjacks did the heavy lifting. After a harsh winter, they could walk out of the forest with several hundreds of dollars--big money in those days--only to be targets of robbery or worse. The lumber business attracted a tough crowd in and out of the forest like any boom town industry would.

The first great lumber area in the state was Saginaw Bay which fed into Lake Huron. What made this location ideal for the lumber business were the six rivers that converged to form the Saginaw River: the Chippewa, Tittabawassee, Cass, Bad, Shiawassee, and Flint. From 1860 until 1890, most of the trees from the heart of the state were felled and floated down these rivers on their way to the saw mills.


Logging was a cold weather job. The logs were too big and heavy to drag through the woods. The loggers cleared timber roads first. When the roads iced over in winter, huge sleds were loaded with timber and dragged by horses or oxen to the river's edge where they were stacked awaiting the spring thaw; then, the logs were pushed into the swollen rivers and floated down to the lumber mills. Once at the saw mill, the logs were cut into boards, kiln-dried to reduce weight and warping, and loaded onto ships.


Lumber camps were rustic, quickly built, and meant to be temporary. When the land was exhausted of timber, the operation moved on. The camps consisted of a bunk house, a cook shanty with dining room and kitchen, a camp store, a blacksmith's shop, and a barn for the horses. Each camp had about seventy men and two foremen, twenty teams of horses, and seven yoke of oxen. A ten man crew could produce about 100 logs a day with a two-handled, cross-cut saw and double-edged axes.

Lumberjacks worked from sunrise until sunset, six days a week out in the wilderness with little to occupy them. Their pastimes were telling tall tales and playing cards on Sundays, as well as any mischief they could get away with in town if they were near one.

Lumber camps competed with each other to see which outfit could stack the highest load--called a brag load--and pull it twenty feet over the ice with a team of horses. My guess is the winning camp won a wager and a keg of beer along with bragging rights. I hope the horses got a little something extra for their efforts.

Stump Prairie
When the logging industry was finished raping the land, lumber camps were abandoned because owners didn't want to pay taxes on the land they owned, so they simply defaulted and the land went to the state. In all, over nineteen million acres were clear cut with no reforestation strategy, leaving behind barren "stump prairies" contributing to soil erosion, river and lake pollution, more atmospheric carbon dioxide, and degraded wildlife habitat.

One of the few forest animals that benefited from the clear cutting was the whitetail deer. With new open ground for grazing and more abundant and accessible plant food, populations grew. Little good it did them though. By 1876, professional hunters were killing 70,000 deer each year to supply the booming lumber camps and ship the surplus to Chicago and Detroit--two cities that had a taste for venison.

In a report on Michigan Forest History compiled by the Michigan Department of Resources, researchers found that: "Land clearing for agriculture, logging, and settlement altered local stream flow patterns and volumes, eliminated some waters, and introduced pollutants into others. Huge quantities of sediment from log drives and sawdust from sawmills were dumped into rivers. In one instance, the mouth of the Manistee River accumulated sawdust to the extent that it formed a delta of several square miles. At sawmill locations throughout the state, wherever sawdust was dispensed into the river, toxic and oxygen-deprived conditions were created for fish. These detriments, combined with land clearing efforts, exacerbated soil erosion into rivers, significantly reducing the quality of fish habitat in rivers."

The Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling has the only remaining stand of Michigan old growth forest. The park consists of fifteen square miles featuring forty-nine acres of old growth white pine saved from the teeth of the loggers' saw. The land was gifted to Michigan's Department of Natural Resources in 1927 by Karen Michelson Hartwick as a memorial to the logging industry in the name of her husband Edward E. Hartwick--a lumberman killed in World War I.


During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a logging museum adjacent to the old growth forest in the park to educate visitors about the logging industry. The CCC also hired unemployed men to plant millions of seedlings to reforest Michigan's barren areas, but even after one hundred years, some of the "stump prairies" still exist. On a brighter note, over half of the state is covered by new growth forests.


Michigan Logging History (5 minute video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShqFL9vWXmY