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Mixed Emotions About A Downtown Detroit "Character"

I did a double take when I read news that Stella Paris, a mentally ill elderly woman known around this city as "Greektown Stella," finally passed away at age 95.

95-year-old Stella Paris was special to so many people. She was from Greece and took pride in that. So, she choose to live her life on the streets of Greektown in downtown Detroit.

Stella was mentally ill and suffered from schizophrenia. Her family tried several times to take her home, but she wanted to be in Greektown. So, the community took care of her by giving her food, shelter and love.

"For some of us, that was part of the intrigue and fun of going to Greektown. Would we see her," said Bonnie Barton with the East Grand Nursing Home.

"She was a sweetheart," said Oliver Kesto, owner of Athens Liquor Store. "She always (paid) me for everything... She (didn't) accept anything for free."

Of course, anyone's death should be mourned, and Stella's is no different. (I'm also glad she was able to die with a measure of dignity.) From all that I've ever read or heard about her, she was a fascinating figure who, before plunging into the depths of homelessness and insanity, was actually a woman of some means and station. And certainly, no one will question whether she brought added "color" to Greektown, where she could often be found sitting in a doorway, wielding a big-ass stick, shouting nonsense (not to mention insults) at people who wandered by.

Not unlike those merchants, I remember seeing her, too, when I was a kid trying to get an early taste of local nightlife by spending long hours in Greektown on hot summer evenings. But, unlike those merchants, not all of my (or my peers') memories of Greektown Stella are fond ones.

I remember how, apropos of nothing, she'd sometimes swing her big stick at the young black men and women who strolled past. (And these weren't love taps she was trying to dish out either.) I remember, on more than one occasion, hearing her yell slurs and threats. I remember even being on the receiving end of those epithets once or twice. Sure, even as a teenager, I knew enough to blow off the screams as nothing more than rantings from "the crazy Greektown lady" -- we all knew that -- but that doesn't mean that many of us young Detroit kids who ever heard Stella unload will recall her as "a sweetheart."

Greektown Stella was quite a colorful character, and she's been known to cause some commotion as she shouted to the strangers on the street in Greek. Stella sported an army-type uniform and a billy club given to her by Detroit police for protection. DPD helped Greektown Stella in other ways, too.

I remember the army greens. And the big stick. And the billy club. And I also remember wondering, even back then, how a boisterous, mentally unbalanced homeless lady was allowed to hang out in one of Detroit's premiere nightlife hubs, charging young people with sticks and billy clubs and shouting slurs, without ever being carted away.

Mostly, though, I remember wondering what so many of my friends and I would ask each other almost every time we ventured downtown and saw her: What if Stella had been a homeless black man hanging out in Greektown for all those years, going after passers by with staffs or shrieking threats at them at the top of his lungs while sprawled in front of the doorway of a vibrant establishment? Would that person still have been considered "colorful?" Would he be recalled as a "sweetheart?" Would anyone even deem him worth remembering at all?

More likely, I think, he would've wound up like this.

But no one got too mad at Greektown Stella back then, and I'm certainly not mad now. As I said, she should be mourned and remembered. But as is so often the case in and around Detroit, even those remembrances show just how different -- and divided -- our perceptions can be.

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