By Jeff Balke
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Merchant seaman Dimitri Manetas left his home in Kalloms Puros, Greece, and worked his way to Galveston in 1970. For the next six years he was a longshoreman who learned the unique talents of entrepreneurs in his new land.
To tap into the trade of day-trippers from Houston, Manetas sold shrimp from his truck parked along Interstate 45 north of the Galveston causeway. During the wait for customers, the savvy Greek seaman noticed a plot of land -- dry, unwanted land -- rising up from the surrounding salt marsh beyond the service road. Manetas bought that property, and bought into the American dream in the process.
He went from hawking bait to running a restaurant and icehouse on the compound, which became a familiar sight to weekend travelers to Galveston. In 1992 Manetas made his foray into the flesh trade, transforming the structure into twin temples for topless and bottomless dancers, Dimitri's and the Ocean Cabaret.
A beefy man of 54 years, he is proud of his business acumen and his mini-empire springing up out of nowhere -- a Galveston County commissioner once described Manetas's tract as fit only for snakes and naked women.
He also beams with confidence at his self-sufficiency. He raised a family on the bleak 17 acres, which has its own water supply and sewage treatment system. When surrounding police began busting customers after they left his Fourth of July fireworks booth in 1986, a fed-up Manetas hoisted his own flag and declared independence. After that, the plot has been dubbed both Dimitriville and Dimitri's Island.
And now it serves as the site of Manetas's last stand. For differing reasons, environmentalists and evangelical opponents of adult clubs are converging on Dimitri's Island. Armed with good intentions and, in some cases, cash, they want his unique corner of the universe closed forever.
"I must fight for what is mine," Manetas says. "If I have to, if they keep bothering me, I'll fight all the way to the United States Supreme Court." In a voice still heavy with his native tongue, he pleads his case: "I am a good, honest man. I don't screw anybody. I don't lie to anybody."
By legal standards, Dimitri Manetas did the right thing when he built his nude dancing emporiums. They were in an unincorporated area miles from any school, church, residence or other business, for that matter.
The clubs sit alone on the stretch of Interstate 45 between Texas 146 and the Galveston causeway. Their only neighbors, except for his two-story home, are spoonbills, white ibis, brown pelicans, arctic peregrine falcons, the Texas diamondback terrapin and the little Gulf salt marsh snake.
His customers are mostly horny refinery men and dockworkers who have come to him to escape the workaday world through their own brand of voyeurism. But the views outside the clubs aren't bad either. During daylight, the ever-present Gulf breeze ripples waves in the knee-high salt grass. At night, the lights of Galveston twinkle to one side. On the other, the industrial gloom of Texas City refineries is transformed into a display of fire and light.
That was largely the scene in 1992, when a local powerhouse of a woman, Evangeline Whorton, passed by on her way to a "livable community" conference in Austin. After she returned, Dimitri's Island and its blue-collar clientele would come under a steady siege from an unlikely source: the Galveston Garden Club, and other influential forces.
Whorton and her husband, Elbert, a UTMB professor, have shown for almost 30 years that they can get things done in a big way in Galveston. She is widely credited with the re-establishment of the Galveston Historical Foundation to help save Galveston's legacy from the wrecking ball. In fact, she and about 50 other activists once took over a pre-Civil War structure, the Ufford Building, to prevent its demolition. The building was later torched, some say by the local bank that owned it.
It was Whorton who had the novel idea of raising funds with a winter festival based on a historic or literary theme. Today, Dickens on the Strand is a nationally recognized event. The Whortons proved instrumental in attracting and underwriting the restoration of the 1870 sailing ship Elissa.
Eight years ago Whorton came back from the Austin conference and began looking to transform the I-45 corridor near the causeway into a grand entryway to Galveston. There would be pristine wetlands, nature trails, wildlife habitats and scenic areas awaiting travelers into the city. Among those 900 mostly vacant acres were Manetas's businesses.
Whorton and her garden club associates wanted to get the state to condemn, if necessary, his property and remove various billboards, but that campaign was defeated by the opposition of the influential billboard industry.
However, federal grants have given the club and its real estate acquisition arm, Scenic Galveston, some $2.4 million to purchase much of the land. That effort to attract matching funds has renamed one focal point as the John M. O'Quinn Estuary, after the Houston plaintiff's attorney donated $400,000 to the cause.
But there's one final holdout among the property owners: Dimitri Manetas.
Manetas says he would sell for the right price, a price that he says is far from the $300,000 now on the table from the garden club. "They can pay me $10 million, and if they keep bothering me, it goes to $20 million," he says. "I want to leave this to my kids. I'm not giving up my 30 years in the United States for nothing."