Dimitri's Last Stand
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.
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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."
Whorton is livid. "He has no business doing what he is doing out there," she says. "He is a public nuisance." Her primary beef is not his X-rated ventures; she acknowledges that clubs such as Dimitri's are constitutionally protected and have a right to exist.
His are just in the wrong place, Whorton maintains. "I'm not against that kind of club. There is a place for that kind of club, but not on a spectacular gateway to the county seat of Galveston County."
Manetas looks out from his land, seemingly puzzled, and says, "I can't understand. What can they beautify?"
While Manetas was dealing with the garden club onslaught, a separate group feared Galveston County would become another gateway -- for an invasion of Houston nude clubs. A coalition of the religious right and community protectionists reasoned a few years ago that the big city was enacting ordinances against sexually oriented businesses, so it was likely that the G-string crowd would simply bump-and-grind its way across the county line to avoid regulation.
Rebecca Green, a San Leon antique shop owner, became a crusader in the anti-adult-club campaign. She served on a committee that advised county commissioners on creating an SOB ordinance to keep out the neighborhood nemesis of nude clubs. Her cohort, Brenda Trollinger, admits that Manetas became a target of their fight after the garden club became their ally.
"I detest their business," says Green. "The Bible says love the sinner but hate the sin. I am a Christian, and I will never say it any other way. I have a feeling that Dimitri's will go."
They were joined by a group of religious zealots from the Santa Fe area, where activists are pressing the Supreme Court to allow their prayers to be recited at high school football games.
That faction is led by the Reverend Alan Splawn, who would not speak with the Houston Press. "Just put down 'no response' in your column," his wife said as she quickly hung up the phone.
Despite the call by some of the county's advisory committee members to close down Manetas's businesses, the crusade hit a major snag. Officials say that tougher restrictions can be passed against future clubs locating in the county, but key regulations can't be applied to existing sexually oriented businesses.
County Attorney Harvey Bazaman admits that the exemptions mean the new ordinance probably is unlikely to impact Dimitri's or any of the four or five other strip joints in the county. "We have the practical problem that we have some businesses that have a right to be there," he explains. If that legal tenet was ignored, the clubs could tie the county up in expensive litigation that it would likely lose, officials say.
Galveston County commissioners are scheduled to vote on final passage of the ordinance, patterned after Houston's SOB law, on May 25.
Opponents are concerned that the effort may have backfired, that the exemptions mean Manetas will have a monopoly on the skin trade along the lucrative I-45 corridor. That, in turn, would make his property that much more valuable.
Manetas knows that he holds a strong hand against those who would shut him down.
"They can't buy me out, and they can't close me out," he says. "I have all the right papers. I'm not scared of nothing. And I pay my taxes."
He says his strip clubs are no different from thousands of other legal ones along U.S. freeways, and no different from what's available on the Internet or elsewhere. "Today you see everything on the TV; you don't have to come here to see [sex]. The kids see everything on TV. The kids know everything."
Manetas points to streetwalkers in Galveston as an example of a thinly veiled sex trade on the island. "At least here you have to come inside to see the ladies." His daughter, Maria Manetas, points out that the family employs 12 full-time workers and about 40 dancers. "If they get rid of this place," she says, "there will be a lot of people hurting."
There are indications that some of the hard-line positions against his clubs have softened. Trollinger says that while she is opposed to the clubs, she admits that they are probably here to stay.
"If we have to have them, Dimitri's is the way to do it," she says.
Whorton, who remains as committed as ever to her conservation cause, condemns the outcome of the SOB regulatory drive, saying, "I don't understand why the commissioners would give the nod to this aggressive, offensive man."
Other agencies have been approached in the effort to oust Manetas, although the results have been less than spectacular. Whorton enlisted the help of former Galveston County treasurer and Democratic Party activist Richard Kirkpatrick.
He remembers that the elevated portion of Dimitri's Island was once very small, and he says group members watched as Manetas began expanding his domain by moving around dirt fill.
Appeals were made to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which enforces preservation of wetlands. Kirkpatrick says the Corps could have limited the development of the area. "I think that there has been a lack of interest on their part. It has at its disposal a big hammer. The Clean Water Act of 1978 gives the Corps great power. Maybe they are understaffed."
Casey Cutler, chief compliance officer of the Galveston district of the Corps, acknowledges that the Manetas situation has been a challenge.
"He does it real well," he says. "He's still hanging tough. He's built in the middle of the wetlands, but where he built was not wetlands." Cutler says he has looked at aerial photos from the 1930s and '40s that clearly show Dimitri's property as the remnant of a beach dune. In short, those who want Manetas shut down will not do it through the Corps.
Neither can they expect much from the cops, at least the Galveston County Sheriff's Department, in whose jurisdiction the clubs are located, according to Captain Gean Leonard, the undersheriff who is considered the leading candidate in the race to become sheriff.
Leonard points to a nationwide study of crime rates and sexually oriented businesses that shows that crime doesn't dramatically skyrocket simply because of the location of a strip club. He says that the Ocean Cabaret and Dimitri's further demonstrate that the crime rate will not spike just because women take off their clothes in a club.
"If we have a piece of property in the middle of nowhere, we have no crime rate," he says. He does, however, keep an eye on the clubs, just in case. "We are constantly monitoring, keeping an ear to the ground for criminal intelligence."
Dimitri Manetas says there's one way to remove him from his island. If Evangeline Whorton and her allies meet his asking price, he'll sell. But he wants the $10 million after taxes.
"You tell them that," he says.
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