Greektown meters to bring change for homeless

Kim North Shine
Special to The Detroit News

Antonio "Shades" Agee, a graffiti artist who once tagged the city with his creations before the Detroit Institute of Arts and the corporate world discovered him, is transforming plain Jane meters into colorful collectors for charity dollars. The meters, part of the Greektown Preservation Society's pilot project, Change Detroit, are being installed on sidewalks in Greektown this week.

These repurposed meters will serve as a mix of public art, charitable good and, possibly, economic stimulus for one of Detroit's oldest neighborhoods — one that is not part of the surge in hipness that other Detroit neighborhoods are experiencing.

Whatever change is deposited into the meters will go to a charity that helps the homeless, including the regular Greektown panhandlers. The cause has special connection for Agee, the artist who was once homeless in Detroit.

"This means a lot," he said as he shakes his can of paint. "I hope it brings some good, positive change."

Meter deposits will go to nearby SS Peter And Paul Warming Center on St. Antoine. The center provides food, shelter, showers and free lawyers who help homeless clients obtain official documents needed to get homes, jobs and more.

The artsy meters are being installed about four feet from the curb and not near city parking meters to prevent confusion.

They'll be located outside Red Smoke barbecue restaurant, Santorini, Second Baptist Church, Firebird Tavern and the Old Shillelagh bar. The last meter is expected to be installed by the Detroit Tigers' Opening Day on April 8.

Change Detroit is the brainchild of the Greektown Preservation Society, made up of business owners, church members and other supporters of the neighborhood around Monroe, Beaubien and St. Antoine known for souvlaki, saganaki and a casino. It is looking for ways to preserve the district's reputation as a destination for visitors.

The meters may help make the district more welcoming, said Athina Papas, daughter of Greektown developer Jim Papas, by helping the warming center find places for the panhandlers to go besides the streets of Greektown and also by creating works of art that people might come to see. Papas is treasurer of the society and part-owner of the restaurant Santorini Estiatorio in Greektown. She is part of a younger generation of Greektown business owners who want to market it as a historic area even as Greektown turns less Greek and more American with chains that include Five Guys burgers and Cold Stone Creamery.

If plans for the meters work out as hoped, Change Detroit will go citywide with neighborhoods choosing the causes they want to support — possibly rotating charities that can plan fundraisers based around the meters. Charity meters aren't new, but they're a first in Detroit. Dozens of cities around the country have meter programs. Denver's 50 meters, for example, raise between $3,000 and $6,500 a year, according to Denver's Road Home, which runs the program focused on helping the homeless. In California, Pasadena's nine meters bring in about $4 per day each and then get a match from the United Way, said Bill Huang, director of Pasadena's housing and career services.

"This has become something we really care about. These are people we've gotten to know and we want them to be taken care of. We want them to get the help they need, not just handouts," Papas said of the homeless who will benefit from the meters. "We also want our customers ... to leave with a good feeling so they want to come back."

For Greektown, in particular, the meters are one part of a broader vision to increase visitors and customers. Besides a new version of the Greek festival that was started last year, the preservation society plans to close off brick-paved Monroe Street, the main road through Greektown, and make it a walkable plaza instead of a crowded thoroughfare at least in the summer.

"We want to close it on weekends for festivals and special events initially," said Athina Papas. "We want it to be a hangout. We want people to stroll from place to place, just stay and enjoy Greektown."

She and her husband, Tom Paparaptis, brought the idea of artsy meters for charity to the preservation society after coming across eye-catching charity meters in South Beach last year.

After trying to buy unused meters from the city of Detroit, Paparaptis bought them from a dealer in Alabama.

Dozens of cities in the U.S. and Canada have meters for the homeless and other purposes: Las Vegas, Portland, Dayton among them. Many meters are plainly marked, not works of art. Pasadena's are bright orange with smiley faces and inspirational sayings. South Beach's are whimsical, art deco.

"We got back from South Beach and we started looking into it and we decided we wanted to find a local artist to do the same thing in Detroit," Papas said. "We thought about students at the Center for Creative Studies."

Meanwhile, Tasso Teftsis, also a member of the preservation society and owner of Astoria Pastry Shop on Monroe and in Royal Oak, ran into the artist on a Greektown sidewalk and shared the idea for the meters. The two met years ago.

Agee didn't hesitate to be a part of something that might help people living in the uncertainty he once knew. If not for the help of an agency that treated his substance abuse and eventually led him to "my lifelong dream job of being a garbage man," for several years in Ann Arbor he never would have gotten back to the art that he started as a teenager while growing up in the home with a father who was a jazz musician.

"This is a really important subject," he said. "It's not bad they're there. They're there for a reason. But I don't give them money."

He gives instead to places that offer services.

Papas said she couldn't imagine a better artist for the job.

"Antonio comes down to Greektown. He knows the neighborhood. And he was homeless once. He gets this," she said. "It just was a perfect fit.

"We're excited to see where this will go," Papas said. "We hope people will come to see the art and come to give some help."

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer