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Rubin: A buoyant march through Greektown’s past

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The flags will wave and the dancers will twirl in Greektown on Sunday, and among the things people can celebrate is the fact that we’re not Atlantic City.

As the 15th annual Greek Independence Day Parade cavorts along Monroe Street, it will pass some familiar Greek icons and some unfamiliar non-Greek ones.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries does not exactly make you think of Athens. Neither will Wahlburgers when it opens down the block in a few months.

Even the Greektown realists get twitchy about chains. But if Greektown isn’t what it used to be, that’s just progress — or anyway, evolution. And again:

Thank Zeus that it’s not Atlantic City.

Today’s Greektown might not be the one you remember, with little Greek markets and old Greek guys playing an indecipherable Greek card game in unadorned Greek coffee shops serving murky Greek coffee.

Demographics, capitalism and a casino ended that era. As the Greek-American population scattered over the years, the coffee shops dried up and the markets closed.

“They’re not there,” says George Reganis of Bloomfield Hills, the founder of the parade, “because the Greek community isn’t there.”

But, as he points out, “the area is holding together.” There’s a fairly clear dividing line — tradition on the north side of Monroe, casino on the south — but the spirit is more cooperative than combative.

A retired GM executive, Reganis, 83, grew up in Philadephia, 60 miles from the casino experiment along the Boardwalk in New Jersey.

Casinos, he says, “destroyed the whole culture of that great city.”

Granted, the city was already swirling the drain. Otherwise, casinos wouldn’t have been worth the gamble. But there, they were toxic, poisoning what little commerce existed within their reach.

In Greektown, there’s a recognition that the restaurants and the roulette wheels need to work together.

The casino is landlord to a Cold Stone Creamery and a Starbucks. Without the Astoria Pastry Shop and Pegasus, though, the casino could be anywhere, or nowhere.

Nobody holds festivals for slot machines.

“That’s why we want to do the parade and all the rest of it,” says Joan De Ronne, director of operations for the Hellenic Museum of Michigan in Midtown:

To celebrate what’s here, but also to remind themselves and everyone else of what used to be.

Greek music, and barbecue

As a member of the parade board, De Ronne will tell you there’s more to the weekend than bands and floats — which, for the record, will hit the pavement at 3 p.m.

The museum, 67 E. Kirby, is featuring an exhibit on Greece’s role in fending off Nazi Germany in World War II. It will also hold a 5 p.m. meet-and-greet Saturday with artist Vlasis Tsotsonis.

At the other end of the cultural scale three hours later, Greek Collegiate Night will introduce fraternities and sororities to live Greek music in Greektown. (There will be libations involved, but chances are the students and the beverages have already been introduced.)

Among the restaurants taking part in Collegiate Night will be Redsmoke Barbecue, owned by the president of the Greektown Preservation Society.

Tasso Teftsis also owns Astoria, and his dad owned a Greektown barbershop. He appreciates the history of the area. But when Redsmoke opened a few years ago, there were already seven Greek restaurants.

“We weren’t going to bring in the eighth.”

Expanding horizons

Teftsis says it’s more important to preserve the architecture and atmosphere of Greektown than to try to replicate an old model.

On Thursday, he’ll relaunch a storefront called Krema as an ice cream shop. He opened the doors there 13 months ago to provide Greek street food — and failed.

“You might want to sell Greek things,” he says, “but people didn’t want to buy it.”

Ice cream is a universal. So he’ll take another shot, and opa for the best.