There is a place I know where one is surrounded by Greek shops and Greek speakers. A place were you can buy a yeeros, not a kebab. A place were old men can be seen playing with their kombologia at their usual table in MacDonald’s. This place I know would not be out of sync in Athens, except it’s in New York! Welcome to Astoria, just a 10-minute drive from Manhattan.
It was my first day in New York, my first ever visit to America, and it was freezing. To the point were my fingers had turned purple and Hellenic blue. I scrambled into the first Diner I could find…with a Greek flag!
I stepped into Michael’s Diner, desperate to have a coffee and a breather from the bitter cold outside. I was greeted by a friendly ‘Good morning’ by the waiter. Before I could reply in English, my Greek brain took over and I said a simple, ‘Kalimera.’ Within minutes I was talking to Antonis in Greek. From that moment on, I knew that my trip to New York would not be your typical tourist visit, it would be another Greek adventure. You see, I had decided to stay in Astoria , the traditional heart of the Greek community.
Astoria, home to over 17,000 people of Greek origin is the antithesis of New York. Lacking in tall buildings (the highest I could leap in a single bound was 4 stories) and devoid of the hustle and bustle one would find in Manhattan, Astoria has a different setting altogether. Covered in snow and divided down the main street by a rather unattractive air train, one can’t help being mesmerised by the Greek flavour in all its glory and a touch of Mexico and other migrant groups on the periphery. If its yeeros, souvlaki, Greek music and the Olympiakos shop you seek, Astoria is the place to be… Astoria is a real hub of the Greek community in the US, and it became my ‘home’ for a few days.
Before I continue, some history first. The area around Astoria was settled by German and Dutch settlers in the 16th Century, and was founded as a more permanent ‘village’ in 1839 as Hamlet’s Cove. It was renamed Astoria after a wealthy American, John James Astor invested in the ‘village’ and within a few decades it was dominated by Irish and then Italian migrants. According to journalist Dean Sirigos of Ethnikos Kyrikas (which is based in the area), Astoria started to take in a large influx of Greek migrants in the 1960′s. I had always believed that Boston had the biggest population of Greek speakers, but Dean was quick to show me that New York was the home of Hellenes in the US. He pulled out his Greek Directory and as an example showed me that there is approximately double the amount of Greek churches in New York than Boston, an indication of how many people the Greek Orthodox Church has to service.
Estimations place the number of Americans from Greek heritage in the US from 1.5 million to more than double that figure. When you take into consideration that Greek people have been migrating to the US in large numbers for 100 years, especially after the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, it is plausible that there could be such numbers. One thing is for certain, tens of thousands of Greeks came to America with little more than the shirts on their backs and they, like so many other migrant communities, worked industriously to build a new home for themselves and their children.
I met Father Ioannis Antonopoulos at the impressive Saint Demetrios Church. He has written a book on the Greek history of Astoria, making him a real authority on the area. In his 44 years of being a priest he has seen people come and go in Astoria. Father Antonopoulos told me that many people come to Astoria and then move on every 10-15 years. He gave me a personal tour of the church which included a hall down stairs that was buzzing with volunteers working on a mail out. What impressed me was the sense of community, a sense of belonging by all the people associated with the Church. You could see it in their work, and the way they spoke, that they felt Astoria. As the Father told me, you are in the ‘Little Athens of America.’
The Church was completed around 1942, however, work had commenced in 1927, being slowed down by the Great Depression.
The Church also has a large Youth Adult Discussion group that meets every Thursday night, which is well attended. Other activities that have been organised by the Church include, mentoring, prayer groups, a regular bulletin, boy scouts and brownies, a music band in the 1990′s called the Saint Demetrios Band and the school which is located next door.
The Saint Demetrios School was built around 1957 to cater for the growing number of Greek speakers in the area. These days, the school offers classes for Grades 4 – 12 with approximately 700 students. For the Kindergarten – Year 4 students, the nearby Saint Kathryn Greek Orthodox Church, which was established in 1973, oversees them.
You must meet the Vibraphonist
When I had asked my friend, a talented translator from Greece, to tell me who was the most famous person she knew in Astoria, she said, ‘you must meet the Greek vibraphonist.’
New York is home to many famous and inspirational musicians. I was fortunate enough to meet Christos Rafilides through my friend. After a few days of non-stop Greek visits and eateries, I had been looking forward to having dinner at a ‘French’ restaurant. Little did I know that the French restaurant had been in existence for about 40 years as a Greek family owned business. The owner, asked me a question I hear countless times every year, do you know such and such in Australia, and to our mutual amazement, it was a close friend of mine from my student days.
Christos, who has just released his latest CD, ‘Blue November,’ is an acclaimed musician from Kastoria, Greece. His sound, Manhattan Vibes, is based on his unparalleled talent as a vibraphonist. I had the pleasure of watching him perform in Astoria in another French bar/restaurant owned by a Greek and was taken aback by his style and that of his band. His band consists of Peurto Rican, Italian and Greek cultural influences blending in to the American experience.
I asked Christos why he came to the US and it was his desire to grow as a musician at the prestigious Berkley College in Boston. That was at the age of 22, and since then he has released a number of musical works and toured extensively in Greece and the US. Some of the famous venues he has played at include Dizzy’s Coca Cola, Broadway, the Lincoln Centre and the Jazz Standard.
True to his roots, Christos returns to Greece 6 times a year for work and that ensures he never gets homesick. Having lived in Astoria for the last decade, the talented musician always feels like this is where he belongs. The food, the strength of the community, a good parea and of course the support he receives from local people ensures that is the case. On the night he played, I met not just local Greeks who were there to support him, I also met people from Greece who had come to New York as teachers and other professions to broaden their life experiences.
There is always one aspect of Greek life that is perhaps the most significant, that rises above all considerations, and that is food. George Stamou is another Astoria local who has created a concept that taps into the famous Greek cuisine and appetite. The cleverly titled ‘The Cooking Odyssey,’ is a culinary television show that focuses on the Mediterranean diet and is filmed on location in Greece. It is hosted by chef Yianni Mameletzis, whilst the music on the show is composed by Christos, adding an extra element of Astoria to the series.
What is even more impressive about ‘The Cooking Odyssey’ is that it is filmed in an eco-friendly kitchen, designed by Effie Karambelas of Long Island. Most of the kitchen is made from recycled material with the appliances all being easy on the environment. You can follow the show on PBS in America.
Astoria has a number of Greek eateries scattered around various streets. From the bakery that made the cake in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ to a Greek Bouzoukia run by Romanian gypsies, you can find just about any style of Greek food outlet here.
Famous Greek names from Astoria
Some of the other famous names to come out of Astoria, include singer and actor George Maharis (born 1928), comedian Ted Alexandro (born 1969), the incredible Maria Callas (born 1923) who spent her childhood years in Astoria and film director Tony Spiridakis (born 1959). Other famous names to come out of Astoria include Tony Bennett and Christopher Walken. As I am a slightly Greek focused, I tried my best to find a Hellenic link to these famous names. Sadly, they are not Greek!
It’s not every day that you spend time getting a personal tour with an actor. Antonis Armeftis came to the US from Cyprus. There was a large wave of migrants from Cyprus since the 1974 invasion of that island by Turkey and it is estimated that almost 30% of Greek speakers in Astoria are from Cypriot roots. I met Antonis at the Diner and over the next few days, he became not just my tour guide, but my friend in Astoria as he shared personal experiences of his neighbourhood with me, especially around Ditmar Boulevard, which follows the air train.
Antonis has revelled in the many roles he has played, from theatre to movies that include ‘Maid in Manhattan’ and ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 days.’ When the work is scarce he entertains customers at Michael’s Diner. Fortunately for me, I was not only entertained, but I gained a real insight in the cultural hub that is Astoria. A charming man with a strong theatrical background meant that every time he took me on a visit to a new place, he was either swamped by people who knew him or just somehow created a slightly off beat situation. It was as if Astoria was his stage and I, and the community, were his audience.
I won’t forget being taken to the Greek supermarket to see what Greek products we could find. Within minutes, he was surrounded by fellow thespians and store workers each trying to get his attention. It was like a slapstick comedy being performed in front me, one person would want to arrange a meeting with him, whilst others just wanted to chat. All at the same time, an experience that simply reminded me of daily life in Athens.
Antonis took me to the Athens Square Park, which is just off Ditmar Boulevarde. The park was full of Greek statues and an ‘ancient’ Greek theatre, somewhat fitting when you consider who my host was. I marvelled at the fact that the Greek pillars are higher than any of the trees in the park and on a day with snow falling and the sun shining, it was, to say the least, a truly spectacular experience.
As I continued my tour, I tried to count the number of Greek shops around Astoria, especially on Ditmar Boulevarde, but I must have stopped at 40 before being distracted by the Greek bakery and the glika. In true Greek style, I was invited behind the counter to make use of the old fashioned village oven. Around the area you can’t escape such inventive Greek named shops as Athena Video Store, Akropolis Meat Market, Telly’s Taverna and Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetables.
There are many Greek associations in Astoria, which cater to a region in Greece or a sports affiliation. One place which stood out was the quaint Greek Cultural Centre. Antonis has featured in a number of plays here, but what struck me was the passion of theatre director, Maria. Her Centre plays host to many a Greek production and through it she has helped to influence many actors to reach their ‘dreams.’ Like any number of organisations I was fortunate to visit, I realised that the Centre was another way to ensure the longevity and connection with Greece. Theatre after all was one of the creations of our Hellenic ancestors and in Astoria it is thriving. At the Centre you can find Greek dancing, bouzouki classes, summer movies and a small Greek library.
There has been a slow decline in Greek numbers in Astoria, replaced by people of other nationalities, particularly from Mexico. There has been a trend for second or third generation Greeks to move further out, and many are marrying outside their Hellenic roots. A number of the shops are Greek owned though have long since stopped trading on the Greek theme and it is inevitable that the chirpy group of Greek men who meet at MacDonald’s will not be replaced at their usual table by a younger generation. However, as long as there is a hint of Yeeros in the air, soccer mad Greek supporters, aspiring actors or people who like to celebrate their unique cultural heritage, Astoria will remain what it is, a magnet to Greek speakers. This is especially true to the new Greek arrivals and those who enjoy picking up a Greek newspaper or the latest Greek movie. I am certain that the area will keep its Hellenic traditions.
Importantly, I met many people who were not Greek, who all appreciate the Greek character of the area. Daniel was one such person who I met at the Greek Diner and just like many others I came across, he was enthusiastic of his appraisal of the Greek identity of Astoria. For it makes it an even more interesting, unique experience to live in this xorio.
This is just a taste of Astoria, a theatre of Greek dreams! My few days here ensured that I was captive in the square mile radius of Hellenic Astoria. This colourful, Hellenic outpost has many more stories just waiting to be written. And you never know. On my next visit here, I might just pay a visit to New York itself.
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