CAMPBELL, OH – The New York Metropolitan area in general, and Astoria in particular, has the largest population of Greek-Americans anywhere in the United States in terms of sheer numbers. But the highest percentage of Greeks anywhere in the United States is in Tarpon Springs, FL.
None of that is particularly surprising: anyone who has been to New York City – and especially to Astoria – knows that Greeks are abound. And virtually no one familiar with Tarpon Springs would dispute that aesthetically, climatologically, and even innately, there is no place in the United States that feels more Greek.
But a great number of Greeks, particularly those not from Ohio or from the Midwest in general, are probably not aware that the second-highest percentage of Greeks in any American city, according to the demographer ePodunk, is Campbell – a small city near the larger and better-known Youngstown, in Northeastern Ohio.
Why such a high concentration of Greeks in Campbell? Fr. Steve Denas, the pastor at the that city’s Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church, relayed the main reasons to TNH, and wrote a good deal of the community’s history in a segment available on the Church’s website: http://archangelmichael.oh.goarch.org. It all began around the 1870s, he writes, but peaked during the mass exodus from Asia Minor in 1922 by Greeks who wanted to escape the holocaust at the hands of the Turks. Most were young, single men, Denas writes, who wanted to start a new life in the United States.
Campbell’s steel mills provided steady work, and so a community was born. “It was very similar to Pittsburgh with the steel mills here in Campbell,” he told TNH, emphasizing that the “b” is silent; the locals pronounce it “Camel.”
SISTER CITIES, SISTER CHURCHES
Interestingly, the majority were from two Dodecanese islands, Kalymnos and Symi, which also comprise the bulk of Tarpon Springs Greeks’ ancestral heritage. In Tarpon, however, those immigrants were able to ply their sponge-diving trade in the warm, sponge-filled waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There was not a similar opportunity in landlocked Campbell, however, and so it was the steel mills that provided plenty of jobs for eager, hardworking Greeks new to the “land of opportunity.”
The steel industry in Campbell collapsed in 1978, Fr. Denas told TNH, and so the Greeks “had to reinvent themselves.” And they did, quite successfully. Denas explains how they became bridge and tower painters, and “there are 15 companies” locally, that send them all over the world. The Campbell Greeks have worked from repainting the Verrazano Bridge in New York City to projects in South Africa, Denas said. That is yet another similarity between the Campbell and Tarpon Greeks: a great deal of them in both communities are bridge painters.
Though Campbell also includes Greeks from other Dodecanese islands, such as Astipalaia, Kos, and Rhodes, and ones from Crete, the majority are from Kalymnos. One tradition Kalymnians have that is quite evident – and quite audible – to anyone within an earshot during the Holy Resurrection on the eve of Easter (Holy Saturday), is the midnight igniting of explosives. In Tarpon, this has caused some controversy between those who maintain the tradition and those who object – considering it an impediment to the safe and quiet enjoyment of their property. “I’ve read the articles,” Denas told TNH, regarding the controversy. “They are sister churches,” Denas said of St. Michael and Tarpon’s St. Nicholas, and described the frequent travel of Campbell’s Greeks to and from Tarpon as an “invisible corridor. Here, our fireworks are not quite as loud,” he said. “They’re nice fireworks, actually, and we have a show that lasts 10 to 15 minutes.” He invites TNH readers to see for themselves, in the following YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PWWzqlq400.
The steel mills attracted Greek immigrants to Campbell a century ago, but why now? Why does that community contain the second-highest percentage of Greeks in the country, with more coming in? “Family,” Denas says, describing the close-knit family fabric of the Kalymnians. When St. Michael’s was first established in 1955, Denas told TNH, there was more of an even split between Kalymnians and Symians – in fact, that Church derived its name from the miraculous icon of the Archangel found on Symi – though now Kalymnos is definitely the most-widely represented among the numerous Greek islands from which Campbell’s Greeks hail. “So many family members live on the same street,” he said, “and go back to Kalymnos, often for months. They have strong ties to the island. And then, they come back with more relatives,” many of whom join the bridge-painting brigades.
ROYALISTS AND VENIZELISTS UNITED
Long before the establishment of the Archangel Michael Church, the Greeks of Campbell traveled to nearby Youngstown to attend services at either St. John the Forerunner, established in 1915, or St. Nicholas, which emerged three years later. In those days, the congregations were split among allegiances to the political situation in Greece. Those who supported the King of Greece, known as the Royalists, predominantly attended St. John, as that Church’s current presiding priest, Rev. Thomas Constantine, told TNH. But an ensuing rift between King Constantine and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos in late 1915 created a national schism in Greece, which made its way across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to Campbell. The Venizelists among the St. John congregation sought solace in their own church, and so the St. Nicholas parish was born.
But as the years passed, the residents of Campbell wanted their own parish, Denas told TNH, and so the Archangel Michael Church was established and proceeded “to unify the Greeks of Campbell.” Political divisiveness subsided, and the parish prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary next year.