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Mapping Greek Astoria

A few weeks ago this column suggested there was a need for a Greek-American Museum in Manhattan. This elicited a response from Mr. George L. Stamatiades, a founding member of the Athens Square Committee which created the only Hellenic themed public space in North America over thirty years ago. He made a strong and detailed case about the significance of the Greek-American presence of Astoria. I was grateful he took the time to write even though he quoted my words selectively at one point.

I spent my first two years in the United States in the mid-1980s living a block away from the Ditmars Boulevard subway stop in Astoria. Every time I return to New York I take the N train to Ditmars and embark on my own nostalgia tour of the neighborhood. I have been doing this every year, and sometimes twice a year and therefore I have become painfully aware of the changes Astoria has experienced, what some observers have described as its de-hellenization.

Back in the 1980s Astoria was more Greek than it is today. I was able to do all my errands and shopping speaking only in Greek. I gave my laundry to be done at a Greek-owned launderette on 23rd Avenue, the greengrocer on 31st street was Greek, and so was the newsagent, where I could pick up not only the Ethnikos Kirix and the Proini but also the day’s newspapers that had been flown in from Athens. There was even a Greek-speaking teller at the bank and the option of using Greek at the ATM. And what a joy it was to have a coffee and a tyropita at Lefkos Pyrgos’ older and bigger version when it was still on the corner of 31st street and 23rd Avenue.

The only exceptions to the Greek language monopoly of the day was when I was buying manicotti at Casinelli’s on 23rd Avenue (recently closed), fresh mozzarella at Rosario’s right under the subway station (thankfully still going strong) and groceries at Key Foods.

While the term ‘de-Hellenization’ is an exaggeration, the Greek-American presence has been receding even though it remains significant. But it is looking much less Greek-American to me now than it did in the 1980s. And I am aware that there was an even greater Greek-American presence in the 1970s which included a cinema and nightclubs. It is hard to predict how the future unfolds and what it holds for the Greek-American presence.

In any case, Mr. Stamatiades might be pleased to know I have thought hard about how the Greek-American Astoria of the 1970s and 1980s can be documented and preserved. I think it should entail a special type of museum that would record the residential and commercial presence of the Greek Americans in the area as well as the memories of the residents themselves. In other words a museum that aside from artifacts and photographs would display in map form Greek-American owned households, businesses and stores, association and club premises, churches, and schools.

Such a project has been undertaken successfully for the Greek presence in Montreal. Entitled Immigrec, the project, funded by the Niarchos Foundation, has produced a digital interactive map that tracks the timeline of Greek settlement in Montreal neighborhoods between 1950 and 1975. This was compiled with the help of a directory that lists the total number of Greek households with a telephone landline in two Montreal neighborhoods as well as the evolution year after year. A similar version of such a project is underway in Athens, a city experiencing rapid transformation. Monumenta, an urban non-profit organization for the protection of the natural and architectural heritage of Greece and Cyprus, is compiling a register of the older buildings in Athens and Piraeus, and trying to locate persons who live or lived in them, so they can record their memories on tape. When I spoke to Irene Gratsia, an archaeologist who is Monumenta’s coordinator, we discussed the possibility of having Greek-Americans record their memories of the last house they lived in before emigrating.

In Monumenta’s case the research is conducted literally door to door. The Immigrec project made use of a telephone directory. I am sure there are ways to document Greek-American occupied buildings in Astoria. I still have in my possession a Nynex Yellow Pages directory of Astoria. By locating such address guides published over time one could not only pinpoint the Greek-American presence but also record its ebb and flow over time. What a wonderful tribute to the Astoria Greeks and America’s biggest Greektown would be the compilation of a map of the neighborhood’s streets with little blue circles indicating where they lived and worked. All it would need to be done is the work of several people who share Mr. Stamatiades’ deep passion and love for Astoria.

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This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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