GR US

A Greek in New Jersey – Part 3

The National Herald Archive

Immigrants arriving to the US. PHOTO: Public Domain

When I returned to America in early January 1920 I told my brother Ioannis that we should sell the shoeshine parlor and go into the restaurant business. He agreed to this. We found a suitable location on the corner of High and West Market streets right in the middle of the Greek town. Other Greek stores were located on Springfield and Roseville avenues.

We saved enough money to buy the building which also had an upstairs residence. It took us a few weeks to set up the restaurant and finally opened up for business on April 7. We offered the traditional Greek cuisine: mousaka, fasolatha, gyros, dolmades, spanokopita, and koulouria and later added American food: apple pie, hamburgers, and clam chowder. The menu was written in both Greek and English and the vast majority of our customers were Greek single men who worked in the leather and textile mills in Newark. These guys lived in boarding houses where rents were cheap. Some Greek storeowners with their families ate at our restaurant and always enjoyed the food we served. We received compliments from our Greek customers who spread the word to their customers about our restaurant. Word of mouth was the best form of advertising which attracted American customers to come to us.

As our compatriots supported us, we supported them too. Every table had a vase of beautiful flowers that we ordered from Kostas Panagis's florist shop on Roseville avenue. We also bought pastries from two Greek bakeries: the Panhellenion and the Salonica on Broad street. It was important to maintain our Greek identity and solidarity as a community in Newark.

In 1924, I (Mihalis Vlachopoulos) married an American woman named Crystal at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church with my brother as our koumbaro. We had three beautiful daughters – Penny, Elizabeth, and Maureen who grew up into fine young women. They attended college and got teaching degrees. We were so proud of them becoming teachers.

Ioannis eventually moved out and bought his own place in a nice neighborhood. He married Evgenia in 1927 where I was his koumbaro and they had one child. His son Kostas went to college like his cousins and graduated as a civil engineer. I remember Ioannis beaming from ear-to-ear seeing Kostas receiving his college degree. As our children were growing up, they helped us in the restaurant serving and washing dishes. It was important to teach them that through hard work, self-sacrifice, and living frugally that they could achieve the American dream.

Besides our business, we started to get involved with our local church which was the central meeting place of our Greek community. We enjoyed the annual picnics and dances where we would meet our friends and see our children enjoying themselves. A friend ours, Kostas Macropanagis, was seen everywhere as our community photographer taking pictures of our social gatherings. He also took the pictures at weddings and christenings and for family portraits. 

Our children attended Greek school next door to the church on Academy Street. They didn't like it and kept asking us "why do we have to learn Greek?" Ioannis experienced the same problem with his son. We explained to them that they should be proud of their Greek heritage and learning the language was part of it. In fact, they began to enjoy going to Greek school and became fluent in Greek. I remember on Greek Independence Day celebrations seeing our children standing up on stage reciting the words of our national heroes of 1821. I got goosebumps seeing them dance traditional Greek dances and also holding the Greek and American flags. 

There were several Greek associations formed by Lemnians, Chiotes, and Samiotes in Newark. We also had two Laconian societies formed by compatriots from Mani and Platanas. I joined the latter and participated in its social events. One time, I even considered nominating myself to run as president of our society. There was too much bickering in the executive committee, however, so I preferred to remain an ordinary member. In late 1922, our society raised over $5,000 for the Asia Minor Greek refugee relief fund which we sent to the National Herald in New York. I couldn't believe the suffering of our compatriots from the war with Turkey.

My brother and I were founding members of the 52nd chapter of the American Hellenic Education Progressive Association (AHEPA) established in Newark in 1924. I attended the 4th AHEPA Supreme Convention in Philadelphia in August 1926 where the past president of our chapter stated that it was important that we should live as Americans but mustn't forget our Greek roots either. I agreed with him. However, some individuals simply wished to do away with our Greek heritage. At this convention, we funded Greek orphans through the Greek-American Institute in New York.

Then October 1929 came. The economic crash that shattered the lives of so many of our compatriots. Somehow we managed to survive through this crisis. We had no choice but to let go of some of our loyal staff. Tears streamed down their eyes pleading to keep them working at reduced wages. It wasn't an easy decision as some of them have been with us for nearly ten years. I was very emotional calling them individually into my office and handing them their last paycheck. Most of our staff understood the tough times they would face over the next few years.

In 1933, our new U.S. president, F.D. Roosevelt promised to improve our nation's economy. It was no easy task but he did it. Things started to improve a couple of years before the start of World War II. Our restaurant business started to improve like the nation's economy where we started to hire new staff. We rehired two former employees who had been out of work for some years. They were glad to be with us again.

After December 7, 1941, we were at war with Japan. My brother and I were too old for military service but bought war bonds as patriotic Americans to assist our war effort. After the war, I retired and handed over our business to my brother. I spent the remaining years of my life involved in our Church and our AHEPA chapter. Newark proved a great place to fulfill my American dream.