A Place at the Table: Images of Greek-American Restaurants & Suppliers in Washington State: 1900-1970′ by Erika I. Wigren is a book that is the latest project conceived by the Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State. Showcased are 70 images with identifying captions on Greek-owned restaurants and suppliers from across Washington drawn from a much larger pool of historical images. These images were originally gathered in 2015 as part of the museum exhibit, A Place At The Table at the Museum of History & Industry when over 300 Greek-owned and operated restaurants across the state’ were surveyed (https://mohai.org/).
Wigren notes, “[T]his collection of images was curated by the Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State and others within the Greek community. It is the product of dedication from members of the community who have worked to preserve, share, and protect their Greek history and traditions. A Place at the Table was designed to capture the lives and spirit of Greek immigrants and American-born Greeks in Washington State. The photographs represent the dedication and determination of the Greek immigrants who, like so many, left their home country to live in ‘the land of opportunity.’”
In terms of the images selected, Wigren notes: “The content of this book is based on extensive research from a variety of publications, the museum’s video history collection, and previous research done by local historians at the Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State. The photographs included were contributions by members of the Greek community, many of which were donated to the museum archive. The quotes interweaved throughout the text were provided by Greek-Americans in the local community.”
The volume begins with an Introduction which provides historical background on four distinct time periods: The Early Years 1900-1929; The Boom Years 1930-1940; The Grind 1940-1950; and The Legacy 1959-1975.
Three other sections further contextualize the broader aspects of this project: The Conclusion; About the Museum, and About the Author. Additionally, shared memories are found not only in the accompanying identification labels but also periodically in the volume. A poem, Childhood Restaurant Memories, serves as the volume’s preface.
Seen from the long view, Greeks in America have always taken photographs of their lives in this New Land. Complimenting these American-made images are those brought and/or sent from Greece which have been integrated into the photograph collections Greek-American keep for themselves. As with all social groups there are photographs one presents to the world at large and those only meant for family or close community members.
From the very beginning of the self-conscious existence of Greek collectives in North America composed of individuals from the same village, city, area or region as a fraternal organization – photographic images have been gathered and shared in public display as well as print. In time other collective publications joined the fraternal organization volumes such as dinner dance journals. Nonetheless the most notable employment of photographs is currently found in local church histories.
Other more or less ignored collectors and producers of photographically rich volumes were and remain (although not as frequently as in the past) those produced by Greek business-collectives and local/regional Greek radio programs.
From this distance in time it is difficult to draw a chronological line between when Greeks in America issued such publications ‘for Greek eyes only’ and when no restrictions entered their creation and distribution of such publications.
The Greek War Relief work of World War II is also a uniquely distinct period when Greeks in America utilized every format available to them to not only secure the safety of their relatives and fellow Greeks in Greece but also in their promotion of the complex political claims and concerns which would inevitably occur in the post-war period.
Having said that, it is clear that since, at the very least, the 1960s that Greeks in North America have increasing utilized photographs both private and public to demonstrate visually beliefs, values, and claims about themselves to not only among their own but to the world at large. Inclusive as the technology advanced of historical video and online collections.
Yet, more is afoot. Why do these images appear in such ‘historic’ volumes and what explains the nationwide drive by Greek-Americans to produce such volumes are the real questions.
The physical structure of the Greek Orthodox church in America is truly the living body of our collective experience set in stone. Each new phase/development/evolution of our collective experience in this country sees physical manifestations in the center of our real village, the church. Out of old buildings came our contemporary cathedrals. Yet the American churches no longer physically resemble the church structures found in Greece.
I grew up in the time of adding a library and a gymnasium to the local parishes. Churches in Greece do not have gyms, attached rooms specifically set aside for coffee hour and/or for the teaching of Greek language and culture. While some do in fact have libraries, they do not function as they do here in Ameriki. And the over large kitchens and industrial size refrigerators, the bookstores, the large closets for the choir robes, the altar boy robes, and folk dance costumes, the installation of industrial level electrical boxes in the parking lots used during the annual festivals and now the museums all attest not to religious mandates but to what the parishioners have come to require for cultural maintenance.
It is also the case that a new dimension to the Greek-American church is now being added all across the nation, the church archive room or museum.
Given that this is a completely organic social movement springing from the very deepest core of Greek-America there is no serious and ongoing collective effort to network. A short list of such museums, archival preservation rooms, and similar such places within the church communities can be found in Salt Lake City which was the first to have a ‘museum’ area, and while I am not sure of the order of such ‘rooms’ or full display areas, but they can be found in Atlanta GA; New Buffalo, MI; Portland OR; New Orleans; Greek Museum, NYC; San Jose, CA.; Pueblo CO and Seattle WA.
The National Hellenic Museum in Chicago (which in typical Greek fashion falls outside the individual-parish based ‘museum’) may not be the ‘model’ all church-based societies aspire to but – for the moment – it is the most ambitious and inclusive of all such museums.
And the Seattle Greeks could not be clearer of their ultimate intent, “the Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State was established in 2009 with the mission of establishing an organized means of collecting, preserving and making available the history and culture of the Greek-American community in Washington State” (greeksinwashington.org).
“The Museum has over 600 items that serve to help share the stories of the Greek experience in Washington State. These items have been donated or loaned to the Museum and are cataloged and preserved in the Museum archive. Items are organized by category. There is a special section dedicated to the AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) family.” The website hosts photographs, videos and descriptions of the items in the various other categories (c.f. greeksinwashington.org). The physical archive may be visited by appointment ([email protected] or call 206-325-8554). And here we arrive at the latest common denominator of all these new Greek Orthodox museums. The establishment of an archival or museum on the premises of the local parish.
It also needs to be pointed out that the individuals involved in all these preservation efforts are from that group identified in the 1980 Bureau of the Census as being among the most educated and wealthiest counted among their own number. This is the group leading all the history projects, writing autobiographies, and establishing these museums within their own individual churches.
Recently I was reading a modern historian who expressed the Greco-Roman view of barbarians as people who “did not have a history but were simply part of the flow of national history. That is, unlike the ‘uncivilized’ barbarians Greeks and Romans made history; history happened to the barbarians, as it does to, say monkeys and apes. This depiction of the barbarians has remained generally intact for more than two millennia.”
Clearly this generation of Greek-Americans, few as they may now be, are under a sure conviction. Since no one is recording let alone writing their individual communities history or making sincere efforts to preserve that history, then they will.
Copies of the book “A PLACE AT THE TABLE’ are available at $30.00 which includes postage. Mail checks payable to GREEKS IN WASHINGTON, 1804 13th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98122.