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General News

Tales of the Greek-American Snowbirds

November 27, 2021

The lives of the early waves of Greek immigrants are rarely reported upon in their full reality. The current academic ‘struggle and success’ model simply asserts Greek immigrants went through great pains to adjust to America. How Greek-Americans live/d beyond mere labor is barely hinted at in academic accounts. For whatever theoretical reasons the academics may be using, enjoying daily life in Ameriki by the first large wave of Greek immigrants does not enter into official academic accounts. In other words, their full humanity is ignored.

So, the obvious question now is how did the first large waves of Greek arrivals to the United States entertain themselves? Coffeeshops were the first exclusive Greek-only entertainment areas identified, but submerged in strictly Greek-American sources one hears of the Catskill mountain resorts and/or the Greek nightclubs scattered throughout Greek towns across the United States.

Years in Ameriki, marriage and raising a family are mentioned only in passing. Raising families as a joyful enterprise also does not enter into formal accounts.

Whatever the reason in the existing Greek-American literature, collective seasonal sites where Greeks gathered to be among their own is still under-reported. To the best of my knowledge Elaine Thomopoulos stands alone by including in both her museum exhibition and publication on the Greeks of southwestern Michigan specifics on the summer gatherings of early Greek immigrants in this region. Dr. Thomopoulos’ written account, ‘The Greeks of Berrien County Michigan’ can be found online (http://berrienhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/GREEKS.pdf). A fine historical account throughout, note the section titled, Summer Memories: The Greeks Who Vacationed in Southwest Michigan (pps. 14-19).

The retirement years of the First Wave Greeks are also predictably ignored. They do not concern the academic writers because as their model goes, everyone from the 1890s to 1920s period of mass migration is – as far as you can read in their accounts – an assimilated American. So essentially, who cares afterwards that they are so categorized?

Greek-American ongoing and generational participation as snowbirds has yet to be examined in any systematic manner. And this specific activity has resulted in an unintended but broad-based cultural preservation – again, as yet to be recognized let alone closely examined historically, economically or socially.

For those unfamiliar with this phrase, a snowbird is: “a person who migrates from the colder northern parts of North America to warmer southern locales, typically during the winter. The southern locales include the Sun Belt and Hawaii in the United States, as well as Mexico and the Caribbean. Snowbirds used to primarily be retired or older, but are increasingly of all ages…Snowbirds are typically retirees who wish to avoid the snow and cold temperatures of northern winter, but maintain ties with family and friends by staying there the rest of the year (Wikipedia).”

The account that follows is a mix of personal memories and how such Greek-American snowbirds have and continue to collectively influence Greek-American history.

My immigrant grandfather had a barber shop in Chicago. As was common in such a setting, various magazines, newspapers and other such reading materials were readily available for waiting customers. Among the periodicals my grandfather provided was the National Geographic. As family stories recall, a National Geographic issue showcased a special oversize report on a new upcoming film which was highlighted with both black and white and full-color photographs on, ‘Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef.’ Based on this heavily illustrated account, my grandparents decided to visit the Greek community in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Soon after my grandparents visited Tarpon Springs, they quickly decided it was the perfect place to retire. My grandparents purchased a small house which had at least 3+ acres of grapefruit trees. An unexpected development of their move was that friends and family from both Chicago and Milwaukee began to visit them. This led to quite a number of my extended family moving to Tarpon Springs and/or communities immediately surrounding that city. Various cousins even married into local Greek families. In time my father and mother purchased a condo in Palm Harbor, Florida – a community just minutes away from the very center of Tarpon Springs. I have often called myself a third generation snowbird because I too would visit first my grandparents and then my parents while they were in Florida. And as it turns out, my sister just recently purchased a residence in this same general region.

So, aside from a brief family account, what am I relating concerning Greek-American history in wider terms? Academics have pressed me in the past whenever I have spoken of the sizeable influence of Greek-American snowbirds on the life of Tarpon Springs. To a person, they all want/ed demographic proof that these seasonal Greek visitors had any influence whatsoever on daily life of Tarpon Springs. I have always answered that the proof is set in stone.

Since the  post-World War II era Greek Orthodox churches have been established, attended, and maintained in the three counties immediately surrounding Pinellas county where Tarpon Springs is located. In point of fact, as you read this account, a string of Greek Orthodox churches extend from Pasco county immediately north of Pinellas county all the way down the Gulf Coast into the city of Tampa.

As every Greek School student of certain generations know, with the onslaught of the 1947 Red Tide in the Gulf of Mexico, the nearly fifty years of the local Greek sponging community gradually came to an end. What I have seen is that the Greek-American as well as the Greek-Canadian snowbirds both directly and indirectly help the Tarpon Springs Greek community to remain a viable center for Greek immigrant culture and social life. On many an occasion I have gone to Tarpon Springs with any number of Greek-American snowbirds to eat dinner or have a coffee with sweets. Just going for a coffee very often includes going through the tourist shops and/or simply a walk with friends along the waterfront.

To the best of my knowledge no demographic studies of Greek-American or Greek-Canadian snowbirds have ever been undertaken. My claims for an extremely sizeable presence of seasonal Greeks to be found in this region is based squarely on the number of new Gulf Coast churches.

Now let me be very clear, religious fragmentation along the Gulf coast is acute. It is not simply an ever growing collection of Greek Orthodox churches being established in this general region. I have seen and spoken with Greek and Russian monks and retired Orthodox priests of every nationality and heard many an extended conversation among the Greek residents of Tarpon Springs and the seasonal snowbirds about all the varieties of churches currently found along the Gulf Coast. Aside from the obvious problem of belonging to more than one church, since the snowbirds are members of both their home community as well as what is available in Florida, to the best of my knowledge current demographic studies among any of the Eastern Orthodox denominations do not factor in the snowbird effort.

Given the religious hairsplitting distinctions, over the years, along the Gulf Coast I have attended the services that individual monks, retired priests, and even retired bishops have celebrated. On more than one occasion I have attended such a service in a converted garage and/or room addition specially built for the resident clergyman. I have heard but not attended chapels that various Greek snowbirds have added to their vacation residences.

For those who closely attend to Greek-American historical accounts, such chapels in the home and those established in small buildings, and even repurposed garages have existed since the arrival of Greeks and other Eastern Orthodox faithful to American shores. Thomas Burgess makes mention of such small local chapels in his 1913 volume, Greeks in America: An Account of Their Coming, Progress, Customs, Living, and Aspirations: with an Historical Introduction and the Stories of Some Famous American-Greeks.

Given the neglect of the snowbird phenomenon, Tarpon Springs is forever studied and presented to the world at large as a singular community. Certainly, large numbers of Greeks reside year round in Tarpon Springs. Yet, at the same time, the daily presence of Greek snowbirds in that city as well as the immediate Gulf coast communities is totally ignored.

I believe disregarding the daily social reality of the Greek snowbirds means that the very basis and continuance of Tarpon Springs as a Greek community is being completely misunderstood.

Given the end of  Greek participation in the fishing industry, I have witnessed how tourism and the heavy presence of Greek-American and Greek-Canadian snowbirds on a daily basis have gradually come to contribute to the economic and social realities holding Tarpon Springs together.

Whatever the on-the-ground sociological reality may be along the Gulf Coast, the daily circumstances of Greeks, at their leisure, does not appear in academic accounts. That is because the so-called academic study of Greeks in the United States is already pre-determined. The Greeks came as immigrants but are now fully integrated citizens whose success in this country is due to their work ethic. Since on one level this conclusion is complimentary to the Greeks, they cheer on such conclusions. No matter how cursory and limited this academic plot-line maybe.

Whatever else may be happening, Greek-American as well as Greek-Canadian snowbirds are the ‘disappeared’ individuals of immigration history. I know I say this a great deal but it is always important to recall that there is no ‘science,’ whatsoever in the social sciences. It is all genre writing. The predetermined storyline, then, is that the immigrant worker struggled and succeeded, and so owes everything to America. No more.

 

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