Lifestyle

Let’s celebrate the Greeks’ contributions to Detroit on Greece’s 200th Independence Day

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  • Leah Castile, Detroit Stock City

  • The 15th annual Greek Independence Day Parade in Greektown, downtown Detroit. Folk dancers march down Monroe Avenue in traditional dress. 17th April 2016.

Every Saturday night before the pandemic, you could walk down Monroe Street in Detroit and hear the sounds of traditional music over speakers and see ragged Greek flag banners hanging from glittering lights. You could smell gyros and souvlaki and hear the old language on the streets and in the restaurants. As Greece celebrates 200 years of freedom from the Ottoman Empire on Thursday, Detroit can ponder how Greek immigrants helped shape the city and make Greek culture synonymous with Detroit.

Before the Greek population of Michigan lived at the intersection of Monroe and St. Antoine, German immigrants lived there, who only used the area as living space. In 1886 the first recorded Greek immigrant, Theodore Gerasimos, arrived in Detroit. In 1900 the first Greek café or caffenio opened on Macomb Street.

Mass migrations took place between 1911 and 1917 due to the persecution of Greeks. It is reported that the majority of Greek immigrants came from the Peloponnese peninsula. However, immigrants also came from the islands of Xios, Crete, Ikaria, Mani and others.

Stavros K. Frangos, the author of Greeks in Michigan, writes: “Although no other reliable statistics are available, Greeks from the three islands of Chios, Crete and Cyprus have certainly always formed a sizable element of the community.”

However, Henry Ford, who offered factory workers $ 5 a day, made sure the Greek community would continue to grow like others in Detroit.

During World War II, Monore was transformed from the home of a German immigrant into a lively community of Greek residents. Their cathedral, shops, and society intersected with the Detroit lifestyle.

The influx of immigrants made it possible to work as merchants, with their living quarters above the shop, barbers and hairdressers, restaurant owners and day laborers – bringing Greek culture to Detroit and offering delicacies that arose from the convergence of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine .

By the 1960s, what came to be known as Greektown was populated with immigrants and their growing families, leading to Greek societies such as AHEPA, Sons of Pericles, Daughters of Athena, and the Pan-Ikarian Brotherhood. With these societies’ roots in the Orthodox Church, the groups practiced charity, promoted the unity of the Hellenic community, advocated civil rights, provided mutual aid, and expanded what is known as “Philoptimos” – hospitality and generosity.

Through their commitment to maintaining a welcoming block, Detroiters embraced Greek culture. The Athens Bar became a hangout for Detroit police officers to have lunch, cash their checks, and play a game of pool. Grecian Gardens was known as a businessmen’s bar, and the Laikon was the nighttime spot for Greek coffee and mezethes after a dance or a night out on the town.

Greek immigrants also brought determination and ingenuity with them. The daughter of Greek immigrants, Olga Loizon became the first woman to receive a $ 3,000 business loan from the Detroit Bank and Trust in 1970. She opened the first Olga’s Kitchen at the Continental Market in Birmingham, which later became a regional chain. Loizon was accepted by the community and remained successful and was an icon until her death in 2019.

Over the years, Greektown was a separate entity from Detroit. With the Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral being the entrance to the neighborhood, it was evident that Detroiters wanted to partake in Greek culture on Orthodox Good Friday to see Greeks march down the street as Detroiters flock to Monroe to watch the spectacle and record videos and pictures.

On Greece’s Independence Day, Detroiters would happily embrace their Hellenic neighbors as the community celebrated freedom from oppression in the old country and opportunity in their new home.

“Greek society was part of the foundation of today’s Detroit culture,” says Yianni Dionsiopolous, owner of the Golden Fleece, Exodus Nightclub, Bakalikon, local historian from Greektown and former teacher at the Greek school. “For over 100 years, the Hellenes who came to Detroit pioneered some of Detroit’s staples, including the Greektown Greek Community Center, of course. One of the first sports bars was founded by Greeks, the infamous Coney Islands, leaders of the city’s ethnic events, even improvements to the Ambassador Bridge and the casinos were brought to this city by Greeks. These are just a few examples of the contributions. ”

Even in these times of stress and turmoil, the Greek community has continued to elevate the city and offer comfort to its citizens. Dionsiopolous says this about how Greektown has continued to thrive amid the pandemic.

“One thing is certain, in these unprecedented times, when most of the city was shut down, the few Greek family businesses readjusted and orchestrated themselves to keep the district alive and well and bring down all Detroiters,” says Dionsiopolous .

Looking to the future, Greektown is rebuilding itself, ensuring that its legacy and vibrancy are preserved. Detroit’s pride rests not only on its history of industry and social achievements, but also on the migrant communities that have helped build the city and continue to grow the city.

Dionsiopolous thanks Detroit for embracing the Hellenic community and giving it the opportunity to share its culture and traditions with the people.

“Detroit is a hub of multiethnic groups and cultures because of its essence and name,” he says. “As we’ve seen with many other ethnic groups, the Greeks are one of the few who have stayed active and lively over the years through Greektown, festivals, parades, etc. This only proves that the city made the Greek community from the beginning has led to various successes in many areas. Complete understanding is a role model for everyone else. On behalf of Greektown and the Detroit Greek Community, we thank you for your support and look forward to the next few decades in this beautiful city called Detroit. Yia mas! ”

The history of Detroit’s Greek community is on display at Greektown and the Hellenic Museum, where preserved records are on display and artifacts from the earliest days of Greek immigration meet modern history. The Hellenic Museum is located at 67 E. Kirby St., Detroit; 313-871-4100; hellenicmi.org.

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Dusty Kennedy