New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Dan Georgakas is one of a handful but growing number of Greek Americans viewing the countless angles of that animate sculpture, Greek America. In May, at the Holy Trinity Cathedral center in New York, sponsored by the his book, “My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City”, an engaging chronicle of the Greeks of Detroit that reflects its author’s speaking style: down to earth, perceptive and…very funny.
“My Detroit” a poignant yet humorous history of the rise and fall of the community he grew up in (one photograph on the book jacket shows him joyfully cooling off in a backyard washtub full of cold water one summer) throws light on Greek America as a whole by breaking down the history of one of its parts. “We Greek Americans need to know who we are in order to think realistically about the now and future of Greek America. And we cannot understand who we are if we are uninformed about our past or drape it in self-congratulatory myths…Getting a realistic handle on the Greeks of Detroit sheds considerable light on much of Greek America.” said Georgakas, because the story of the Greeks of Detroit is less like the story of the Greeks in major cities of Chicago and New York and more like the communities stretching out across America, the textile towns of New England, the industrial Midwest, the mining communities of the Southwest, and the ports of the West Coast.
Georgakas covered many aspects of the Greek experience in Detroit, invaluable research and comment that, it is worthwhile to say here, make reading “My Detroit” an absolute must for understanding Greek America’s future through its past.
“In 1900, there were no more than a handful of Greeks in Detroit, if any. In 2011, there are no more than a handful of Greeks in Detroit, if any. From 1940-60, however, there were 10-20,000 Greeks in Detroit and it was the fourth largest Greek community in America. I was one of those Greeks,” Georgakas began, going on to trace his and other family’s histories and the social and economic evolution of the Detroit Greek community from its beginning, including the make-up of Greektown, when Greek immigrants settled in Detroit “for one reason: the car industry”, up to the present.
Almost everyone in the parish of the Assumption Church–composed of immigrants from the western Peloponnesos, Smyrni and Constantinople, as well, but no Pontians (there was no conflict between these groups or problems with dialect), were directly employed in the car industry or a dependent service sector, which included luncheonettes and lunch counters directly across from the factory gates, said Georgakas.
For this writer Georgakas’s descriptions struck familiar chords in the Greek American melody. The various personalities in the community, their businesses, their histories and relationships to the town and to each other, including outmarriages and presence or lack of Greek self-identification, were reminiscent of other unforgettable individuals in Greek communities across America.
One of the topics “My Detroit” covers is Detroit’s Greektown, which he said, can serve as a metaphor for the Greeks of Detroit. When they arrived in 1905-1910, Greeks were greeted with hostility and barred from most “white” neighborhoods. Greektown would be a center for speakeasies during Prohibition and for decades was the collection center for bets on horse races and numbers, he said, “Greektown after-hours clubs would be notorious in the late 1950s and 1960s as places where sheiks, movie actors, famous athletes, and others played big stakes card games, but despite this gambling aspect, through the 1950s Greektown was very very Greek and very safe.”
In 1940 when the Greeks defeated Mussolini, non-Greeks in Detroit became more aware and approving of Greektown, Georgkas said, citing examples of 1950s books and movies that sparked intellectual and popular interest in things Greek, such as Henry Miller’s “Colossus of Maroussi”, Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandrian Quartet”, Rae Dalven’s translation of C.P. Cavafy, and Hollywood films such as “Boy on a Dolphin” starring Sophia Loren as a gorgeous Greek; “Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef”, “This Is Our Country”, and “Glory Brigade” presented Greek Americans as heroes. And then the1960 smash hit “Never on Sunday” followed by the even more popular “Zorba the Greek” a few years later. To be Greek was now really “in”, said Georgakas, and Detroiters flocked to Greektown. “At this time, the Greek and tourist aspects of Greektown were in balance, but menus became printed in English and the legendary Kouzani Bar dropped santouri and clarino musicians for rather low-level bouzouki…
From the 1970s-90s, Greektown became increasing touristic.”
The opening of a casino there that offered free and low-cost food and brought a different kind of crowd to the area dealt a “cultural death blow” dealt to Greektown, said Georgakas, “As of 2011, at least 80% of the stores in Greektown are owned by non-Greeks and all the kaffenia are gone. The area is now Greektown largely in name only, not unlike Little Italy in Manhattan.”
The Detroit Greeks did not run for public office very often but a number worked behind the scenes, said Georgakas, citing Peter Marudas, who would work as an advisor to Senator Sarbanes in Washington and chief counsel to the black mayor of Baltimore and James Pyrros the top aide of Detroit Congressman Lucien Nazi. Both men were active in the anti-junta movement and in the later struggles regarding Cyprus.
“Greeks began to abandon Detroit in the 1970s; the Greeks of Detroit did not benefit from the second wave of massive Greek immigration in 1965-1980 that greatly invigorated Hellenism in New York and Chicago. There was nothing to attract them to a Detroit already visibly in decline.”
Concluding, Georgakas said, “…the Greek America I have been talking about no longer exists. Any attempt to project it as an ideal to be replicated is misused nostalgia. Perhaps, the greatest gift of the immigrants was that they came to American having one set of values and had the good sense to evolve. As Papou might say, they became modern in some things and remained traditional in others, in a combination that produced the viable and affluent community that now exists.”
“In like manner, today’s Greek America can only survive if it evolves to meet the demographic and cultural challenges of the twenty-first century the way they met those of the twentieth century. In fact, much in our transnational world make bilingualism and biculturalism assets in commerce, education, art, and politics. Greekness defined by genetics, religion, geography, or citizenship is not viable in the new transnational world, and probably never was. Centuries ago, Isocrates wrote that anyone who accepts Greek culture is a Greek. Our generational task is to forge a sophisticated culture that is attractive as those born to it and to many who were not. Paraphrasing Elia Kazan, I can say, ‘I am a Greek by blood, an American by birth, and a Hellene because I chose to make that journey.’ I don’t know how subsequent generations born here want to describe themselves, but their self-definitions must be different from mine. Being Greek and American is never a done deal. Being Greek and American is always a work in progress.”
Dan Georgakas is a professor, renowned author, Labor scholar, a founder of CINEASTE magazine, and Director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Queens College.