The Hellenic American Oral History Project at Queens College

Vicki James Yiannias

Chances to capture and document the lives and experiences of the “first wave” of Greek immigrants to the US, which began around 1880, have suffered the passage of time, but Queens College Sociology Professor Nicholas Alexiou, is bent on “capturing the moment before it is lost”, by documenting the “second wave” of Greek immigration to the U.S., 1960-1980, which has received little scholarly attention up to now, through his groundbreaking Queens College project, The Hellenic American Oral History Project: Greek Americans.

The first-ever oral history archive of New York’s Greek American community and the changing face of Astoria, The Hellenic American Oral History Project: Greek Americans, made possible by major funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and part of a new Internet archive and research and database, features more than two dozen video interviews, in Greek and in English, of Greeks who emigrated to New York City between1960 and 1980 and their children.

At a press conference at Queens College of the City of New York in Flushing on January 24, where a multi-monitor display presented The Hellenic American Oral History Project’s more than two dozen oral history interviews, Professor Alexiou, Director of the project, expressed a motivation to document the largest Greek American community in the United States, saying, “The community does not know its own past, they need to know the people who created this community so there is a continuous link between the past and the present”.

We noted that while Greek American celebrities usually speak for Greek America in documentaries and in the media, this project offers a refreshing take, featuring a cross section of real people—business owners, civic leaders, students, and residents in Astoria, young and old, foreign and native-born Greek Americans–in Alexiou’s words, “the people who really created this community”.

Queens College has 1,500 students with Greek ancestry, more than any other American university, and its Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies is the ideal place to host this archive that provides a groundbreaking perspective on the Greek American experience in New York.

Alexiou, who developed and carried out The Next Generation Initiative’s 2011 Got Greek? survey (based on his study The New Second Generation of Greek Americans, carried out at Queens College around the time of the Athens 2004 Olympics), has spent the last year conducting The Hellenic American Oral History Project interviews and drawing from U.S. Census data and other surveys, maps that reflect changing immigrant settlement patterns, demographics, and a historical overview of Greek immigration for depth of study.  Additional funding would make more interviews possible.

Some statistics quoted at the press conference: there are about 1.3 million people of Greek ancestry in the U.S. and about 178,000 in the New York metropolitan area; the second wave of Greek immigration turned Astoria into the second largest Hellenic city outside of Athens.  In recent years the number of US-born Greek Americans has exceeded the number of foreign-born as the members of that second wave of immigration have their own children.  In New York, about 66% of Greek Americans were born in the US compared to 34% foreign born.

Speakers and the press conference were: Queens College President James Muyskens, Queens College Provost James Stellar, both of whom expressed admiration for the Greek community and support for and belief in the project, Georgios Iliopoulos, Consul General of Greece in New York, Alexia Makrigiannis standing in for Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (a Queens College graduate), Stelios Vasilakis, Senior Program Officer for Strategy and Initiatives and Co-Chief of Public Affairs of the  Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and oral history site participants Panos Adamopoulos, local businessman, and Alexandra Kavouras, Queens College student.

In his presentation, Stelios Vasilakis stated that “Queens College, which seats and serves one of the most ethnically diverse communities in America and Professor–and very good friend–Nicholas Alexiou–understand very well the importance of The Hellenic American Oral History Project for preserving the history of the Greek American community.  In developing and supporting the project they have offered a tremendous service to the community… We are all very thankful to them.  We at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation are very proud and very pleased not only to be here today, but to have been given the opportunity to support this very important project.”

Vasilakis pointed out that immigrant communities are “complex, dynamic, and ever-evolving”, and oral histories play an increasingly important role in the preservation and understanding of the social, political, and economic parameters of immigrant communities “as they go from one generation to the other”.

Two years ago he received support, not only in funding, but also in moral support, from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, said Professor Alexiou, “I had proposed a two year project to the Foundation in which I would conduct interviews with Greek Americans in New York of different backgrounds in order to create a documentary portrait of ethnicity, identity and ethnic attachment.  Today is the first step of the project as I had envisioned it: first, filming a number of interviews and creating a publicly accessible website based here at Queens College, a public institution, and eventually at some later point, to shape an interview constituted book.  In the earliest stages Mr. Vasilakis was extremely supportive and enthusiastic, and when we first met with the Andreas from the Niarchos Foundation and with Mr. Stellar, [Queens College Provost], a Philhellene himself, who was also very supportive… and we are very thankful for that.”

Alexiou went on to say that at this stage of the research, although he is beset with the many and complex challenges of the project, he has realized, while going over the interviews these recent days, that the interviewees are telling a new story in a new way.  “They are real people, with real individual and collective narratives.  Over all, the

The Hellenic American Oral History Project, vis a vis the first-ever archive of the Greek Americans after one hundred years of continuous presence in New York, seeks to provide a groundbreaking perspective on the community and its experience.

He continued with observations on Astoria itself, saying,  “Although Astoria is still the symbol of Greek immigration into the States, is not anymore the place where the Greek live.  The Greeks, as they achieve socio-economic mobility, and neighborhood mobility, are moving out of Astoria, and part of this project is to depict that.  You can see the maps based on the census that they still prefer Queens, though, places like Whitestone and Bayside.  But the story that remains is simple.  At this moment of transformation, of this transition of the community, the project comes at a good time.”  Alexiou thanked the film director of the project, Tassos Rigopoulos and his team, one being filmmaker Mirto Kassis, “who is becoming more and more fanatic about getting more and more interviews… I hope that funds and good health will help us to continue.”  He thanked the Chair of the Department of Sociology, the Dean of Social Sciences, and his colleagues from his Department and all the personnel, among others, who urged him to continue even on days when he was overcome with desperation,

“The latest wave was people looking for a better future, whether it was economic or educational… they came to the U.S. desperately seeking jobs to feed their families,” said Panos Adamopoulos, project interviewee.  Turning the topic to the early immigrants, who founded Greek organizations, built schools and founded businesses, Adamopoulos, who is President of the Athenian Society of Astoria, noted that he later immigrants in the timeframe of the project were more easily assimilated into American culture and felt less need to belong to those cohesive cultural groups. He expressed the hope that Greek American youth will retain or recover interest in Greek cultural traditions to keep them alive.

To partake of this history in the making, go to www.qc.cuny.edu/greekoralhistory.

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