A Survey of Archival Records of New York's Hellenic Community


The Greek American Community of New York

During the first decades of the twentieth century, Chicago vied with New York City for having the largest number of Greek immigrants. However, it is certain that since at least the late 1940s, New York City has been home to the largest Greek American community in North America. Scholars have not yet been able to document any Greek immigrants living in New York City prior to the nineteenth century. The first to be recorded was named Basil Constantin who landed at New York harbor in July 1844. By 1855, there were several wealthy Greek merchants established in New York who imported currants or exported cotton and wheat as part of international trading firms. They also acted as representatives of the Greek government. Demetrius N. Botassi who came to New York in 1856, acted as the Greek Consul General for over fifty-eight years. Perhaps the first Greek-American to come to New York to study was a young man named Christodoulos M. L. Evangelides who graduated from Columbia College in 1836. He was welcomed into the homes of many prominent New Yorkers and was even the subject of a poem by William Cullen Bryant.

After the Civil War, the port of New York became the preferred disembarkation point for Greek immigrants. The early pioneers were followed by sailors, peasants, and craftsmen. The year 1857 saw the establishment of "The Peloponnesos," New York's first Greek restaurant, a business in which thousands of Greek immigrants would eventually distinguish themselves. Although a Greek florist shop opened its doors in 1885, the number of recorded Greek-Americans living in New York was still small. The federal census of 1880, estimated the number of Greek born residents at only between 69- 78!

With the exception of wealthy merchants, the Greek immigrant community was concentrated in lower Manhattan in the Madison and Fulton street area. Most of the Greek bachelors lived there, sharing single rooms. They worked at the docks, sold

flowers, fruit, candy or shined shoes until slowly some saved enough money to buy pushcarts or open stores. By 1873, the number and industriousness of the city's Greek immigrant sailors was such that it even attracted the attention of the New York Times.

The trickle of Greek immigrants became a flood after 1891. This was due to worsening economic conditions and overpopulation in Greece, and the widespread circulation of stories in the Peloponnese that America was a land where there was "gold in the streets." Between 1890 and 1900, U.S. authorities registered the entry of 15,979 immigrants from Greece proper. Of these at least 1,309 settled in New York. By 1893, the Greek immigrant population of NYC was large enough that on April 6 of that year, Solon Vlasto the President of the recently formed Brotherhood of Athena, (New York's first Greek fraternal society), convinced Mayor Gilroy to fly the Greek flag over City Hall in commemoration of Greek Independence Day. Another flag was hung over Reiner Hall, at 475 Pearl street. From there a crowd of 300 Greeks marched to Broadway by way of Chambers street. This was the first time that NYC officially recognized its Greek American community. Like other immigrants, the Greeks came to North America to find a better life; they emigrated because of economic necessity, the lack of opportunity in their homeland, or to escape the repression of local governmental authorities. Their aim was to make money and return to their homeland. This was why up until about 1910 almost all the Greek immigrants were primarily male. Despite their original intentions

most did not permanently return to Greece but remained in the United States and raised families.

Strong family ties, fervent Greek nationalism, hard work and upward mobility have been the dominant characteristics of the Greek immigrant of New York City. Beginning with little capital or education, thousands entered the American middle class with amazing rapidity. They generally did not make a life career of working for wages but sought to own their own independent businesses as soon as possible. On a national level their success is shown by the fact that the 1970 census found that among twenty-four second generation groups, Greeks were second in income and first in educational attainment.

During the period of mass immigration Solon Vlasto, became the leader of New York's Greek American community. He founded the Greek language newspaper Atlantis in 1894, which quickly became another of the community's most important organizations. In 1904 it became a daily which remained in publication until 1972. The Atlantis reflected the more conservative side of Greek politics while its arch rival, the National Herald, (founded in 1915), represented the more liberal view. The National Herald is still published in New York today, as is the Greek language daily, The Proini (Morning Daily) founded in 1977.

Although there was no organized anti-Greek activity in New York City prior to the First World War, newspaper accounts record that many Greek immigrant pushcart vendors were unjustly persecuted by local authorities. Like Italian immigrants, the Greeks of New York were also victimized by the infamous padrone system which trapped unsuspecting victims in a vicious cycle of unreasonable debt and low wages. In New York, young Greek boys were systematically recruited by middlemen in Greece who arranged for their passage to the United States in return for a period of work as bootblacks or peddlers. Once in America, many of these victims were crowded into unsanitary living conditions and made to work long hours for very low wages in order to repay their debts with compounded interest.

Scholars estimate that close to one in every four Greek males between the ages of fifteen and forty-five departed for America between 1900 and 1915. By 1924, nearly 400,000 Greek immigrants had arrived in the U.S. One estimate puts the Greek American population of NYC including Brooklyn at 20,000 by 1913. A 1909 survey of Greek owned businesses in Manhattan recorded: 151 bootblack parlors, 113 florists, 107 lunchrooms and restaurants, 70 confectioneries, 62 retail fruit stores, and 11 wholesale produce dealers. In 1911, there were at least twenty-four Greek fraternal organizations in New York City and the first Greek language parochial school was established in the Bronx. These new immigrants did not live in concentrated ethnic quarters or ghettos as did other ethnic groups. They were scattered throughout the boroughs with a concentration in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In Manhattan they lived in three primary areas: the original settlement near Madison street and the Lower East Side; along Sixth Avenue in the West 30's; and along 2nd and 3rd Avenues in the East 20's and 30's. After World War I the main body of Greek immigrants settled along Eighth Avenue, between 14th and 45th Streets.

Although the vast majority of the Greek immigrants remained working class for many years after their arrival in the United States few developed a lasting working class consciousness. Most Greek immigrants sought to join the establishment rather than overthrow it. In the late teens they joined food handlers unions and in the 1920s they joined the Fur and Hotel Workers Unions in significant numbers and were active in strikes and other labor activities in NYC. The Depression years were the high point of Greek American labor and communist activity, activities which have steadily declined since the Second World War.

Like other Southern European immigrants, Greek Americans also suffered from the nativist movements of the interwar period. Their long Greek names and heavily accented English made them identifiable targets for job discrimination and other forms of prejudice. Business competitors spread rumors accusing Greek owned establishments of unsanitary conditions and dishonesty. The Greeks of New York fought back by using their fraternal and business organizations to stress American values, assimilation and the importance of obtaining U.S. citizenship among their members. Since restrictive immigration laws also favored those who had obtained American citizenship, Greek immigrants enrolled in English language and civics courses in record numbers in order to bring over relatives still in Greece. The Federal Census of 1940 recorded 53,300 Greek- Americans living in NYC, of which 53.6% had been born in Greece.

Greece's heroic stand against fascism during World War II was a source of pride and a call to action for New York's Greek Americans. It suddenly became acceptable for Greek owned businesses to identify themselves with their countrymen abroad. Greek and American flags were proudly exhibited in front of many of the city's restaurants and flower shops. The community not only used its network of fraternal and business organizations to form the GWRA (Greek War Relief Association) to aid Greece, but after America joined the war, they purchased large numbers of war bonds worth millions of dollars. Many New York Greek Americans fought in the European and Pacific theaters during the war, and the 122nd Infantry Division even contained a "Greek Battalion" composed of Greek merchant seamen led by Greek Americans officers.

While the prosperity of America during the postwar period consolidated the Greek Americans' entry into the middle class, it also attracted increasing numbers of immigrants who sought to escape from the poverty and political divisiveness of Greece's civil war (1944-1949). Between 1948 and 1965 special refugee legislation, allowed about 70,000 Greeks to enter the United States as displaced persons or because they had relatives there. Thousands of Greek professionals also came to obtain a higher education or because their area of speciality was in demand. Unlike Greek American communities in other areas of the United States, in NYC, the numbers of Greek Americans born in Greece continued to outnumber those born in the U.S. These new immigrants strengthened the ethnic character of the city's Greek American community but did not change the pattern of increased assimilation that had begun in the 1920s. This pattern temporarily slowed down, however, in 1965, when new legislation abolished immigration quotas by country of origin.

Between 1966 and 1971, about 15,000 Greek immigrants came to the United States under this new legislation. A number which stabilized to approximately 9,000 per year through the 1980's. The cultural context of New York in the 1960s and 70s was also very different from that which confronted previous generations of Greek immigrants. The "melting pot" theory gave way to that of the ethnic mosaic which recognized the value of cultural diversity within the American mainstream. Movies about Greece, increased American tourism there, a Greek American Vice President, and a national interest in Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis led to a popularization of Greek culture in America. This phenomenon even led many Greek immigrants to capitalize upon their popularity and open restaurants that featured Greek music and food which catered to Americans rather than to Greeks.

In New York City many of these newcomers took traditional Greek jobs in restaurants, in the fur and hotel industries or worked as pushcart vendors selling hot dogs, ice cream, sandwiches or hot chestnuts. But others entered such fields as construction and painting, operated taxi cabs or opened pizza parlors. Greek women also entered the workforce in significant numbers for the first time. They worked in factories or assisted relatives and husbands in running their small businesses. It was also sometime during this period, that Greek restaurants popularized the gyro sandwich in New York, an item that has now found its way into sandwich shops and restaurants throughout the city.

It was only after 1965 that the Astoria section of Queens became the dominant center of Greek immigrant settlement in NYC. It is here that the largest number of Greek-owned shops and community organizations continue to maintain themselves. Sizable numbers of Greek Americans also settled in Washington Heights in Manhattan and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. In all of these places they preferred to purchase two family homes with rentable apartments, Astoria even has a Greek American Homeowners Association. Although significant numbers of illegal aliens also came to New York during this period, crime rates continued to be low among Greek Americans. Most of these illegals eventually found their way into the mainstream and became useful and productive citizens.

Although the Greek Americans of New York have often involved themselves in political issues connected with Greece, unlike their counterparts in other American cities, they have not played a prominent role in New York politics. There have been no New York Greeks who have held major elective offices such as governor, a Congressional or Assembly seat. Even today, they do not constitute a major voting block able to swing local elections.

According to the 1990 census, 159,876 people in New York State identified themselves as Greek Americans and 82,690 did so in New York City. In the past (1984), these numbers had been challenged by the Hellenic American Neighborhood Committee Inc. (HANAC), a publicly supported NYC social services agency, that estimated that the city alone is home to at least 439,640 Greek-Americans. In fact, a recent estimate puts the Greek-American population of Astoria section of Queens at between 60-70,000. However, one must always keep in mind, that even general census data on the numbers of Greek immigrants is largely unreliable. This is due to two factors: first, because up until the end of World War II several areas of what constitutes the modern Greek state were under the control of other nations, and so many ethnic Greeks travelled to the United States holding non-Greek passports; and second, because many Greek immigrants do not respond to census questionnaires and thus are undercounted in cities such as New York.

Beyond numbers, metropolitan New York is even more important to this ethnic group because it houses several communal institutions of national significance. Chief among these is the headquarters of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America and various Greek American publishing and media facilities. Two Greek language dailies are published in NYC which are read throughout the United States and a plethora of weekly, monthly and more periodic publications are published in this city by hundreds of fraternal, professional, educational, social and religious groups. Greek American hometown or regional organizations (that seek to maintain their ties to persons from the same Greek village or region) have their national headquarters in New York. They distribute their newspapers, newsletters and journals to members throughout the country.

In 1991, there were more than 117 of these organizations in NYC. Increased opportunity and a higher standard of living at home has decreased the number of new immigrants from Greece in the late 1980s. The 1990 Federal Census data and informed observers indicate that the number of Greek Americans in New York City may have declined. Certainly, the concentration of residents and Greek owned businesses in the Astoria section of Queens is no longer what it was in the 1970s. Many of the children of older immigrants have left NYC for suburbs in Long Island whose churches report dramatic increases in membership. Unless a new wave of immigration from Greece takes place in the 1990s, this population shift to the suburbs will probably increase and result in more assimilation on the part of the younger generation.

<1>See The American Archivist, 56, 3 (Summer 1993) which is a special issue devoted to records automation.

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