Astoria:'A Little Greece' in New York
Solange Williams and Stephanie Mejia
ASTORIA QUEENS, A GREEK COMMUNITY IN NEW YORK
Astoria, Queens is home to the largest Greek
population in New York. In the 1970's when one would walk through the
streets of Astoria, one would see Greek clubs, restaurants serving Greek
cuisine, and many Greek-owned businesses. However, because of the
decrease in Greek migration to the United States and the improved standard
of living of many Greek Americans, Astoria has become more diverse.
Astoria is becoming multi- cultural, housing immigrants from various
countries, such as, Columbia, Mexico, Russia and Pakistan. In 2001, one
can walk around Astoria and clearly see a mix of different ethnicities.
However, the Greeks are clearly identified by their blue and white store
fronts, Hellenic restaurant décor and travel agencies. On the streets of
Astoria, Greek is evidently spoken among Greeks in businesses and
restaurants. However, many Greeks are also very fluent in English. Greek
Americans take pride in their language and strive to preserve Greek along
generation lines. As a result, LOTE speakers maintain their Greek
nationalism in Astoria, by attending Greek Orthodox schools, churches,
visiting Greek doctors and supporting Greek organizations in their area.
The largest Greek migration to the United
States began in 1910 and ended 1930. Greeks originally came to America to
increase their financial status. Many of them had the intension to make a
sufficient of money, so that they can return to their homeland well off.
Greek migration gradually slowed down in the 1980's due to great
improvements in the living conditions in Greece. However, Astoria was
still a 'Little Greece' in New York. According to the 1980 census,
Astoria was home to 22,579 people of Greek ancestry (Socioeconomic
Profiles, 1990). However, according to the 1990 census, Astoria's Greek
population dropped to 18,127 (Socioeconomic Profile 1990). This was the
result of the drop in immigration and low birth rate of Greeks in Astoria
(Moskos 1990). According to the Principal of St. Demetrios, many Greeks
are currently leaving Astoria to settle in Whitestone; however, they still
own many of the buildings in Astoria.
RESTAURANTS AND BUSINESSES: THE STREETS OF ASTORIA
Language is important to ethnic continuity
and with the disappearance of language, may lead to the disappearance of
the Ethnic group (Psomiades 1982). LOTE speakers in Astoria send their
children to Greek Orthodox Churches to insure that their language is
continued from generation to generation. Many Greek speakers, who still
live in Astoria, speak highly to the times when it was okay not to know
Upon arriving to Astoria, we had different
perceptions. In our group of two, one of us was totally lost and felt
like a foreigner, the other was completely at home. This exclusionary
feeling stemmed from the fact, that one of us was black and Astoria has no
black people. The other felt comfortable, because she lived in the area
and could identify as a resident; she was Columbian. Walking through the
streets, everyone knew that one of us did not belong. We went through many
stores, some Columbian and Greek restaurants. The Greeks welcomed us with
open arms. They found it interesting that two girls from different
ethnicities were interested in learning about Greek speakers in Astoria.
During numerous interviews, we met Spiro, a
Greek immigrant who arrived to the United States twenty years ago. Spiro
states, "When I came to Astoria, I never wanted to learn English, but
because I wanted to work outside of Astoria, I had to learn English."
Spiro learned English, and after a few years in the United States he sent
for his parents. He now owns a little Greek store in Astoria. Spiro
gladly remembers when the little children played in the streets speaking
Greek. He remembers a time when his neighbors were Greek. Spiro views
the presence of other ethnic groups as an 'invasion'. Astoria now houses
Spanish restaurants and Arab supermarkets. It is home to many Russian,
Spanish and Pakistani speakers. He says, "It is an invasion of the
Pakistanis and Mexicans." With these new groups around, Greek is not
frequently spoken anymore in Astoria. Spiro states, "My parents (Spiro
points to his parents) speak no English, not enough to get around. If I
leave the store with them in charge, it is like the store is closed."
Spiro turns to his mother and talks to her in Greek. She turns to us and
smiles. Spiro continues to say, "The next generation of Greeks do not
speak Greek or even know Greek. If it was not for schools like St.
Demetrios, the Greek language today would not be alive." He believes it
is essential as a LOTE speaker to speak the language continuously at home
to prevent his culture from dying.
SCHOOLS AND CHURCHES: PRESERVING THE LANGUAGE
St. Demetrios School is the largest Greek-
American School outside of Greece. It is comprised of an elementary,
middle and High School. The Day School houses six hundred to seven
hundred students, all of whom come from Hellenic ancestry (Cyprus and
Greece). The Day School teaches all academic subjects, but spends a great
deal of time on Greek language and culture. From Pre-K to eighth grade
Greek classes are an hour and a half daily. However, after the eighth
grade they are conducted in a forty-five minute time span. Due to the
expensive cost of attending the Day School, St. Demetrios also has an
After School Program that runs from 3:30- 5:30 and only teaches Greek.
There are approximately two hundred and fifty students in this after
school program. Learning the Greek language is important to these
students because they are mostly second and third generation Greek
Americans, and their Greek parents would like them to continue the Greek
Ten percent of the students at St. Demetrios
have Greek parents, who speak only English. However ninety percent of the
students are fluent in both Greek and English. St. Demetrios encounters
very few students who do not speak English in the upper grades. However,
when they do encounter students, they have very little tolerance. Those
students are given one year to learn English on their own. If they cannot
achieve this goal they are sent to public school. St. Demetrios does not
provide ESL programs. As a result, they do not accept children, who do
not speak English in grades nine through twelve. St. Demetrios is very
accepting of LOTE speakers, once they are also fluent in English. The
principal of St. Demetrios, as a LOTE speaker is able to communicate to
parents in Greek.
St. Demetrios School gets seventy- five
percent of their budget form St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. The
Church takes care of the school finances, but does not interfere in their
method of teaching. This Church is comprised of St. Catherine and St.
George's Orthodox Church (Schumack 1977). St. Demetrios Orthodox Church
has services in both Greek and English. This is done to cater to the old
(Greeks who only speak), second and third generation Greek Americans. The
Church also has festivals and Greek social clubs. The principal of the
St. Demetrios School states, "Greeks move together, hang out together,
visit Greek doctors, shop in Greek stores and marry Greeks as part of
maintaining the Greek way of life." Students in the Greek Schools in
Astoria, have very little exposure to cultures other than Greeks, despite
the fact that Astoria is so diverse. St. Demetrios understands this
problem and in response has an experienced and multi- cultural staff, who
expose students to a large array of cultures and literature. The
principal, however, insisted that Pre-K teachers be bilingual.
Astoria houses many government offices that
cater to the needs of individuals, who are primarily Greek speakers. One
of these organizations is HANAC (Hellenic American Action Committee).
This non- profit organization founded in 1972, aids the Hellenic community
in assimilating into American society. HANAC specializes in assisting in
ESL, job placement, social support service referrals, and other
naturalizing services. HANAC also assists individuals in getting
interpreters for court cases. HANAC plays a major role in helping
Hellenic- Americans find information about their city government and
services available to them.
The Federation of Hellenic Societies of
Greater NY, Inc is another Greek organization in Astoria. The goals of
this organization includes: assisting Greek immigrants to become American
citizens, highlighting the cultural, scientific and professional
contributions of the Greek- Americans to the American Society and
supporting the activities that perpetuate the Greek language, culture and
identity. Their current activities include creating programs or career
awareness for Greeks in Astoria and also raising funds to build and
athletic and community center for Greeks in the community.
GREEK MEDIA IN ASTORIA
Astoria has many different cable networks,
magazines and newspapers that cater to the Greek community. While some of
this media is strictly in Greek, some are both in Greek and in English.
Astoria has various radio networks that have Greek speaking DJs and music.
Some of these radio networks include the National Greek Radio, Dimensions,
Hellenic Voices, and Aktina FM radio. All of these stations are produced
right in Astoria. The local neighborhood also presents a large array of
Greek television channels: Queens Cable, Hellenic Broadcasting Company,
National Greek TV, and the Hellenic TV Network. Astoria even has its' own
Greek publishing house; Petallides Publishing form which comes a very
popular local newspaper Pronini. Another popular publishing house is
Greek American Publishing, located right on Crescent Street in Astoria.
Many residents of Astoria are also familiar with the publications,
Omegeneia (a Greek American Newspaper) and Greek American Metropolis
CONCLUSION: WHAT HAPPENS FROM HERE?
The Greek Americans are realizing that as
LOTE speakers they must assimilate into American society without loosing
their culture. They have done this by establishing a home away from home.
This home is Astoria, however, in their efforts to preserve their language
many Greek shop owners in Astoria, admit that they only work in Astoria
and live some place else. Greeks in Astoria are becoming scarce.
However, Greek Churches like St. Demetrios, vows never giving up in their
mission to unite all Greeks with the Greek language. Many of the Hellenic
residents and shopkeepers of Astoria are devoutly Greek Orthodox. The
Church helps by giving services in both Greek and English. The Greek
American School, St. Demetrious also helps by providing classes in Greek
language and writing various local publications, such as, the
International Hellenic Tribune, which is written in Greek and English.
The restaurants that specialize in Greek cuisine have waiters and
waitresses that speak Greek to Hellenic customers. The same goes for
travel agencies, bakeries, and clinics in the area. The Greek community
regardless of their slow relocation outside of Astoria will always
remember 'Little Greece' as the home of the Greek language in New York.
Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York
Gate, Nicholas. "America Discovers Greek Is Beautiful." New York
7 Apr. 1997
Moskos, Charles. Greek Americans: Struggle and Success.
Psomaides, Harry J. The Greek American Community in Transition.
Company. New York 1882
Schumack, Murray. Astoria, the largest Greek City outside Greece. New
7 Oct. 1977
Schumack , Murray. Astoria offers more than a little Bit of Greece in
Music and Dance
Festival. New York Times 18 June 1976
Socioeconomic Profiles: NY Dept. of City Planning. A Portrait of
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