After years of trying, I finally managed to visit Chicago to see its Greektown. For three years in a row, my plans had been thwarted: one year by ice storm, second year by family drama, and third year by polar vortex. Well, almost. As a writer who has covered various Hellenic communities around the world, I figured: how could I skip out on Chicago, the bastion of the Hellenic presence in the Midwest? Indeed, it’s the only city in the world that has a museum dedicated to the Greek American experience, the National Hellenic Museum. I live in Greektown on the East Coast, I was dead set on visiting Greektown right smack in the middle of the country, -30 degree below zero weather aside. Luckily, by the time I arrived, the polar vortex had subsided and I had 40 degree walking weather for the weekend.
I am walking through Chicago’s Greektown. I see the Walgreens labeled with a blue “Farmakeion,” a frieze of gods circling a fire hydrant, stock characters from Greek mythology and facile associations baptizing the awnings of restaurants—Zeus, Parthenon, Meli, Muses, Greek Islands; the familiar blue-and-white friezes and columns across Halstead Avenue. These icons of identity become beacons of home—tents in the wilderness. They bring a warmth as I crunch though frozen snow. What a testament to perseverance! I can come out any major airport of a major city around the world and find a tent of my tribe, duck into it and grab a souvlaki or light a beeswax candle, say “Kali mera” and feel safe at home.
The history of the Greek American diaspora is scattered throughout the corners of Halstead Avenue. The mythic Halstead Avenue. Dreams ring the sidewalks like Greek keys. “Halstead Avenue” that was the address that Niki Douka, a mail-order picture bride from Samocrathe held in her hand in Boulgaris’ film Nyphes. It was her destination, the ending of her long journey on the boat over, that was to take her to her new husband, a man she had only known through a photograph and a ticket number. The more I walked Halstead, the more I felt their lives, their agonies, their stories rise up like ghosts. It made my eyes into deep wells. They had come from all over—villages as far as Korropi. They had struggled in their bodies, hunched over work benches, threadbare in the winter snow, their souls yearning with nostos. In this hinterland of America, blown cold by winds off Lake Michigan, these Greek pioneers were met with frowns and suspicion, foreign accents. All they had to speak for them was the pounding of their muscles against the belt, the snip and saddle of their fingers against the machine, their sweat on the thousand and thousand miles of tracks.
They left the warmth of families, the light of Apollo, the laurels of an illustrious culture behind to show their mettle, to survive and thrive in a new land ripe with possibility. They joined shoe factories and meat packing plants, wagon trains, steel mills, restaurant counters. These pioneers clutched the memory of their sisters and mothers and cousins these pioneers clutched their language as hard and as keen as they clutched their baptismal crosses around their necks in times of trouble, these pioneers who clutched to their culture as faithfully as the red glow of their kandylia. The famous poem of Chicago by Carl Sandburg praises the city as: Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders”
Somewhere in the symphony of sliding sinews, wide shoulders, clanking pile drivers is the sound of my people too. The hum of the baker kneading koulourakia, the sing-song lullabuy of the young mail order bride stitching, the yank of the dock worker hoisting crates—in that music is the song of my nation.
The fortitude of these Greek immigrants becomes more pronounced the further into the new country they ventured. On the east coast, it was easier to find a connection, a wayward busboy or wharf worker who spoke their language that could tip them to the name of a boss who was hiring. But for those who braved the rugged frontier of the MidWes there was less. They had to revert to their own resilience—do double duty, connect body and soul. The hustle was bolder because there was only flatland—frowing and freezing—on them. Here they had to contend with an entire country full of “dried toasts.”
When I walk the sidewalks of Chicago’s Greektown, embedded with scrolls of Greek key around tree plots, I feel intimately the tolls and triumphs of these branded pioneers—the struggles and their nostos—a bit deeper than the ones I walk on the East Coast.
It is well worth a freezing winter to walk the streets of Chicago’s Greektown. From these streets rise the ghosts of a stock of humanity some of the bravest, most hard-working and ingenious immigrant groups to make up this American tapestry.
These are as worthy to be called pioneers of the frontier as their wagon-yielding North European counterparts.
These are the pioneers of my culture and they astonish me.
Ironically, as much as Greektown is alive with history, it is dead with Hellenic identity in the present. Many of the Greek inhabitants have moved away to suburbs with English sounding names like Bloomington. Massive constructions like the UIC and Rush medical, the Dwight Eisenhower highway have rehashed it. Men with hard hats and yellow reflective jackets like hornets on scaffolds were busy drilling, pounding, laying down internal veins to posh luxury condos with dark glass facades on a Saturday morning. I had witnessed in the very act of walking from one marker on Halstead Avenue to the other how Progress, the future, had obliterated all forms of the teeming ethnic enclave. Even on a Saturday night, sitting smack in the middle of the glorious 9 Muses, Greektown was empty of the Greek identity. The Parthenon, a renowned Chicago restaurant for close to 40 years, had closed its doors. It has been converted to a Parthenon Guest House, part-owned by the wife of the owner. Like the National Hellenic Museum, Chicago’s Greektown has itself become a shell, a walking museum for the once vibrant community there. The young waiter who served me introduced himself as Sam. When I chatted in Greek, he smiled demurely and apologized, “Sorry, I don’t speak Greek. My folks never spoke it at home.” Such is the way of Americanization. Acculturation means your language will be lost, your identity will be watered down, your sense of community spread thin over miles and miles like some expansive suburban sprawl.
Walking down Greektown was like visiting a city of ghosts. A spectral place whose glory lay in its past, not in its present nor its future. A place to preserve the memory of a people now defunct. It fortified my sense of deepening disillusionment with the price of success. An open-air museum that was still nevertheless worth every step.