Arriving in Huntington Park in 1969 with 25 cents in his pocket and speaking virtually no English, Nick Ioannidis, a.k.a. “Nick the Greek,” was on his way to fulfilling his own American dream.
He saved enough money to open a tailor shop in a building on Gage Avenue in 1979, four years after he became a citizen. Since then he has become one of the most colorful residents of the city, turning his shop into a virtual U.S. history museum complete with placards, proclamations and photographs of governors and Presidents he received in response to letters.
A chandelier has 50 red, white and blue light bulbs, each with a miniature flag to represent the 50 states. Flags of the original 13 colonies adorn one of the walls, and outside he flies the flags of the United States, the United Nations and Huntington Park.
But on the brink of the 20th anniversary of his citizenship, which he’ll celebrate April 21, Ioannidis may be put out of business by the system he has put so much faith in.
Last week, he went to a pretrial hearing and a judge set May 10 as the day the tailor must answer misdemeanor charges of failing to shore up his building against earthquakes, as required under municipal law and state statutes. If convicted, Ioannidis could be forced to close shop and may be slapped with hefty fines.
In protest, he is flying the city’s flag at half-staff.
Ioannidis, who has pleaded not guilty to the charge, maintains that the city’s redevelopment agency is trying to force him out of business so that it can use his property for other purposes, according to his attorney, Larry Lewellyn.
“Basically, (Ioannidis) believes that earthquake retrofitting is a smoke screen for other ulterior interests that certain individuals have for the property,” Lewellyn said.
City officials deny the allegation, saying Ioannidis’ shop poses a danger to citizens.
Ioannidis said his problems began 10 years ago when he wanted to improve his tailor shop, which he calls Nick the Greek in America. Since he bought the building at 2669 E. Gage Ave in 1979, he has invited schoolchildren and politicians to elaborate parties marking the day he became a citizen.
The city “makes me broke because I can’t borrow more money for reinforcement,” Ioannidis said in his thick accent. The work would cost $60,000.
Cities were required under a 1986 state law to submit a list of unreinforced commercial and residential dwellings with more than four units. Municipalities were required to prepare an ordinance that compels building owners to make their structures safer in an earthquake, in accordance with state Seismic Safety Commission specifications.
Huntington Park, which passed its earthquake safety ordinance in 1988, found 120 unreinforced masonry buildings, more than any other city in the Southeast Los Angeles County area except Long Beach. Henry Gray, assistant director of community development, said rather than examining structures, building permit records were checked to determine how buildings were constructed.
Owners were given about four years to make required improvements. Only five buildings have not been upgraded, or torn down, since the original citations. The owners who have delinquent citations, including Ioannidis, contend that they can’t afford repairs or say their properties don’t need upgrading. Each is due in court.
“If there is a conviction,” said City Prosecutor Steven Rosenblit, “our goal would be to have the court order the individual to vacate the structure, including all tenants, and not use the building until it is in full compliance with building codes.”
Rosenblit said other conditions may be sought, such as paying fines and court costs, against defendants.
Ioannidis said he wants his day in court.
“If the law says I have to go, I have to go. I accept it whenever it comes,” Ioannidis said. “I didn’t come here to break the law. I want to show I’m a good citizen.”