A return to Greek Town
Long before merchants from India, El Salvador, Hong Kong and elsewhere hawked their wares in the Toy District of downtown Los Angeles, the neighborhood was filled with the colorful sights and fragrant smells of old Greece.
There were Mediterranean delicacies at the city’s first Greek restaurant, Marathon Cafe on 4th Street, and fine olive oil from the Kalamata Importing Co. a few doors down. A block away, Dan Stathatos Sr. started Broadway Florist, an enterprise that flourishes today as Stats Floral Supply.
There were sweet shops and produce firms, peanut factories and barber shops -- 65 businesses all told, clustered in what became known as Greek Town, according to Greek American researcher Ted Pastras.
Today, all but two of those original buildings have been razed and reconstructed by successive waves of immigrants. Although their physical footprint downtown has faded, Greek Americans are thriving throughout Southern California -- and are scheduled to be recognized Friday by the Los Angeles City Council for their century-old presence in Los Angeles.
A tour of old Greek Town led by Pastras is set for Sunday, and a gala dinner and liturgy are scheduled for the following weekend.
“We’re celebrating a perpetual resurrection,” said Father John S. Bakas of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles, which is spearheading the upcoming centennial celebration. “We’ve passed over the early immigrant days to the present success and growth of the community.”
The Greek American community’s continued vibrancy was evident over Memorial Day weekend, when an estimated 50,000 people flocked to the 35th annual Valley Greek Festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Northridge. The festival featured the savory smells of Greek cuisine -- sizzling sausage, lamb chops, honeyed filo dough pastries. Patrons linked hands in lively dancing to traditional tunes featuring the bouzouki, a pear-shaped stringed instrument.
“We work hard, we play hard and we like to share our culture with everyone else,” said Lou Skoby, a 47-year-old Encino jewelry firm owner.
St. Nicholas is one of 20 Greek Orthodox churches in Southern California; their proliferation mirrors the growth and dispersal of the community. Among the 1.4 million Americans reporting Greek ancestry in a 2006 U.S. Census Bureau survey, some 150,000 live in California -- more than any other state except New York -- with about half of that number in Southern California.
The Southland’s story of Greek Americans formally started when about 15 immigrants took out a state charter to organize their community in 1908. Among them was Peter Sakellaris, whose nephew, John, is a 90-year-old retired banker and St. Sophia foundation president.
John Sakellaris still recalls family visits to the community’s downtown fruit stands, butchers and cafes. Unlike such cities as Chicago, where Greek immigrants formed ethnic residential enclaves, those in Los Angeles lived scattered throughout the city, Sakellaris said. He lived in a multiethnic neighborhood on San Pedro Street and attended school with Angelenos of Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Mexican descent.
The Greek immigrant community never rivaled the size of its German, Irish and English counterparts in the U.S., in part because of restrictive immigration quotas adopted in 1924. Primarily designed to appease growing public opposition to immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, the new quotas cut Greek immigration allowances from a peak of about 340,000 between 1900 and 1917 to about 21,000 between 1925 and 1945, according to Stavros T. Constantinou and Milton E. Harvey in an article for the book “Race, Ethnicity and Place in a Changing America.”
But Los Angeles was a relatively tolerant place, without the lynchings and other violent attacks Greek immigrants faced in other parts of the country, Sakellaris and others said.
Like so many immigrants before them, many Greeks had fled war, political turmoil, oppression or poverty to seek new opportunities here. Pastras, the researcher and a Los Angeles securities and real-estate consultant, said his father was spirited away from his home country in 1916 to escape the encroaching German army and survived in the U.S. speaking no English as a dishwasher, railroad worker and eventual restaurant owner.
“I am in awe of these people, who basically came here without capital but a lot of grit and determination, and made it,” Pastras said.
One of the first things the early pioneers did was erect a church, the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, in 1912 on San Julian Street in what is now the Garment District; that church is now closed. Four decades later, Hollywood mogul Charles Skouras led the community to erect St. Sophia, a stunning structure of crystal chandeliers, stained-glass windows, gold-edged mosaics and paintings of the Trinity, Holy Family, saints and apostles.
As they have for centuries, churches served then and now as the center of Greek faith and culture. They continue to offer ancient liturgies, Greek language schools, Byzantine music and traditional dance, community festivals and Easter picnics featuring signature red eggs.
“The church is what holds us together,” said Faye Demetriou, a longtime St. Sophia member.
But, as with other ethnic communities, the inexorable forces of acculturation are creating what Bakas calls a “fusion identity.” Many younger Greek Americans have intermarried and slowly lost their ancestral language and some old-country customs.
Alex Pappas, grandson of a Greek immigrant and owner of the California Produce company, still speaks Greek and is involved in the church, but said he eats more hamburgers than lamb and married a Latina who is Roman Catholic.
“It’s splintering now,” Pappas said of the old community. “It happens with all nationalities. It’s America. That’s the way we are.”
The church has adapted to those changes. Traditional all-Greek liturgies have given way to some English, although St. Sophia and many other churches still offer weekend Greek language schools.
Bakas has reached out to converts, proclaiming that one need not be ethnically Greek to embrace the culture’s traditional Hellenic values of “light, life, beauty and at its core is Christ.” His congregation includes African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos.
Theodosia Roussos, a 19-year-old UCLA student studying music and biology, said many of her non-Greek friends are intrigued by her culture, promoted in such hit films as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” She has kept ties to her ancestry by attending a two-week student summer camp in Greece, joining a Greek club at school and singing in the church choir.
“It’s chic to be Greek,” Roussos said. “Greek culture is big and joyful.”
The story of Tony Mellos, a 67-year-old retired business owner from Pacific Palisades, reflects the past and present, the changes and continuity in Greek America. His great-uncle, Gust Picoulas, landed on Ellis Island in 1903 and made his way to Los Angeles two years later. He became a peanut wholesaler, investing in roasting equipment to supply the “Greek Fleet” of street pushcart operators peddling peanuts downtown, Mellos said.
Mellos took over the business, expanding into the health food industry with trail mix and other products. Along the way, he lost his childhood Greek language skills when a teacher told his parents to focus on English. He grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, did not attend church regularly and married a non-Greek woman from Oklahoma.
But his wife, Donna, chose to be baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church and drew Mellos back to his roots. He learned Greek dancing for the first time because she wanted to have it at their wedding, he said. The couple attend Bible study classes and have toured Greece and other important Eastern Orthodox sites with Bakas.
“My wife has made me more Greek,” Mellos said. “It’s important for everyone to hang on to the best their culture has to offer.”
His family’s historic Picoulas nut business continues to thrive on Towne Avenue downtown. The whitewashed building is the last of the old Greek Town properties still in the hands of the original family owners. It features the original lettering, “Gust Picoulas & Co.,” and still contains old roasting equipment, photos of the original pioneer and 1912 ledgers filled with elaborate cursive writing of old.
But the business itself is now owned by Thomas Lee, a Seoul native who left his homeland in 1969 at age 20 to seek the same fortunes that lured Picoulas from Greece more than six decades earlier. Lee has added Korean wedding dolls to the office decor and repackaged the products under his own brand, Naturalee, but likes the Picoulas name on the building “because it’s so old.”
For Mellos, the evolution of his family business reflects the essence of Los Angeles.
“One immigrant group has handed over the baton to another immigrant group,” Mellos said. “It’s symbolic of the growth and diversity of Los Angeles.”