Greek immigrants, like those of many other immigrant groups, have had an undeniable impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans, particularly in New York City. Early Greek immigration to the United States began in the late nineteenth century when financial crisis in Greece pushed Greek families to send their sons to the urban centers of America to raise money for their families back home. Most of these immigrants planned on returning home once they had earned enough money to live a comfortable life back in Greece. Initial Greek immigrants did a variety of jobs, ranging from dishwashers and shoe shiners in New York and Chicago, to miners and railroad workers in the western states, to fishers and sponge-divers in Florida.
The Balkan wars pulled many of the young Greek immigrants back to fight for their country, but also inspired many more immigrants to come to the United States, this time with the intention of a more permanent life in America. It was at this time that many Greek diners, grocery stores and confectioneries were established, as well as the building of Greek Orthodox Churches, a prominent part of Greek communities and family life in the United States.
A new wave of Greek immigrants began in the 1960’s due to the 1965 Immigration Act. In the ten years following this legislation change, nearly 150,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States, settling primarily in New York City. It was at this time that Astoria saw a huge influx of Greek and Cypriot immigrants. By the end of the 1960’s, Astoria, Queens had the world’s largest population of Greeks outside of Greece itself.
Since the 1980’s, Greek immigration has been in decline. Although second and third-generation Greeks are beginning to move out of Astoria into houses in the suburbs of Queens and Long Island, their mark on the neighborhood is still visible to this day. A quick walk along 31st Street under the elevated N and Q train track leads inevitably to Titan Foods, a Greek grocery known throughout the five boroughs and New Jersey for the Greek imports that make up 90% of its products. Greek Orthodox churches loom against the skyline, by far the most imposing buildings for miles, while diners, with gleaming tables set up alongside the buildings for outdoor eating, are scattered only blocks apart. Astoria is littered with Greek bakeries, tavernas, and cafés as well as carts that offer fresh-made gyros to passerby.
Though Greek culture is still prevalent in Astoria, as made clear by the busy bustle in and out of Titan foods on a Saturday morning, Greeks are moving elsewhere as other immigrant groups begin to move in. As I walked through Astoria with my father, it was clear how much the neighborhood had changed from the hugely Greek area of his childhood. He laughed, reminiscing about a childhood in which the neighborhood was entirely Greek and Italian, and himself – a lone Filipino who knew a lot of Greek words. At each block we passed, he would think of another restaurant of his past only to be disappointed that half of them were no longer in business.
Paul Skaliarinis is the perfect example of the Greek immigrant story in New York City. Paul grew up in Astoria, New York and attended William C. Bryant High School less than a mile from his home. He now works for GPC International Technology, and has moved his family out to Little Neck, Queens, where he raised his two sons, Petros and George. As he said, “I haven’t been there in 21 years.” However, his wife Maria’s parents still live in Astoria, in the same house they first moved into when they immigrated to America.
The Greeks in Astoria are now an old community, and will eventually fade as educated, white-collar workers move their families into larger houses farther from the bustle of the city in order to raise their children. Paul had hoped for a better education for Petros and George than he was offered, and his move into the area served by the former District 26 did not go unrewarded. Both his sons attended Louis Pasteur Middle School 67, and Petros is now an alumnus of Stuyvesant High School and a member of the NYU class of 2014. George attends Benjamin Cardozo High School and will be graduating next year.
Immigrants to the United States come with one thing in mind – a better life, sometimes for themselves, but always for their families. Greeks flourished in Astoria for a time, but are now establishing themselves elsewhere in hopes of their children rising even further than they have. Regardless of the move, Astoria still remains a gathering place for Greek Americans to shop, attend church, and to touch back with their immigrant culture. Regardless of the resident trends of the neighborhood, it will be many years before the diners and tavernas that have become so popular among Americans of any heritage disappear from the Astoria streets.