“Same Name, Different Story”
Sitting amongst the company of her parents and five siblings, Catherine had basked in the summer sun of her expansive yard in Thessaloniki, Greece. The captain of two hefty vessels, her father had adorned the perimeter of their yard with golden lemon trees and dense, twirling foliage. An atmosphere this warm and exuberant could put a smile on anyone’s face, even the face of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Fast forward to Christmas time, the winter of 1964. At 22 years old, Catherine had traveled to the United States to visit her sister, Asimina, who had married a Greek American and moved to New York a few years before. Just like her own father, she had always lived for the thrill of adventure, the wonder of exploring new places. It was no surprise she had married an officer of the Greek Air Force, Demetri, who shared the same sense of curiosity and love for life. The couple found themselves captivated by the lights of the Rockefeller Center tree and the sky scraping buildings of the Big Apple, and decided to prolong their vacation a few more months.
After temporarily residing in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with “Mina,” the pair decided to bring their newly-wed travel plans to a halt and permanently stay. Catherine and Demetri were not alone in experiencing the magnetic pull of the city; they were accompanied by 70,000 other Greek immigrants who left the comfort of Greece for their shots at living out the American Dream in the 1960s, settling primarily in industrial centers on the East Coast, in Florida and New York, and in the Midwest, in Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
There was no better neighborhood to settle down and expand their family in than Bay Ridge, which fell between Thessaloniki and the concrete jungle that initially enticed them in terms of size and urban appeal, plus enjoyed a view of the Verrazano Bridge amidst construction. Not to mention it was also close to the blossoming Greektown of Astoria, Queens, only a train or car ride away.
Despite having arrived prior to the establishment of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the Hart-Celler Act, which abolished the earlier quota system based on national origin that favored Northern at the expense of Southern Europeans, Catherine and Demetri did not have difficulty coming here; they had difficulty staying here. The coveted green card that would perpetuate their residence was within their reach, yet took what felt like an eternity to obtain. To this day, Catherine rolls her eyes and sighs when she reminisces on getting “the papers”.
As they celebrated the solidification of the “American” component of their “Greek American” identity, Demetri went hunting for a house to make their home. However, it took about seven years of blood, sweat, and tears to buy the house on 88th Street in which they still live. At first, the couple lived in a six-family apartment building on 82nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. As their family grew, they needed more space, so they moved into a rented two-family private house, and finally to the two-family private house of their own.
Having moved around, yet never from, Bay Ridge, Catherine has watched the neighborhood evolve before her eyes from the quaint, affable suburb of her introduction to the bustling, quasi-metropolitan microcosm of the present
She describes her neighborhood as an “old neighborhood;” most of the people she met when she first settled still reside there. “In Bay Ridge, we have a lot of different kinds of people now. On my block, we have mostly Greek, a few Chinese, and the European people from when I first came. Italian, Irish, Norwegian. My block is more like the old neighborhood.”
Specifically, the eradication of quota systems by the Hart-Celler Act ignited the mass influx of Eastern and Southern European workers. Consequently, in the 1960s and 70s, most of the people on Catherine’s block and in Bay Ridge were European, from Greece, Italy, Norway, and Ireland. Soon enough, in the 1980s, Chinese entrepreneurs who had settled in nearby Sunset Park renovated several abandoned warehouses, turning them into functional garment factories. More newcomers from China, the Middle East, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union further diversified the neighborhood throughout the 1990s.
In fact, Catherine’s current tenants are a Chinese family. She says her neighbors are quiet, polite people. She has never had a problem with them, or anyone on her block for that matter. The ethnic harmony of her block seems too good to be true, but it is true!
Not only is Bay Ridge more globally-flavorful than her Hellenic hometown, but overall more crowded and commercialized. “There are more people here. It’s different. Over there [in Thessaloniki], smaller city, less people. Over here, too many people around. It was less crowded back then than it is today, but still much more crowded than Greece.”
As the neighborhood’s population increased in number, the stores increased in size. Where there used to be modest mom-and-pop stores and one-of-a-kind boutiques are capitalistic chains, like “McDonald’s and Victoria’s Secret.” 86th Street can be easily mistaken for a street in Manhattan with its abundance of recognizable brands and eateries. That newly-constructed spectacle of a bridge that first greeted her securely linked Brooklyn and Staten Island, prompting residents on each side to take advantage of the other’s resources financially and socially.
Despite these intimidating changes, Catherine portrays the neighborhood as a very welcoming place, and she has always felt welcomed. Ultimately, she emphasizes how she grew to love her neighborhood and America as the adjustment process progressed, for it was not all rainbows and sunshine in the land of opportunity.
Her husband encountered first-hand the exploitation of immigrant workers at the hands of avaricious bosses. In the garage rather than on the Air Force’s runway, Demetri was taken advantage of by his boss at Volkswagen as he awaited promised assistance in obtaining “the papers”.
While Greeks shared countless of the core values of Americans, namely the value placed on demonstrating a strong work ethic to “make it big” and preserving their familial bonds, natives often focused on geographic distance, rather than moral and emotional adjacency. The characteristically Mediterranean olive skin and facial hair of these Southeastern Europeans were not much darker than the fair features of their hostile counterparts.
Not only did Catherine look differently, but she spoke differently. To learn English, she went to night school for three years. She spoke to her children mostly in Greek, but they helped her to practice her novel communicative skills. Despite struggling with the infamous language barrier, nothing compared to the struggles she faced back in Greece.
It is “more peaceful” here. She attests that she never has to worry about living in fear, for Greece risks unrest within and war with northern and eastern neighboring countries. The historic waves of mass immigration in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s from Greece followed periods of intra and inter-ethnic conflict, specifically the Greek Civil War, military coup, and tensions with Turkey.
Catherine didn’t stay for herself, but for her family. She deems family the driving force for turning pessimism to optimism. As much as she cried and missed her roots, she flourished watching her family blossom on American soil. Mr. and Mrs. “Stratigopoulos” turned “Stratis” are the epitome of a compassionate, resilient, selfless Greek American couple.
Interestingly, Demetri made the executive decision to change the family’s last name from “Stratigopoulos” to “Stratis.” A common immigrant tradeoff, an Americanized last name mitigated the intimidation sensed by readers and employers, yet conserved recognizability by fellow Greeks. Clearly, Greek Americans have mastered finding an optimal balance between assimilation and retention.
Being busy with her children and gradually acclimating to the neighborhood allowed Catherine to develop a great love for her surroundings. She recounts that “little by little [she] made friends,” bonding with and growing to appreciate her neighbors, whom were both Greek and non-Greek, and both immigrants, like herself, and second or third generation Americans. Having lived in the neighborhood for decades now, she “feels connected,” proclaiming the joys of community from the start, even when clouded by challenges.
One woman she met initially was a German immigrant, Lee; to this day, they live on the same block and are cherished friends. Together, the gals experienced the block parties, park strolls, and mall outings of the women of 88th Street. “I loved the mall here. It was huge compared to the shopping places in Greece.”
Now, when she leaves her house, Catherine “cannot stop telling people, ‘Hello!’” Over time, discomfort becomes comfort; unfamiliarity becomes familiarity.
Her Greek friends, many of whom she met at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church, helped with both assimilation and retention. Whether they were born here or came as immigrants, they spoke her language, ate her food, and mirrored her religious and cultural beliefs.
The church served as a beacon of hope and a Greek American mecca. Similarly, large ethnic groups in Bay Ridge gathered around their places of worship. The Greek Orthodox church on 84th and Ridge Boulevard was accompanied by the synagogue on 81st and 4th and the mosque on 68th and 5th, precipitating the growth of Bay Ridge’s large Jewish and Arabic communities.
Growing up in a multicultural vicinity, her children, and later grandchildren were exposed to a diverse array of identities. However, along with learning about others, she made sure her family learned about themselves, passionately instilling in them the tenets of the Greek Orthodox religion and the Greek culture.
Her children went to the Greek School of Plato to learn the Greek language and history, participated in Holy Cross’s youth and scouting programs, and eventually married other Greeks. Their children go to church and Greek school as well.
They are a regular big, fat, Greek family. They all know and involved themselves in each other’s business. They watch out for each other with Spartan-like intensity and will drop everything to lend a helping hand. Their love for each other is almost suffocating; their happiness and laughter when they are together is infectious.
Undoubtedly, family is central to the Greek culture, central to Catherine. Beaming cheek to cheek, she relates, “Life is beautiful here. I have a nice family, beautiful grandchildren, eight grandchildren, three granddaughters and five grandboys. I am so proud of them. They are good kids. They go to good schools here. I am very happy. My family is here, and I am very happy.”
The Stratis family can frequently be found having a barbecue in the charming backyard of the house on 88th Street, basking under the sun, surrounded by perennial flowers and vines reminiscent of her home in Thessaloniki. Coming from their own houses, only two and three blocks away, the grandkids rush from the front door to the kitchen, where Catherine is cooking a medley of traditional Greek dishes to a soundscape of bouzoukia and lyres. Next, they go outside to see their grandfather, who is most likely grilling hotdogs and hamburgers. Impatiently waiting for their food, the kids set the table and update each other on academic and social affairs. Once a prayer is said, everyone digs in, savoring every bite and moment together.
(Catherine is famous for her loukoumades, a popular Greek dessert. Loukoumades are fried balls of dough, usually served with some combination of honey, syrup, Nutella, and cinnamon.)
“I love to cook. It helps me feel connected with Greece and my family. My family here and in Greece. It is also tasty and healthy. The Mediterranean diet … [has] olive oil, fish, feta cheese, tomato … Every so often, we have a glass of wine.”
Aside from cooking at home, Catherine dines at the Greek restaurants around Bay Ridge. She has also tasted the other flavors of ethnic restaurants at her disposal. “I like American food, Greek food, and Italian food the most. I don’t really like spicy food, but we have a lot here,” she expresses. Just along 3rd Avenue, various Chinese takeout joints, Indian fusion restaurants, and good ole American diners enable Brooklynites to walk to a fresh country every evening.
Today, Catherine calls herself a “Bay Ridge girl.” She has embraced the area’s residents and their identities since her arrival, as they have reciprocated. This does not neglect her ever-so-strong connection to her Greek homeland. America truly provides her with the best of both worlds.
Now rewind to 1967, Catherine gave birth to my father. In interviewing my grandmother about her experience of coming to and living in America as a Greek immigrant, I not only better understood my “yiayia,” but better understood sources of strength for those inhabiting foreign residences, means of harmonizing one’s surroundings, and changes in oneself and one’s community over time.
She ended our interview in declaring, “America is now my country; New York is my home. I wouldn’t change my neighborhood for anything else. I am very happy and don’t regret coming.”
Alexiou, Nicholas. “Greek Immigration in the United States A Historical Overview.” Research, Queens College, CUNY, Jan. 2013, www.qc.cuny.edu/academics/degrees/dss/sociology/greekoralhistory/Pages/Research.aspx.
Gounardes, Andrew S, and Maria Avgitidis Pyrgiotakis. “No Greeks Need Apply.” The National Herald, The National Herald, Inc, 8 Aug. 2017, www.thenationalherald.com/171404/no-greeks-need-apply/.
Jackson, Kenneth T, and John B Manbeck. “The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn.” Books, The New York Times, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/manbeck-brooklyn.html?scp=49&sq=beach%2520books&st=cse.
Kitroeff, Alexander. “The Story of Greek Migration to America.” The Journey: The Greek American Dream, Proteus, 2007, www.thejourneygreekamericandream.org/historical.htm.