The next wave

The ’60s saw a surge of Greek migrants descend upon the New York neighbourhood of Astoria. With Greece’s latest economic plight, history is repeating itself in “Little Athens”

The next wave

New York’s own “Little Athens”: striking image of the rich Greek culture present in and around Astoria.

Photos: Bill Merambeliotis. (Was publised in, 30 jan.2013 )

 Despina Meris

It is a cloudless summer morning, and the Avenue Cafe in Astoria is brimming, making me wonder if they’re giving coffees away? Frappe, tiropites, and Greek yoghurts are being transported by sashaying waitresses with just the right amount of New York attitude. Summer light filters in, bouncing off older gentlemen in suits, young women in floral dresses, and buff guys in tight t-shirts. It’s a fairly typical cafe scene, but it doesn’t take long to realize that nearly everyone is speaking Greek.

There’s a fair share of “Gringlish”, that common jumble of Greek and English spoken by second generation Hellenes around the world. What is more surprising, is the din of twentysomethings speaking rich, fluent Greek, the language spoken only by pure native-born Hellenes, the kind that rolls off the tongue effortlessly, words smoothly blending into one another. Even their fashion sense gives them away – more European, a continental chic.

History has a way of repeating itself – and right now it’s happening in Astoria. The ’60s and ’70s saw an influx of Greek migration into the area, the result of political and economic turmoil in their motherland, and the invasion of Cyprus. In 1980, there were over 22,000 Greeks living in Astoria. This might not sound like a lot when compared with the large Hellenic populations of Toronto and Melbourne, but let’s put this into perspective. That’s 22,000 Hellenes living in an area of 5.6 kilometres square. Now that’s a lot of Greek coffee wafting through the air.

With the volatility in Greece subsiding in the ’80s, far fewer citizens felt the need to migrate to Astoria. Simultaneously, the financial status of the Greeks in New York improved over time, which led to them buying up larger homes in the leafier suburbs. Astoria’s Greek population dwindled, but their footprint remains – from cafes and restaurants, to Greek banks, schools, churches, associations, news agents, bakeries and so on. The long arm of Greek influence has touched all corners of “Little Athens”. With Greece’s widespread economic turmoil, the answer again, sadly, seems to be for Hellenic citizens to leave their homeland shores. Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, stories abound of young degree-qualified Greeks abandoning bleak employment prospects in Greece to come to Astoria and seek out brighter futures.

Anna Vasilakos is a young Greek teacher who has done just that. Leaving limited job opportunities behind in her native Nafplio, she migrated with her husband and two young children in search of a better life. She tells of what finally prompted her to leave. “We were forced to leave Greece after my husband hadn’t been paid for his last six months of work. How could we provide a good life for our children with my income alone, and no certainty?” She now teaches at a Greek school in Astoria and is optimistic of a promising future. She asks: “Would I have left Greece if it weren’t for the economic crisis? No. But we are fortunate to have the opportunity to move here and create a life for ourselves.” As for how long she plans to stay, she replies “who knows what tomorrow will bring?”

George Alexiou, owner of Century 21 Alexiou Realty and President of the Greek American Homeowners Association, has witnessed the upswing in Greeks migrating first-hand. He identifies, in particular, two distinct groups: Greeks who are migrating to Astoria for a second time [those who returned to Greece only to find economic strife again, and move back to Astoria], and their adult children. “It’s easier for them to come back because they already have an American passport,” he says, citing how difficult it is for non-citizens to get permission to work in the US. “This new wave of Greek migrants isn’t just coming to test the waters,” Mr Alexious says, “they are planning to stay for the long haul”. He explains. “It seems that the situation in Greece is going to last for some time. But who knows what will happen after 10-15 years?” Astoria once again appears to have revived its role as a welcome base for the huddled masses. Close proximity to Manhattan and multicultural flair make it the perfect place for immigrants to assimilate without feeling alienated. And with one of the most diverse ethnic populations in the world, it’s hard to feel like an outcast in Astoria.