Recently, Hume City Mayor Joseph Haweil, who is of Assyrian and Greek descent has ensured that the significant presence of Assyrian-Australians in his municipality is reflected in the local topography by naming one of its streets after the capital of ancient Assyria, Nineveh. This is a significant morale boost for a beleaguered people that have no country, and who having suffered continuous persecution for the past two thousand years, are inordinately grateful to call Australia home. As relatively new arrivals to Australia, this link to their past will most likely give their pride in their heritage an Australian locus, grounding it within the streetscapes of our city.
The Greeks of Australia, on the other hand, are not a new presence. Specifically, in Melbourne, according to Museum Victoria, we have been settled since the 1850’s, only twenty-five years after the founding of the city itself. During that time, our community has made transformative and permanent contributions to the social fabric and culture of our city, especially in hospitality and trading.
While politicians of all stripes are fond of telling us, Melbourne is the largest Greek city outside Greece, it is more correct to posit that Melbourne cannot be understood or appreciated without its Greek community, which forms part of its unique identity. You would not know this from our street-scapes however. Our local topography is largely ignorant of our existence which is interwoven within the warp and the weft of the city itself, for there is scant reference to our community in the place names of Melbourne.
In a recent article (15 July 2020), Neos Kosmos’ writer Dora Houpis provided an extensive list of monuments that dot Australian cities that have a Greek connection. In Victoria, she pointed to three public monuments, one to the late and unforgettable Father Nikolaos Moutafis, whose legacy in Oakleigh can still be felt to the present day, one to the late pioneering politician and activist Theo Sidiropoulos in Collingwood and one to King Leonidas of Sparta. To these can be added the statue of Lemona the Pontian refugee next to the statue of George Devine Treloar in Ballarat (a stretch) and the Lemnos Gallipoli Monument in Albert Park, which primarily commemorates the nurses and soldiers who served on the Greek Island of Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 during World War One, but also the role of Lemnos in the campaign. There is also a Lemnos Avenue in the suburb of Pascoe Vale and a Lemnos Street in Red Hill. If we were to be sticklers for accuracy, we could also add the statue of Greek prime minister Venizelos in grounds of the Cretan Brotherhood building in Brunswick and the relief stele of Alexander the Great and Saint Dimitrios gifted to the City of Melbourne by its sister city, Thessaloniki, and which, letters fading and covered in graffiti, stands among the eateries, as a mute reminder of the erstwhile Greek precinct.
What we notice about these landmarks is that they are all monuments, not street names. With the exception of the statues to Father Moutafis and Theo Sidiropoulos, who are both historically significant Greek-Australians, the other monuments have no direct link to Australia whatsoever. Rather than celebrating our history or commemorating our achievements as a distinct cultural group within the Australian polity, they instead celebrate people, places and events that took place in our country of ancestry.
Part of the reason for this is our own cultural cringe. Reject a historical narrative that is founded upon our significant sojourn in Melbourne, we seek instead to construct an identity from around the places from which we derive in Greece (hence the statue of Leonidas in close proximity to the Pallaconian Brotherhood building in Brunswick), thus seeking affirmation from the motherland in relation to our own self-awareness. At the same time, we are also responding to a form of orientalism practiced by the dominant culture, whereby our modern manifestation is considered weak, degenerate and unworthy of praise, while the legacy of our ancient glorious ancestors is highly regarded and worthy of appropriation. This feeds an ontopathology that makes our sense of Hellenism dependent and largely determined by Greece (ancient), with scant reference to our experiences, institutions or the urban realities of the city in which we live. It is as we bear an extreme insecurity and sense of inadequacy about all that has transpired here as a community, rendering it unworthy of commemoration and celebration and facilitating the prioritization of Helladic points of reference in their place. Somehow, a Spartan king that died two and a half thousand years ago appears to us more relevant than the remarkable lives of Lady Diamantina Roma, wife of the first governor of Queensland, who hailed from Zakynthos and whose father was appointed a Poet Laureate by Queen Victoria, or Catherine Crummer, the first verified Greek woman to arrive in Australia, who was the daughter of Ali Pasha of Ioannina’s wife, and had met Lord Byron in Mesolongi.
When one indulges in this type of self-marginalisation and self-effacement in the process of articulating their own identity in the mainstream discourse, it is unsurprising that local achievements remain unappreciated and unknown to the dominant culture. It comes as no shock, considering that we take no substantive steps to learn about and appreciate the stories of those who have come before us. In so doing, we run the risk of anchoring our identity to a place that is fast becoming merely a holiday destination for emerging generations, rather than construction a version of Hellenism that has meaning within the Australian context. We also trivialise our own existence within the matrix of a multicultural paradigm that is already beginning to unravel.
In years to come, if such a cultural phenomenon continues, we will be appalled and dismayed that future Greek-Australian councillors in the city of Monash have never considered re-naming Eaton Mall Mykonos Mall, or created a Santorini Street, key points of reference and identity for modern Greek Australians.
In the meantime, however, and considering that municipal council elections are nigh, it is worthwhile considering whether it is time that we seized control of our own local narrative and as a community, took concerted action to have our contributions to Melbourne’s streetscape.
In the CBD, for example, early Greek settlers revolutionized the hospitality industry with their oyster bars, saloons and restaurants. If Melbourne City Council is serious about celebrating the long and significant Greek presence in its environs, we need this reflected in the local topography.
A start would be to rename a lane in the City Lekatsas Lane to honour one of our community’s founding fathers and a remarkable early Greek Australian.
Andreas Lekatsas arrived in Melbourne before 1851 and initially moved to the goldfields of Ballarat. He soon found wealth, and a return journey to Ithaca inspired his nephews Anthonios Lucas and Marino Lucas to also move to Australia. Andreas may have taken part in the Eureka Stockade uprising.
The Lane would also honour his nephew Antonios who was a founding member of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and a prominent Greek restauranteur. He was one of the people through whose efforts the first Orthodox church was built in Melbourne and he lay the foundations for the further development and evolution of our community into what it is today. Visiting his grave in the Carlton ceremony, is a profoundly moving experience.
The late Alfredo Kouris is another example of a significant Greek-Australian who deserves to have his memory immortalized by means of a street name. This was a visionary CBD trader who changed Melbourne’s culture irrevocably by his passionate campaign for the institution of alfresco dining and late night shopping, leading to the evolution of a Melbourne as a food and entertainment metropolis. Sadly, his contribution to Melbourne’s cultural evolution remains unacknowledged in our local streetscapes. A Kouris Court, would be a fitting tribute to the memory of this truly great man.
Increasingly, prominent members of our community are realizing just how important it is both for us as a cultural entity and Melbourne in general, that our contribution to the life of this city is reflected in its place names and not just in oblique references to areas from which we are descended, or the odd monument. Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria Bill Papastergiadis has commented this week that this is a matter he will taking up with all tiers of government. Ultimately, as Michael Kimmerman states, public spaces are… “synonymous with a society that acknowledges public life and a life in public, which is to say a society distinguishing the individual from the state.” It is time we stopped being invisible and appear instead on the Melway, the Google Map, the GPS, for our Waze are many and deserve the honour that is their due. As always, the GOCMV is showing the way forward.