Of all Greek brotherhood buildings around Melbourne, one of the ones I have the fondest memories of, is that of Pontiaki Koinotita in Brunswick. For years, its Friday night Taverna events were the talk of the town. Its goat in the oven is still unsurpassed by anything that purports kinship with it, ever since. Most importantly, Rebetiki Kompania were the feature act and in their infinite mercy, they did the me the kindness of permitting me to accompany them on the violin. Week after week I would be invariably drawn to that place, so that in the end, my attendance became an inviolable ritual, as my spouse found out, when, upon returning from our honeymoon, I grabbed my violin and set off for Brunswick. Over a decade later, not a week goes by where I am not gently reminded of this rather blatant faux pas.
The kitchen was brilliant, the music divine and the company was a microcosm of our broader community. Young Greeks rubbed shoulders with older Greeks. Members of dance groups would attend and liven up the atmosphere as they manifested their exuberance on the dance floor. Philhellenes like the late lamented Peter Williams would be there putting even the most jaded connoisseur of Pontian dance to shame by their mastery of the steps while Greek folk music afficionados such as the breathtakingly multifaceted Paddy Montgomery would display unprecedented virtuosity on the Constantinopolitan lyra. At that time, it seemed to me that Pontiaki Koinonita had developed a winning formula: instead of remaining insular and aloof, cut off from the broader community as so many other of our brotherhoods were and still are, they opened their hearts and hearths to all of us.
This was also evident in the fact that Pontiaki Koinotita’s Brunswick premises became synonymous with Greek literary culture. It was the go to place to launch books written by community authors, for lectures on diverse topics and for other cultural gatherings. It became a ritual at these events to thank Pontiaki Koinotita for its commitment to supporting the Greek-Australian arts and I myself have launched not a few literary works from its podium and have had many meaningful discussions about the nature of our community and its future with community stalwarts of all ages.
It is for all the above reasons that the news that Pontiaki Koinotita had decided to place this ark of memories up for sale, filled me with sadness. It is the melancholy that comes in the knowledge that nothing is permanent, that everything is subject to flux and that decline invariably follows reaching the summit of one’s success. It is also the ennui that comes with considering that one’s youth is over and that decay and loss are a condition precedent of growing older, despite our best efforts.
At the time of writing, Pontiaki Koinotita has announced that its building has not been sold, due to lack of offers. That is, for the time being, there is no market interest in developing this magnificent site. Sooner or later however, the building will be sold, for covid and the changing nature of our community have ensured that, sadly, there is not enough participation at functions to make its upkeep viable.
Within Melbourne, a multitude of other brotherhoods are facing exactly the same dilemma. Having struggled hard over the years to secure and pay off a premises, these institutions are now considering a future divested of their proprietary assets, for their upkeep model relies upon the constant organising of functions in order to pay outgoings. Where functions cannot be held, as is the case now with the pandemic, or where older members are unable to attend and younger members are not interested, then the maintenance of such club-houses no longer becomes viable.
I try to avoid Victoria Street, Brunswick, as much as possible. This is because this is where my own club, the Pan-Samian Brotherhood had its premises until recently. I grew up in that place, with my relatives and their friends around me and the sense of belonging it provided me framed my entire world-view. Little did I know then that as a legal practitioner, I would be presiding over its sale for exactly the same reasons: our income was not sufficient to meet the building’s outgoings, and holding functions solely to turn a profit rather than for the enjoyment and fulfillment of the members seemed to be counter-intuitive. Some clubs, especially those that have adopted the “run it as a business” model seem to forget that.
We Samians no longer have a premises, but, for the moment at least, we have survived without one. The next challenge, having been divested from the responsibility of making ends meet, is to remain relevant as a corporate entity. Having been established over eighty years ago, does it make any sense, almost a century later, to still identify as a Samian? Having been born and bred as one, and using the Samian dialect as my first language, my response would be a resounding yes. Yet as the older generations become increasingly English speaking and the latter generations become so far removed from the Samian ethos that they barely identify as Greeks, let along from a specific part of Greece their ancestors left over half a century ago, the paradigm begins to unravel. As emotionally dependent upon our clubs many of us are, sooner or later we will have to face the harsh reality that our primary identity is as Greeks in Melbourne, and that we need ground our understanding of Hellenism in the areas in which we live, for relying upon an ancestral regional homeland we are estranged from is untenable in the long term.
A few years ago, Melbourne teacher John Vithoulkas began “Hellenism Victoria,” a movement that identified a proliferation of largely inactive Greek clubs in the north-western suburbs. The north west has its own particular cultural activity and this is also the area wherein, statistically, Greeks exist in the largest number as a proportion of the total population. Vithoulkas’ ideas was to focus on a common identity based upon the local area in which all these clubs co-exist, to foster co-operation between clubs that in some instances shared the same street but had absolutely no communication with each other and to play an active tole, as Greeks in the life of their municipality. The idea was initially received with great enthusiasm, an enthusiasm which began to wane as clubs worried about their existence resented the perceived dominance of other, more active clubs and grew suspicious of their motives. Guarding unproductive assets is more important in the long run, it seems than actually using them to promote community growth. Undoubtedly, John Vithoulkas’ experiment needs to be revisited. The seldom if ever open Nisyrian Club on Sydney Road with the words “Members Only” ominously emblazoned upon its front door provides a cautionary warning for us all.
As a legal practitioner, I have sat in upon the deliberations of clubs who understand they are in crisis. These clubs no longer try to find ways in which to attract younger members. They have come to the conclusion that their youth are no longer interested and that if they were, they would return of their own accord and organise functions that are of interest to them. For them, the fact that they do not, is evidence that they have abandoned any attachment to the club of their parents and grandparents altogether. Yet the committees of these clubs largely appear loath to allow their assets, in the event of dissolution to be enjoyed by other stronger, and more vibrant Greek clubs. Suggest to them to gift their assets to a Greek charity, nursing home, school or the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and your temerity in doing so is met with howls of derision. They would much rather gift their property to the Children’s Hospital or the Salvation Army, then “let another Greek enjoy them,” as so many of them often repeat, raising pertinent questions as to the fractious nature of the Greek identity in Melbourne.
Yet the Pandemic has shown us if ever there was a time to effect a rationalisation of community assets, it is now. The often tortuous and cautious manner in which clubs present themselves and their heritage even effacing or gliding over historical events that are of intrinsic importance to the Greek identity, is directly proportional to their need to go cap in hand to ask the government for funding. Such funding of course is provided upon ideological criteria pre-determined by the dominant class. Imagine how much more vibrant and freer our expression of our Hellenism would be if it was not tied to the financial goodwill of our masters but rather, was funded by a properly managed pool of productive assets.
There exist in Melbourne, a number of Greek clubs that are strong and well positioned to meet the challenge of the future. The case of the Lefcadian Brotherhood, which has of late bounced back under an energetic leadership after some years of atrophy, indicates that all is not doom and gloom, even though we should not ignore the overall trend. Ultimately however, while the history and autonomy of each club comprising our community must be cherished and respected, their continued survival, in whichever form, must form the subject of a community-wide debate, a debate that can no longer be swept under the carpet and ignored as we scramble to deal with a Greek language which experts consider to be in terminal decline and the increasing inactivity of once important community institutions. If we prove ourselves incapable of communal action, we are underlying the bankruptcy of our ethos as it has evolved in Melbourne and doing future generations a great disservice.
In the meantime, it is hoped whether or not my beloved Pontiaki Koinotita sells its premises, that it is able to solve its existential challenges and rise to meet the future with confidence. I am already tuning my violin in anticipation…