There is something about Chicago that is so quintessentially American. Chicago is almost in the middle of America, and like so many places in this country, it is an indigenous name (in Chicago’s case, the term is Illinois Indian for ‘smelly onion’). The city is all-American yet an absolute mosaic of nationalities, much like the country itself. Lacking the stunning physical setting of New York or San Francisco, or the history of a Charleston or a Boston, it is truly a city of will, a triumph of architecture over topography and geography.
Though founded before the American Civil War (1861-1865), the city took off in the 1870s, as the country rapidly recovered from the Civil War and the opening up of the west. A number of anchor industries arrived, most notably meat packing and railways, which sent product east and ferried immigrants west. Out of their New York or New England ports of entry, European immigrants rode the rails west. First Irish, German, and Polish, but at the turn of the 20th century, a wave of Balkan immigrants streamed westward.
While a small number of Greeks had established themselves in Chicago from the 1880s, and the first Chicago Church, Annunciation, was established in 1892, Greek immigrants arrived en masse in the years just before the Balkan Wars, as the failures of the Peloponnesian current crop, the bankruptcy following the 1897 Greek-Turkish War, and a general overpopulation in Greece drove Greeks, particularly able-bodied men, abroad.
Chicago stood at the centre of American rail, lake and river traffic, and in such a location jobs were plentiful and the Greeks’ entrepreneurial bent had many outlets.
In spite of the ‘Second City’ being the second-largest Greek American community, with about 200,000 Greek Americans, an astonishingly large percentage of Greek Chicagoans hail from the same villages in the Peloponnesus, in particular the villages around Tripolis. Chicago is a case study in chain migration, as relatives and fellow villagers sponsored others to come over, and this process continued for several generations, and included plenty of two-way traffic. Even at the turn of the previous century, journalists and sociologists remarked on the immigrants’ Spartan or Tripolipolitan origin, though most had not lived in these towns but rather the surrounding villages.
Visiting koumbari (Orthodox spiritual relatives) in Argos, my koumbaros constantly pointed to this or that house or business belonging to someone from Chicago, or returned from Chicago. When we lived in Greece, I dubbed the motorway from Corinth to Tripolis as ‘The Chicago Freeway’. It is difficult to ascertain numbers, but multiple long-time Greek Chicagoans agree that the percentage of Peloponnesians among Greek Chicagoans is well over 50 per cent, and of them, nearly half are Arcadians. A source from Chicago’s National Hellenic Museum divided the percentages as roughly one-third Arcadian, one-third other Peloponnesian, and one-third from the rest of Greece.
Aside from the major role of the church, fraternal and regional organisations played a key role in Greek American social history, and Chicago was at the forefront of these movements. AHEPA (the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) no longer has the same hold on Greek America as it did, say, a generation ago, but their chapters remain strong in Chicago. While regionally-based syllogoi are fading in the smaller Greek communities, the large Greek population in Chicago, with its large proportion of Arcadians and other Peloponnesians, still supports active regional organisations.
As in other locations in the diaspora, the Chicago Greeks would concentrate themselves in ‘Greektowns’, which in Chicago’s case migrated with the times. The first Greektown was just west of the Chicago River, near the railyards in what was − and is − a key food market.
Today this area is still known as ‘Greektown’, with several blocks of Halsted Street hosting a plethora of restaurants, kafeneia, a few ethnic stores, an impressive Hellenic Museum − although almost no Greek American residents. Greeks’ centre of gravity migrated from the original Greektown to a location in Chicago’s West Side in the 1950s, where Assumption Church boasted a very large parish whose flock often lived in close proximity to the church.
Third generation Chicagoan Tom Kanelos offers:
“My mother was born in the shadow of that church. The Assumption Parish is like the ‘mother’ of so many other Chicagoland and American parishes.”
To further his point, he offers: “Dozens of priests came out of that parish, and it is rare to find a community in America not connected, in some way, to this parish.”
The last recognisable Greektown was in Lincoln Square in Chicago’s Northside in the 1970s, as the last major wave of Greek immigrants bought up properties from suburbanising Germans to form a large enclave of homes and businesses around St Demetrios Church, one of Chicago’s largest. Since the 1990s, this final Greektown has largely dispersed, but when we lived there, from 2002 to 2005, there were still several Greek businesses and restaurants. In this neighbourhood, even a few years ago it was possible to conduct all one’s business and social transactions in Greek.
As in other major Chicago Greek hubs, St Demetrios once boasted a full-time parochial school, Solon Academy, which now only has afternoon and Saturday instruction. A few Greek day schools continue to function, but the age of large parish schools seems to have passed. Several churches, and the Hellenic Museum, continue to offer afternoon and weekend Greek language and culture classes. Dance and sports events continue to be strong reference points for Chicago Greeks, and the Diocesan Junior Olympics, held at the end of May every year, attract thousands of athletes from Chicagoland and surrounding cities.
Another Chicago Greek tradition is the National Hellenic Invitational Basketball tournament, an annual event started in the years of the Great Depression to assist Greek youth, and it continues a nearly 90-year tradition, drawing in Greek teams from throughout the Midwest.
Chicago Greeks joined the descriptively named ‘White Flight’ out of the city and into the suburbs, and parishes today are to be found throughout ‘Chicagoland’, an urban area of 9.7 million spanning three states − Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
The urban churches retain a large following of suburbanites who have strong family or village ties to one church or another, but, like other white Americans, Chicago Greeks are by and large suburban, with social, political, and educational norms similar to their neighbours in what is, unfortunately, one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
Early on, Greek Chicagoans tended to concentrate in the food service, small business, and real estate sectors, and a family restaurant (‘diner’, in American parlance) was and is likely to be Greek-owned in the area. Urban legend has it that gyros and flaming saganaki cheese were invented in Chicago Greek restaurants. Greeks today are now very well represented across industries and professions.Greek professional organisations, such as bar or medical associations, are very large and often form key social and networking venues for Chicago Greeks.
Just as Greeks moved to the suburbs, and into the professions, they also joined other Chicagoans in an exodus to the ‘Sunbelt’ − warmer climates with more dynamic economies, as Chicago and other midwestern industrial cities increasingly stagnated in the 1980s and 1990s.
Chicago Greeks are heavily represented in Sunbelt cities such as Phoenix, Arizona, the west coast of Florida and a number of Texas cities. In these newer Greek communities, with fewer Greeks, regional syllogoi tend to fold, as the next generation is more American and largely intermarried; identification with being Greek is more likely to be church-related or adherence to cultural norms rather than a strong tie to a Greek region, village, or island.
In this most American of cities, Chicago Greeks are at every stage of assimilation, from a sizeable contingent of recent arrivals (often aided by family or fellow villagers) to fourth or fifth generation Chicagoans, both intermarried or full Greek after more than a century in America.
At my former parish, St Demetrios, I spoke to a yiayia born just before World War Two, whose grandparents had immigrated to Chicago at the turn of the century. Her daughter married a Chicago Greek, and her grandchildren represent the fifth generation to be born in Chicago; they continue to go to church and to Greek school. Most of their lineage is from a handful of villages around Tripolis. Her story is by no means unique, though there are others who remain connected to Greek culture via a great-grandfather who married directly into the American mosaic.
It’s all part of Greek Chicago.