By Rick Romano
Despite the undeniable decades-long forces of generational shift, gentrification, and forced relocation due to infrastructure projects—most notably, high-rise residential buildings—Greektown continues to strive to thrive far beyond its annual late August Taste of Greektown celebration. Factors fueling the work to make Greektown successful include families carrying on ancestral businesses, Greek Americans and others drawn to experiencing the culture, and the City’s financial support of the neighborhood’s Special Service Area.
The National Hellenic Museum serves as a unifying force in Greektown’s midst at 333 S. Halsted St. The museum explores and educates visitors about Greek culture, from its earliest beginnings with the Minoan civilization of Crete, to its relationship with other ancient populations, to the Greek story in America and how the population landed in Chicago.
The museum features more than 20,000 artifacts, photos, books, and historic newspapers and more than 450 recorded oral histories. An online white paper delves into how Hellenic and Greek identities and histories are different and alike. The museum offers these as a venue for lifelong learning for a diverse audience, from school children to adults of any age.
Katherine Kalaidis, director of research and content for the past six years, said the museum was founded 40 years ago and moved to multiple locations before coming to Halsted Street.
She said visitors tap into museum information via online learning as well as field trips, especially for third through ninth grade students in addition to other groups. Surprisingly, she said the majority of those who use the museum do not necessarily have Greek or even partial Greek ancestry, however, many people who have some Greek ancestry and have not learned much information from family want to learn more.
“People want to explore the pieces of you that make you who you are,” Kalaidis said.
Two nonprofit organizations that work with but are separate from the National Hellenic Museum also explore and support local Greek culture. The Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center, 801 W. Adams St., documents and disseminates information about the Greek community in the late Ottoman Empire. The Chicago Greek Educational Foundation supports efforts of those working to preserve Greek language and culture and assists those integrating technology into modern Greek curricula.
Greeks arrived in Chicago in the mid to late 1800s. They had various economic backgrounds, including food peddlers who progressed into becoming restaurant owners.
Kalaidis said that, like other ethnic groups throughout the city’s history, Greeks first gathered in one place for safety and language familiarity while learning their new American life. She noted Greeks first established their territory around the Harrison Street, Blue Island Avenue, and Halsted Street area. State and City government displaced the population in the 1960s to construct the Eisenhower Expressway and University of Illinois Chicago, known at the time of its opening in 1965 as the Chicago Circle Campus..
Greektown today spreads around Halsted Street between Madison and Van Buren Streets. The Greek residential population, however, generally has shifted to suburban areas.
Kalaidis said that spread makes preserving Greektown even more important to the culture.
“Greektown was a platform for assimilation,” she said. “Today, the role is the opposite, to prevent annihilation.” That issue has become universal for most original ethnic neighborhoods throughout the city, she said, noting in this case that the question is how to keep the Greek identity alive.
While the Greek population decreased, and diverse non-Greek residents and businesses have become neighbors, Greektown now looks to preserve the best of Greek heritage through a special designation.
Greektown’s Special Service Area (SSA) #16 is among 57 such areas throughout the city, each a local tax district that can fund a variety of beautification, marketing, security, business retention, and other development activities.
Leaders weigh in
Greektown’s SSA program director, Tia Angelos, an unabashed neighborhood supporter hails from Racine, WI but visited Greektown years ago and eventually met her husband there.
“I’m proud to walk around” Greektown, Angelos said. “New merchants are coming in, businesses are booming, and we are a metropolis just like you would see in Athens. Everyone is family.”
Angelos also points to various neighborhood promotions designed to attract visitors, such as restaurant week in March, holiday festivities, and the recent butterfly statues installation.
“Students from Greek schools come in and have painted the statues,” she said. “It keeps them involved in their history.”
Greektown forms part of the new 34th Ward that includes parts of the Loop, West Loop, South Loop, and Little Italy. Recently elected Alderman Bill Conway carries Greek ancestry on his mother’s side.
“I think it’s important to keep the character of the Greektown neighborhood, but it’s also important to respect how the neighborhood is more gentrified,” Conway said. “I’m proud to represent it.”
Tradition through cuisine
Conway said he supports two restaurateurs joining the SSA board of commissioners. Yanni Theoharis owns 9 Muses at 315 S. Halsted St.; originally from Athens, he is coming onto the SSA board for the second time.
“It’s good to get back to help revive the neighborhood,” Theoharis said. “It’s getting better and better by the day.”
Constantinos Vitogiannis is the son of Pete Vitogiannis, who owns Mr. Greek at 234 S. Halsted St., where Constantinos has worked as a manager. He will open a new Mr. Greek at 1416 W. Taylor St. in Little Italy soon.
“My grandfather had a butcher shop, and my dad opened Mr. Greek in 1997,” Constantinos Vitogiannis said. “I got an accounting degree from DePaul University and worked in the field for a year and a half. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I have always been passionate about the legacy.”
Vitogiannis said Greektown always was a destination as he hung out with friends. As he said, no matter what happens in their lives—including marrying out of their ancestry—“Greeks hold onto their heritage.”
And yet, he believes Greektown’s mix of cultures is good.
“It makes it even better for everybody,” he said.
For the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center, log on to www.hellenicresearchcenter.org or call (312) 964-5120. For the Chicago Greek Educational Foundation, log on to www.greektowneducation.com. For Alderman Conway’s office, log on to https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/about/wards/34.html or call (312) 744-6820. For the museum, log on to www.nationalhellenicmuseum.org. For more about SSA #16 or Greektown, log on to www.greektownchicago.org.