Little Athens is alive and well
Stories from the Hellenic community in NYC
Greeks have been inhabiting the alleys of Astoria, Queens, for decades. The first wave of immigrants dates back to the 1960s, but new generations have joined them in the last years, after the European sovereign debt crisis left their home-country on the hedge of bankruptcy. Blue and white striped flags and Orthodox icons hang from windows or on doors. Smells of Greek coffee, spinach pies and feta cheese reach the noses of passer-byes through the shops’ open windows. The presence of places such as Sokrates Sculpture Park, the Sacred Patriarchal Monastery of St. Irene Chrysovalantou or the Cathedral of St. Markella and of works of street art inspired by Greek art and mythology reveal why the Hellenic community of NYC feels just like home in this neighborhood.
Recently, Astoria has started to display a greater ethnic heterogeneity. Latinos, Egyptians, Eastern Europeans and Chinese have moved in the area, opened shops, built churches, temples and mosques. Despite the latest arrivals, the area has not lost its Greek identity. People are still being greeted “Kalimera” [good morning] at every corner. Giulia Morpurgo has stumbled upon a series of characters and stories showing why Astoria truly deserves the title of “Little Athens”.
Humans of Astoria
Familiar faces in the neighborhood
George Samlidis came to the United States in the 1980s from Giannitsà, in Northern Greece. “I was an artist, a movie star,” Samlidis claimed. “No, he was a construction worker,” said one of his most loyal costumers. He now owns and runs the Panathinaikos Football Club in Astoria.
“People come here to watch the game, play cards and backgammon. I often win at backgammon. I get 40,50 people per day even when Panathinaikos is not playing. Its supporters are very different from those of Olympiakos, the other football team in Athens. We hate each other”.
Giorgios Ammantidis was born in Kastoria, Greece. “I was a ferryman, but I lost my job to the United States,” Ammantidis said. “I went into construction. I lived for most in Flushing. I moved here because I find better life here in Astoria. It is easier. Because in Flushing the Koreans arrived and the Greek community there lost its face.”
“I spend a lot of time here the club when I haven’t got work to do. Here, we play dices with the other guys. We play Pinochle, I play Mpourloto, a French game the Kastorians first brought to Greece.”
Panagiotis Tsoloros left his hometown of Athens in 1964 to move to New York. He lived in Manhattan and Long Island, but eventually settled in Astoria 40 years ago. Tsoloros worked as a waiter in a Manhattan hotel, for parties of 40–50 people and above: he served at weddings, birthday parties, business conferences. Now he enjoys his retirement. “I drink vodka, I spend my time playing cards, I have friends and I have enemies. They are the same in number. I have enemies in Astoria because, you know, words go around…” Tsoloros says.
New faces, new food?
A Greek supermarket’s response to its changing clientele
Bill Tentolouris arrived in New York in 1970 and opened the first Mediterranean Foods shortly after, in 1974. He now owns 2 supermarkets, both located in Astoria. His everyday office is behind the counter of his newest branch, while his son Tommy — born and raised in New York City — is in charge of the original location. As the name suggests, Mediterranean Foods specializes in the provision of Greek products such as olive oil, cheeses of all sorts and olives, but also offers Italian pecorino, Parma ham and ricotta. The selection of products on the shelves was tailored to the demographics of the Astoria neighborhood, primarily inhabited by Greeks and Italians when the Tentolouris founded the business.
But what happens to a business specialized in serving Greeks when Astoria is not that Greek anymore?
As Astoria became more of a melting pot, Mediterranean Foods acquired new clients. “We have Romanians, from Cyprus, Egyptians, Spanish, new people from Greece, too much new people.” says Marina Gouma, cashier at the original store. Giulia Morpurgo had the chance to experience first-hand this demographic shift, having encountered Ecuadorian Jhostyn Gallardo and Japanese Mitsuru Ariasu wondering inside the supermarket, on the quest for high-quality food. The Tentolouris reveal that shifting demographics strongly affect what local food suppliers choose to sell. “Somebody comes from Morocco, right? I bring Moroccan olives. Somebody comes from Spain, I bring Spanish stuff”, says Bill Tentolouris. They increased their imports of meat and frozen products from Eastern Europe to address the demands of Serbians, Albanians and Bosnians. Nevertheless, Mediterranean Foods’ main products remain Greek specialties: these are greatly requested also by a non-Hellenic clientele, due to cultural affinities or more simply the wish to eat high-quality food. “I have a lot of Egyptians, which is like, a big Greek population in Egypt, so we have the same food. When it comes to food, it’s all the same.” says Tommy Tentolouris. “The American people are now liking the Greek stuff, because the Greek stuff, the quality is number 1.”, adds Bill Tentolouris.
F0r more on the Tentolouris, Mediterranean Foods and how its activities were affected by Astoria’s changing demographic composition, listen to the audio piece here below:
For the love of Naturalism
How Mikele Arapi dedicated his life to art
Mikele Arapi was born in Tirana, Albania, 45 years ago. His family is originally from Epirus, a region in the North-West of Greece. He was introduced to art at a very young age. It was love at first sight.
“In our country we have some books with sketches only in black and white. I took a book and one friend from my country, an artist, he told me do you want to do a drawing, a sketch? I was 5 years old, I remember. He taught me.“, says Arapi. He successively attended an artistic high school in Tirana, with a focus on textile and later enrolled in the Fine Arts institute of the Albanian capital.
His greatest inspirations are European artists from the 16th and 17th centuries:“I like all the Renaissance painters, including Rubens, Michelangelo, we say classical painters. They are very close to my technique. […] mostly I like Naturalism. […] I am very inspired by the nature, the colors, but most of all I like the portraits.” The artistic movement of Naturalism bases itself on the faithful reproduction of nature without any distortion or addition of any imaginary elements. It formally developed in the 1850s, but was inspired by the work of precedent artists such as the Old Masters mentioned by Arapi.
Arapi, who has been based in Astoria for over 10 years, now works on commission. His clients are mostly privates, but his art work was also the subject of an exhibition, held at the beginning of 2017, at the Agorà Gallery in Soho, Manhattan. The exhibition’s main piece, A Kiss Symbolism of Love, is the art piece Arapi is proudest of. “There is something romantic, the swans, the colors are, as I like, smooth, beautiful. The skin, the impression, the combination of the water and the swans…”.
For more on Mikele Arapi, his current projects, challenges and aspirations watch the video here below: