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Opa! Discovering New York's Greek Enclave

Writer Vincent Gragnani and photographer Cody Christopulos learn how Queens’ Greek immigrants flavor the neighborhood with oregano, dill and lemon

by Vincent Gragnani with photographs by Cody Christopulos

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Oficially, Piraeus is Greece’s third largest city, after Athens and Thessalonica. But don’t tell that to Greek-Americans in the New York area. For them, the “third city of Greece” is, in fact, Astoria, a neighborhood on the northwestern edge of the Borough of Queens.

Once home to singer Tony Bennett, stage star Ethel Merman and television’s Archie Bunker, Astoria at its height as a Greek-speaking enclave in the 1970’s boasted an estimated 300,000 Greek-Americans — more than the number of Greeks living in Piraeus.

Economic advancement, marriages, retirement, death and, to a lesser degree, assimilation, have contributed to the decline in the number of Astoria’s Greek-Americans. About 40,000 Greek-Americans remain in this traditionally working-class neighborhood of row houses and apartment buildings. But even as young urban professionals — fleeing Manhattan’s escalating housing costs — and other immigrant groups replace them, Astoria retains its Greek flavor, thanks almost entirely to the abundance of Greek restaurants and cafes, butchers and bakers, churches and clubs.

“We’ve given the area a different color,” said Spiro Svolakos, 53, who came to Astoria almost 30 years ago. “We’ve made it a restaurant town.”

Dutch and German immigrants first settled in the farthest northwestern reaches of Long Island in the early 17th century. Early residents called the settlement Hallet’s Cove, but in the early 19th century renamed it after John Jacob Astor to lure America’s first millionaire to invest there. Waves of other immigrants soon followed. The late 19th century brought Czechs, Irish and Italians, groups that founded Astoria’s Catholic parishes, schools and social clubs. Greek immigrants joined them.

In the 1920’s, new immigration laws — based on nationality — significantly curtailed Southern European immigration to the United States. But after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which ended the national-quota system, tens of thousands of Greeks, many of them from the island of Cyprus, streamed in. Most settled in the New York area, including Astoria, which quickly became the hub of local Greek-American life and a home away from home.

“As soon as you arrived in Astoria, you had your deli, your fish market, your butcher,” recalled Eugene Bouzalakos, who came to Astoria in 1979. “You didn’t even have to speak English. The schools spoke Greek, the church people spoke Greek. You didn’t miss Greece because you had everything.”

When Mr. Svolakos first came to America after graduating from Greece’s merchant marine academy, he rented an apartment near relatives in Manhattan. But after three years, he moved to Astoria. “It was cheaper, yes. But more important, Astoria had all the activities, the atmosphere, of Greece — the political life, the food, the whole environment of cafes and jasmine gardens that you couldn’t find in Manhattan.”

Mr. Svolakos spent six months each year at sea, doing diving work off oil rigs.

“To come back to Astoria, a quiet place with this Greek atmosphere made a big difference in my life.”

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Tags: Orthodox Church of Greece