It was almost as if you needed a passport at one time to come to Greektown in Detroit, the block teeming with Greek restaurants and Greek everything: coffee shops with card players and grocery stores with fresh feta, olives and lamb and Greek-speaking men on the sidewalk, cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
Today, there’s Five Guys, a hamburger chain out of Virginia; Red Smoke Barbeque; Cold Stone Creamery, a chain with outlets in 19 countries; a steakhouse; sports bars; a sprawling casino and only three – yes, three -- full-fledged Greek restaurants.
The Greek residents have vanished, having died or migrated to the suburbs. Gone too are the coffee shops -- except for one hidden above a bar -- and the Greek grocery stores that carried foreign-language papers and the crunchy-crusted Greek breads.
“It’s no longer Greektown,” says Nafez Jadallah , owner of the Greektown Grocery store and former owner of the Laikon, a first-rate Greek restaurant that closed this year after the casino bought the building from his landlord for additional parking. “I don’t know why they call that. You cannot call” a few restaurants a Greektown.
Not all agree that Greektown, as we know it, is dead. But unquestionably, like an assimilated second-generation immigrant, it has clearly lost some of its ethnic identity. It's at a crossroads.
Can Greektown keep its Greekness? Can it live up its namesake? Or will it simply be Greektown in name only, much like the Meatpacking District in Manhattan, which is far better known for its restaurants and clubs than its dwindling number of meat-packing houses.
The Greektown Preservation Society, comprised of businesses on Monroe Street, recognizes the challenges (emphasis on “preservation”), and is trying to organize more Greek events, some of which vanished over the years. In the mid-1960s, a Greek Festival on Monroe became very popular. It eventually got so big it moved to Hart Plaza. And then it faded away.
In September, the society plans a “Taste of Greektown,” which will involve shutting down the street for the weekend for food, drink and belly dancers.
“It’s not been lost,” Yanni Dionisopoulos, vice president of the society, and owner of the Golden Fleece restaurant, says of the of ethnic identity. “It’s been put on the side and forgotten now and then.”
He adds: “Monroe will always be Greektown forever. “
Greeks began migrating to the Monroe-Beaubien and St. Antoine neighborhood in the late 1800s and started opening restaurants and bakeries. In 1903, the Greektown Merchants Association was created, according to GreektownDetroit.org, the official website of merchants.
Over the decades, many Greeks moved from the Greektown neighborhood to various locations across Metro Detroit. But some stayed, living in the lofts and apartments. By the 1960s, Greektown’s commercial district was reduced to a block.
While it shrunk in size, it grew in popularity, becoming the darling of Detroit, a must, almost magical, destination not only for city and suburban folks, but out-of-town guests and tourists. The waiters shouting “Opa!” while lighting up the sanganaki -- flaming cheese -- became part of the attraction.
By the 1970s, according to one Greek-born restaurant owner, many of the Greeks had moved out, but some still came to Greektown for church, the restaurants and groceries. In the 1980s, Trapper’s Alley, a multi-story mall, arose as a hodgepodge of ethnically neutral shops and eateries, and in some ways was a forerunner of what was to come -- non-Greek businesses.
Then, in 2000, the casino opened in the space once occupied by the failed mall. How did the deconstruction, or De-Greekifying, if you will, of Greektown happen in more recent years? What did the casino do to de-greekify the area?
Just since 2008, Greek restaurants that have folded include The New Hellas, established in 1901, The Laikon, Cyprus Taverna and the Olympia. And the legendary Grecian Gardens, whose clients included some mobsters, attorneys and bail bondsmen, shut down several years before, as did the International, a popular restaurant rub by a friendly immigrant named Gus.
The decline of the Greek flavor in recent times can be traced primarily to a few key things: The negative impact of the casino; the younger generation not wanting to take over some of the family restaurants and Greeks on Monroe seeing opportunity in non-Greek businesses.
Some merchants point the finger at the Greektown Casino when they talk of the decline of the Greek ambiance on the block.
After the casino opened, some say, parking became too challenging and expensive with the advent of the casino. Consequently, some Greeks stopped coming down.
“It’s not Greektown anymore,” says Arthur Kesto, owner of the Athens Liquor store, who has been on the block since 1995. He formerly operated a grocery store several doors down that sold lamb and feta, olives and breads. But the casino changed that, he says, explaining that it didn’t make sense for Greeks to pay for parking and then shop for groceries.
“The casino came in and changed everything. It took the identity from Greektown to Greektown Casino. There’s nothing Greek about” the casino.
Today, his new store just sells liquor, wine, beer and munchies. In the back end of the store, he has a fresh fried chicken stand.
“We go with the flow, “ he says with some resignation.
Zena Karadimas, owner of the Plaka Cafe, a 24-hour coney island/diner that serves a few Greek dishes, echoes those sentiments, having fallen in love with Greektown at age 8 when she came to America from Greece in 1956.
“The casino really killed us,” she said. “Instead of helping us, they killed us. They’re in competition with the little restaurants.”
In some cases, the de-Greeking of Greektown can be attributed to the younger generation not wanting to take over the family restaurant. That appeared to be the case with the New Hellas, first established in 1901. Owner Gus Anton, at age 80, figured no family wanted to take it over so he shut it down in March 2008.
"I'm very sad, naturally," Anton told the Detroit News at the time. "But at my age, what can you do? I'm old. I need the rest."
Anton sold the property to Ted Gatzeros, who owns Fishbones and a part of the Atheneum Suite Hotel in Greektown. The empty lot stands bare, but there are rumors of an Italian or Mediterranean restaurant eventually springing up in that prime spot.
Another factor in the Greek decline was that Greek business owners on the block saw opportunity in creating non-Greek places. In other words, the Greeks helped de-Greekify the block.
Jim Papas, owner of the Pegasus Taverna, arguably the most popular existing Greek restaurant on the block, started buying and selling. He and Ted Gatzeros brought the casino to Greektown and formed Greektown Casino L.L.C. But they had problems getting a gaming license and ended up selling their 40 percent stake in the casino to their partners, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, for $265 million, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.
The casino in turn leased to Five Guys hamburgers and Cold Stone ice cream and a sports bar -- a move that did little to bolster the Greek flavor. And the casino kept raising the rent on the Olympia, a full-fledged Greek restaurant, according to a family member. Eventually, the Olympia restaurant had no option but to close, the family member said.
The casino wasn’t the only non-Greek entity Greek business owners pursued.
The Greek owners of Astoria Bakery, a Greek/American pastry shop, recently opened up Red Smoke Barbeque at the east end of the block. Rosalva Teftsis, wife of owner Michael Teftsis, a Greek, said her husband cares about the character of Greektown, but wanted to “bring some new flavor to the area.”
She said her husband also didn’t want to compete with the existing Greek eateries.
On the west end of the block, the Papas family opened up Mosaic, an upscale restaurant that serves primarily high-end American fare and sushi and has a couple Greek items. Next door, they opened up Pappy’s Sports Bar. And further down, Papas sold the building that housed the Laikon to the casino for additional parking.
Athina Papas, the daughter of Jim Papas, who is general manager for Mosaic and Pappy’s Sports Bar, explained that the family was already running a major Greek restaurant and wanted to explore other options other than Greek restaurants so as to not compete with themselves and others.
But she acknowledges the need to preserve the Greek heritage of the block.
“We really want to push more cultural events to keep that history,” she said. “That’s really important.”
The demise of Laikon is not a happy tale, at least from the standpoint of Nafez Jadallah, who bought the place about three years ago after the owner’s family no longer wanted to carry on the business.
Nine months after buying it, he said, he learned that Papas had plans to sell to the casino for parking. So he went to Papas, who he claims said: “Business is business.”
“It was a very popular restaurant, especially on the weekends, Jadallah said. “It broke my heart.”
The loss of Greekness on the block has not been lost on the visitors.
Ethan Seibel, manager of Five Guys hamburgers, who remembers coming to Greektown as a kid, said customers sometimes question the existence of his joint in the area.
“They say ‘This is Greektown and this isn’t really isn’t a Greek place. Why is it in Greektown?”
Danielle Wildman, who has been a bartender for six years at Pappy’s bar, says some older customers reminisce about what use to be and say Greektown is losing its identity.
“I’m not happy to see Five Guys,” she said.
But the changes don’t seem to bother folks like Demetrios Panagopoulos, owner of the New Parathenon, a popular Greek Restaurant he’s owned for 42 years.
He says business is good, he’s fine with the casino and he concedes that he’s benefited from the shuttering of some of the Greek restaurants.
As for the non-Greek restaurants, he says: “It doesn’t bother me because you get the variety. People like change, to get something different."
As for the future of Greektown?
“I would say it’s a great future and positive as long as we keep the quality of the food, the service, the atmosphere.”
That being said, Jadallah, owner of the Greektown Grocery store, fears the true Greektown is gone for good.
“There were bakeries here and you could smell the bread and you could also smell the Greek food outside, “ he says. “You don’t smell that anymore.”