Billy Cotsis, donning a touristy Hawaiian shirt and a Bulldogs mask, takes a look at the local Hellenic history of LA on a recent trip from Hawaii.
As Santa was flying out of Los Angeles at Christmas, I tag teamed him at LA after a quick stop in Hawaii where I had been searching for our Hawaii-loving PM. I was told he was actually in Sydney playing a Ukalele. Despite my failure to find him, I was intent on not failing to locate the LA Greeks.
Wearing my Hawaiian shirt which screaming “TOURIST,” I secured a car rental, and somehow managed to end up driving around in an upgraded convertible, not the cheapie I ordered. Without a GPS in my rental convertible, and dressed like a tourist on a rainy night, I was encountered a few people who lived on the streets. They took pity on me. Hawaii shirt, dishevelled in a car that I couldn’t afford, looking for my cheap Hotel, and Greeks! Every convenience store I stopped at trying to figure out how I got lost for several hours, I would be met by a number of men. All homeless, in one of the richest cities in the world; yet like many great cities, it still has a long way to go to address the issues of the men. Mainly a roof over their heads and a bite to eat.
One man was a Greek and spoke to me in Greek. Others Latino, Caucasian, while another was African American. I had come to find the Greeks of LA, yet this was a first and lasting impression of LA.
I eventually settled into my cheap hotel and decided to explore what LA had to offer. That included a stop at Saint Katherine Greek Orthodox Church, at Redondo. I turned up with my silly convertible on yet another rainy day after having eaten at Daphne’s which is a chain restaurant serving Greek cuisine.
The Church at Redondo was closed. An inspiring and large church with a library, Greek language classes, a hall and meeting rooms, spread over two floors. I was grateful that the manager of the Church’s administrative side found me. With a big smile he welcomed me in and invited me to lunch. I was able to pray, grateful for the experience.
Greek church services have been held in LA since 1906; the first in a warehouse at 730 North Broadway, expanding two years later to 240 Anderson Street, when the Greek Community of LA was officially incorporated.
I was told by award winning writer, Alexandra Kostoulas, that she grew up in Redondo, went to high school there and also attended St. Katherine’s. “The priest there, Fr. Michael. Did you meet him? He’s great! I also went to elementary school across the street. Small world that out of all the Greek churches in LA you went there.” enthuses Kostoulas.
Alexandra is typical of the friendliness of those who have LA in their hearts. When my Ukraine Greek friend went missing during the invasion of Ukraine, Alexandra offered me a place for my friend in her Greek Xwrio! In terms of meeting up for an interview, Alexandra who now resides in San Francisco, offered to meet me half way if it helped me to write my story. The distance? Huge.
She is also one of the best poets and creative writers that LA has produced, having performed her work locally and nationally.
I visited Petros Restaurant at Manhattan Beach on another rainy evening. Over-ordering and grateful for the ouzo, I enjoyed my quiet table in the corner. One of the senior staff made a bee-line to me, speaking in Greek, after learning from staff that a Greek from another country was in the restaurant.
“Whenever you want, I will take you on a Greek tour of LA, please take my details” he enthused, again typical of the friendliness of locals.
Of all the places I ate in LA, this has to be the best place. Quality service and well worth the visit, you can walk around nearby Manhattan Beach which is vibrant, which I did with my Hawaiian shirt which became drenched in the rain.
LA is of course a city of friendly people, as someone who travelled on his own, I seemed to be making friends in most shops I visited. A free t-shirt here, a good chat there. I think the free t-shirt was intended to replace what some said was an abhorrent Hawaiian shirt. A retailer at Venice Beach gave me an “ouzo” jumper; yes he printed “Ouzo” on the jumper!
LA is also a city of artistic talent. Alexandra is one example. The prestigious LA Greek Film Festival showcases a few talented local (and international) Greeks. John Stamos is from Cypress on the edge of LA, Jennifer Aniston whose Crete-born father starred on Days of our Lives, is from Sherman Oaks and Rita Wilson whose mother Dorothea Genkos, is a Greek from Sotirë, Albania, to name a few.
Another Greek who has made her mark in LA, coming from Athens originally is Mina Gibson Antoniou, who once played Stella Violanti in the Greek play Palamas. ” I went to LA to study with the number one acting coach Ivanna Chubback. I only knew actor Christos Vasilopoulos whom I had met twice before and I was renting a room at his place when I first arrived. The moment Ivanna (coaching stars such as Halle Berry and Charlize Theron) said in front of an entire class and auditors, critiquing my performance “this is the kind of acting that gets oscar nominations and awards,” I knew I had made the right choice by leaving everything behind to make it in Hollywood. Director Lucas Thanos had seen me performing a scene in class and offered me a part in Oresteia. That was my first acting job in LA. I also had the best day job as a teacher in the Greek school for a couple of years and therefore became more involved with the Greek community. I’m grateful to the Greek community for their warmth and support.”
Christine Humphrey is a talented wine maker. I met her and her son Mark in London when they visited, and of course they have a similar heritage to mine, Lesvos.
She grew up in Pittsburgh before moving to LA 31 years ago. Her grandmother and uncle, came from Lafiona, Lesvos though the next generation didn’t speak much Greek, as the family wanted to be more American. “We all kept in contact with family on Lesvos and our cousin George, who lives in Boston, and has a small home in Molyvos. My mother’s brother, Nick, married Katina, one of five sisters of the Valiontis family in Lafiona, in a village wedding there. My mom, Nick’s wife, and my uncle would speak Greek, especially having coffee at one of the houses. My attachment to my Greek heritage has been through family meals, my Greek aunt, and everything I’ve sought out on my own over the years. And Greek food festivals. We all went to Lesvos in 1983, and my cousins and I since then at different times, with me staying Greece for a month at a time. I’ve taken Mark as well, and Mark and his wife honeymooned in Athens, Mykonos and Santorini. Nicole is Jewish, and therefore so is my grandson, could see Greece. Mark keeps in touch with a few cousins, and I’m sure will go back.”
Christine explains that she gets to a few food festivals. “I keep my heritage alive, however, even though it is more personal and not attached to a community, LA is such a melting pot, almost 100 languages spoken.” There is a very large Persian community and Armenian community in LA/Beverly Hills and Glendale. “When I meet Armenians, or anyone, for that matter, I always let them know I am Greek.”
In the early 1900s, especially around the time of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, Greek numbers were strong. Marathon Cafe on 4th Street may have been the first Greek restaurant and nearby a Mr Dan Stathatos established Broadway Florist, still existing today Stats Floral Supply. According to the LA Times and researcher Ted Pastras, there were 65 businesses, from “sweet shops and produce firms, peanut factories and barber shops, clustered in what became known as Greek Town.” Very few of these businesses remain in existence, though with almost 60,000 Greeks, Greek businesses and people are spread across the entire LA. Indeed, across California, there are 20 Greek Orthodox Churches, and I was told at the Church I visited, there are six in LA alone.
50,000 people is also the number that attend the annual Valley Greek Festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Northridge, which was established in 1978.
Most migrants from Greece who came to LA, came via Ellis Island in New York, with 400,000 in the first two decades of the twentieth century alone. Poverty, wars and opportunity was a common theme for these people who did not speak English, yet came with hopes of a better life, far from the wars of Europe and the Ottoman Empire. From Ellis Island, it was a real trek for people to come to LA, a journey that sometimes took longer than the original boat trip. There was no convertible car to speed them on to the new city. Greeks had found their way to LA in small numbers, mostly single men before the 1890s, when the numbers started to increase a little before the boom of early 1900s immigration.
In North America, many Greeks suffered from racism and race riots. That’s right. Places such as Toronto in 1918 turned on Greeks in deadly riots, which is why it is always a welcome sight when Greeks support civil rights, especially for African Americans.
According to historians at Saint Sophia Church, the Greek towns of Kalavrita and Soudena “after the collapses of the grape market,” migrated in big numbers, while many came from “Cephalonia and Ithaca undertaking their own personal odyssey in search of adventure, trade and fortune. Still others fled the Ottoman territories, leaving their Byzantine legacy beyond the Dardanelles, from the ancient island of Preconessos, today’s Marmara Island. The hardships of the Balkan Wars and the threat of being conscripted into the Ottoman Turkish Army, to fight against Hellas, were intolerable for the young Hellenes. This was the background of the early Greeks who came to Los Angeles.”
According to Church records, many were railroad workers, miners, port workers, labor-intensive jobs, hospitality including “the Alexandria Hotel which became an early foothold for entry-level jobs where one could learn to bus tables, polish silver or wash dishes.” Others were “trade peddlers of vegetables, fruits, candies, nuts and flowers.” Boyle Heights area by 1896 was a hive of Greeks and Greek owned mini market was opened.
LA was also the home of Greek American Military Company of Volunteers, created in 1912 and by 1917, 60,000 Greek men across the USA enlisted in the American military to help fight the war in Europe.
On a day the sun came out, dressed in my Hawaiian shirt after returning my silly convertible, I checked into to my flight for Brasil. The woman on the counter looked at my Bulldogs wallet. Smiling, a typical “Greek Aussie from Canterbury,” she noted. She told me about her Australian husband who follows my team and how how rich LA had been for Greeks, Aussies and migrants who have made LA home. The Greek history in LA has certainly been rich and fruitful, with no signs of that abating.
Billy Cotsis is the author of “The Aegean Seven Take Back the Marbles.”