Thursday, August 21, 2014

Detroit's Greektown is losing its ethnic feel

Monroe Street was the center of a thriving Greek community.
      The waiters in Greektown don't put their fingers in the water glasses any more when carrying them to the tables, they're not insulting, and most don't appear to be Greek. They do a good job of lighting cheese on fire, but that's not real Greek food.
      Saganaki is for tourists and no self respecting Greek grandmother would light goat cheese on fire in her house. The flaming Greek cheese is a symbol of how Greektown has evolved from an ethnic enclave for newly arrived immigrants into a suburban shopping mall with gambling casinos, and along the way it lost its Greek flavor. The developers have destroyed the thing that attracted them to Monroe Street in the first place. Gimmicks and gambling, not real Greek culture.
      There are now only two full-service Greek restaurants remaining. The most recent casualties have been the Laikon and New Hellas, both mainstays for decades.
      For my wife, who is Greek-American, the Laikon was her place. She says it offered food that would be cooked in Greek homes. She has given me a vantage point to watch the changes in Greektown since the late 1960s, along with teaching me the good swear words in Greek. In the early 20th century it was a Greek neighborhood. My mother-in-law was born there along with countless other Greek-Americans in the Detroit area.
       Detroit was a white, WASP city in those days, and Greeks were prohibited from moving into certain neighborhoods, which kept Greektown cohesive. Those prejudices faded and Greeks moved to other neighborhoods, but came back to Greektown for baptisms, weddings and other events, even after many had moved to the suburbs.
       They also went to college, and those of my generation abandon the traditional occupations of restaurant owner or waiter. My wife didn't want anything to do with a bar or a restaurant, as her father and both grandfathers had toiled in them. That was the beginning of the decline of Greek flavor.
      Sure, they still serve lamb, but there are now a barbecue joint, a New Orleans style place and pizza parlors, and they outnumber the Greek places.
      Greek food and culture were exotic to a white bread boy like me whose family had roast beef on Sundays instead of lamb, and the image of my father-in-law with a lamb's head on his plate will never leave me. There was also the taste of olive oil and oregano, which we never had in our house. Grape leaves? That was trash, wasn't it?
       To my wife, it wasn't special, its just what her family ate. Greektown made her proud of her culture and we went to the first Greek Festival in Detroit in the late 1960s, when it was held on Monroe Street and before it became a huge event and moved to Hart Plaza. It was an intimate gathering. The restaurants moved their tables and chairs onto the street and many of those attending were Greek.
      Although I was underage, I was able to order bottles of wine, which helped me in my first efforts to learn how to dance Greek style. It felt like a wedding in a Greek village, not the large commercial venture it later became.
       Apart from Greek dancing and swear words, my wife also taught me about the sexism that lays deep in the Greek culture. As a teenager, she would drive her grandfather to Greektown for regular haircuts and later pick him up at one of several coffee shops that catered to older Greek men. All are gone now.
      Once she made the mistake of walking into the coffee shop to get her grandfather, and was told to leave by the other men. No women allowed.
      In the 1980s I went into a Greek bakery on Monroe with some co-workers from a newspaper, and one feminist editor hesitated about buying some pastry. "Oh, go ahead," said a bakery worker. "Us Greeks like our women with some meat on their hips, so we can get a hold of them." It obviously wasn't the right thing to say.
      That intimacy and in your face Greek attitude has faded and even the Greek restaurants feel more like part of a corporate chain in a suburban mall. I can't help putting part of the blame on first, Trapper's Alley and later casino gambling. When Trapper's Alley opened in the 1980s, it gave the street the feeling it had become a suburban mall. Gone were the days when my wife would know half the people she saw on Monroe.
      The old restaurants evaporated. The notorious Grecian Gardens went. It had a back room where old guys would allegedly gamble and get drinks after hours in coffee cups, activities that now seem quaint with huge casinos operating and drug wars in the streets.
     The mainstays New Hellas and Laikon are gone. Gone also are the surly Greek waiters like one we had one night who threw a woman through the front door into the street. It was Greek Easter and families fast, attend church at midnight, and head to Greektown for dinner.
       We attended church that night and were sitting at a table having dinner. The crowd was a mix of Greek church goers and those who had closed the bars. The people at the table next to us had been at the bar, and were ordering lots of food, but when it came time to pay, the woman picked a fight with the waiter in an attempt to get out of the bill.
      She slammed the table toward us, my young son quickly moving his hand so it didn't get smashed. She then made a fuss in front of the home crowd -- Greeks. And at one point the waiter in a heavy Greek accent grabbed the woman by the neck and threw her out of the front door, yelling "You f---ing bitch." She'd picked the wrong night for her antics.
       I walked outside moments later, angry that my son had almost been injured, and saw her complaining to two Detroit police officers on horse back, one of whom I knew from high school. The cops smiled. They weren't going to do anything. The unwritten rule in Greektown was that cops ate for free in exchange for taking care of trouble on the street. My old high school friend recognized me, and asked: "Did you see anything?" I answered that the woman appeared to be trying to walk out on her bill. He told the woman to move along, which she eventually did, spewing her outrage as she walked.
       That was the old Greektown I miss, real Greeks and old style informal policing. I know things change. We're in a cleaner era, polite police and waiters, restaurants with new, modern kitchens, not ones you know you don't want to see in daylight. But I hope cops can still eat for free, and I'd like to see a waiter on occasion with his fingers in the water glasses he's carrying.

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