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A return to Greek Town

100 years ago, a group of immigrants set up shop in downtown L.A., pioneers of the region's now-thriving Greek American population.

May 27, 2008|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Long before merchants from India, El Salvador, Hong Kong and elsewhere hawked their wares in the Toy District of downtown Los Angeles, the neighborhood was filled with the colorful sights and fragrant smells of old Greece.

There were Mediterranean delicacies at the city's first Greek restaurant, Marathon Cafe on 4th Street, and fine olive oil from the Kalamata Importing Co. a few doors down. A block away, Dan Stathatos Sr. started Broadway Florist, an enterprise that flourishes today as Stats Floral Supply.

There were sweet shops and produce firms, peanut factories and barber shops -- 65 businesses all told, clustered in what became known as Greek Town, according to Greek American researcher Ted Pastras.

Today, all but two of those original buildings have been razed and reconstructed by successive waves of immigrants. Although their physical footprint downtown has faded, Greek Americans are thriving throughout Southern California -- and are scheduled to be recognized Friday by the Los Angeles City Council for their century-old presence in Los Angeles.

A tour of old Greek Town led by Pastras is set for Sunday, and a gala dinner and liturgy are scheduled for the following weekend.

"We're celebrating a perpetual resurrection," said Father John S. Bakas of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles, which is spearheading the upcoming centennial celebration. "We've passed over the early immigrant days to the present success and growth of the community."

The Greek American community's continued vibrancy was evident over Memorial Day weekend, when an estimated 50,000 people flocked to the 35th annual Valley Greek Festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Northridge. The festival featured the savory smells of Greek cuisine -- sizzling sausage, lamb chops, honeyed filo dough pastries. Patrons linked hands in lively dancing to traditional tunes featuring the bouzouki, a pear-shaped stringed instrument.

"We work hard, we play hard and we like to share our culture with everyone else," said Lou Skoby, a 47-year-old Encino jewelry firm owner.

St. Nicholas is one of 20 Greek Orthodox churches in Southern California; their proliferation mirrors the growth and dispersal of the community. Among the 1.4 million Americans reporting Greek ancestry in a 2006 U.S. Census Bureau survey, some 150,000 live in California -- more than any other state except New York -- with about half of that number in Southern California.

The Southland's story of Greek Americans formally started when about 15 immigrants took out a state charter to organize their community in 1908. Among them was Peter Sakellaris, whose nephew, John, is a 90-year-old retired banker and St. Sophia foundation president.

John Sakellaris still recalls family visits to the community's downtown fruit stands, butchers and cafes. Unlike such cities as Chicago, where Greek immigrants formed ethnic residential enclaves, those in Los Angeles lived scattered throughout the city, Sakellaris said. He lived in a multiethnic neighborhood on San Pedro Street and attended school with Angelenos of Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Mexican descent.

The Greek immigrant community never rivaled the size of its German, Irish and English counterparts in the U.S., in part because of restrictive immigration quotas adopted in 1924. Primarily designed to appease growing public opposition to immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, the new quotas cut Greek immigration allowances from a peak of about 340,000 between 1900 and 1917 to about 21,000 between 1925 and 1945, according to Stavros T. Constantinou and Milton E. Harvey in an article for the book "Race, Ethnicity and Place in a Changing America."

But Los Angeles was a relatively tolerant place, without the lynchings and other violent attacks Greek immigrants faced in other parts of the country, Sakellaris and others said.

Like so many immigrants before them, many Greeks had fled war, political turmoil, oppression or poverty to seek new opportunities here. Pastras, the researcher and a Los Angeles securities and real-estate consultant, said his father was spirited away from his home country in 1916 to escape the encroaching German army and survived in the U.S. speaking no English as a dishwasher, railroad worker and eventual restaurant owner.

"I am in awe of these people, who basically came here without capital but a lot of grit and determination, and made it," Pastras said.

One of the first things the early pioneers did was erect a church, the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, in 1912 on San Julian Street in what is now the Garment District; that church is now closed. Four decades later, Hollywood mogul Charles Skouras led the community to erect St. Sophia, a stunning structure of crystal chandeliers, stained-glass windows, gold-edged mosaics and paintings of the Trinity, Holy Family, saints and apostles.

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