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Lincoln Square’s Greek Community Hangs On, Despite Changes

By Jason Kreke | Monday, August 22, 2011

Toula and Gus Spanos, owners of Hellas Bakery on Lawrence and Talman, pose in a photo with their grandchild. Photo from the Spanos Family.

If you look hard enough, there are still signs of the once-thriving Greek-American culture that lined Lincoln Square’s Lawrence Avenue: a Greek bakery on Lawrence and Talman. A Greek coffee shop a few doors down. Athenian Shoes. Parthenon Travel. Echoes of a community that was thriving in the 1970s and ‘80s, but has slowly migrated to the suburbs and replaced by new cultures and communities in a pattern all too familiar to Chicago.

When the Eisenhower Expressway was built in 1955, many Greeks relocated to the area around Lawrence Avenue, anchored by St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, 2727 W. Winona St., near Foster and California. This “new” Greektown was full of restaurants and shops, grocery stores and bakeries and tied together by a common language and culture. Like most immigrant communities after World War II, city-dwelling Greeks eventually became more affluent and left for the suburbs, fleeing the crime that was endemic in the area during the 1980′s. Shops and restaurants followed and now, mostly older folks are in the area or return to remember once was.

“The problem is that there is no young blood,” says a customer at Olympic Café on Lawrence, a coffee shop that seems more social club than latte and croissant. He’s carrying a backgammon board and stands in a dimly lit hallway that connects two rooms where mostly older Greek men—and it’s all men—sit at cafeteria-style tables, drink coffee and watch Greek television. There is the constant slap of backgammon tiles on wood.

Olympic Club Café is a popular meeting spot for older immigrant Greeks on Lawrence Avenue. Credit: Jason Kreke.

The man, one of the few the speaks English but asks to remain anonymous, explains that many young people from Greece are not emigrating to the United States anymore, opting instead to stay home in a world where computers make geographic barriers more mutable than before. Delivering a mini-history lecture about philosophy and a 2,500-year-old culture, he says that it’s only the people here that are keeping the culture here alive. On this Thursday afternoon, there seemed to be no one under 30 present. The neighborhood Greek coffee shop is a place for people whose shared home is Athens and Thessaloniki, not Schaumburg or Plainfield.

One of the touchstone Greek shops is Hellas Bakery, 2627 W. Lawrence Ave. A family-run business focusing on baklava, spanakopita and custard pies, it offers the traditional memorial trays that are used for anniversaries or funerals as well as different kinds of cookies and non-Greek items. Toula Spanos, who owns the bakery along with her husband, Gus, has seen a change in the 22 years since she opened the bakery.

“Most Greeks have moved to the suburbs,” Spanos says. “The business is about 99 percent non-Greek.” Once plagued with gangs, Spanos says the area is more up and coming and much safer, which has changed the nature of her customers and her business. It is the unspoken word that has affected many of the Greek businesses as well as other communities throughout Chicago: gentrification. Today, Hellas is more likely to serve young adults and families with children than the traditional Greek households. These new customers view Hellas as a type of café or bagel shop, ordering maybe a spanakopita or cookie instead of the trays or boxes of pastries.

An elderly couple comes in and orders several items. Greek is spoken back and forth, fluent and easy. There is no hesitation about what the couple wants. They load up on cookies and pastries. A few minutes later, a young father pushing a stroller with a small child enters. He asks if she has the spinach thing. Spanos wraps one up.

“That’s the difference between Greek customers and non-Greek customers,” she says. For Greeks, it is looked at more like a necessity, and for non-Greeks, a luxury. One of the big sellers for Hellas is the spanakopita because it is a healthier alternative to some other processed foods. At Hellas, everything is made daily and uses no preservatives or additives. Interesting enough, some of the offerings are vegan (the honey-cinnamon cookie is delectable), and the adherence to traditional recipes without additives is part of a larger slow-food movement.

Even as the store fills around the holidays to buy tsoureki, a popular sweet bread usually eaten around Easter, Spanos understands that the area is changing and that the store will have to change with it. “We see change coming,” she says. “We are looking to add coffee and put in some stools.” Open every day from 9:00 a.m. to usually about 6:00 p.m., what won’t change is the homey atmosphere that favors listening to customers, traditional recipes and fresh ingredients that has been a hallmark of Hellas.

Along with the adjacent church, The St. Demetrios Cultural Center is at the heart of Greek culture on the North Side of Chicago. Credit: Jason Kreke.

The changing demographic and burgeoning multiculturalism of the area is reflected by Ziad Ihmoud, the owner of Barba Yianni Greek Tavern, 4761 N. Lincoln Ave. As a non-Greek, Ihmoud reflects on the changing environment. “It’s international now,” he says. “We serve Greek food, but we get a lot of different people that come in.”

With the restaurant stretching back two decades, Ihmoud has owned it for the past twelve. A short walk up and down Lawrence Ave. can show how an area once dominated by Greek culture has gradually given way to many different cultures. There is a Vietnamese sandwich shop. Indian and African restaurants. An English-styled pub and a Cincinnati bar. At a grocery store across the street from Hellas, Greek items are stocked next to South American, Middle Eastern and Asian. It reflects the different cultures that are now apart of the area. However, even with the changes, the area that was once the new Greektown persists.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2350460 Becky Snider

    Hella’s Greek Bakery is truly a gem of the neighborhood.  They’re so friendly, the first time I stepped in I had no idea what I wanted or what anything was.  Toula helped me pick out a box full of goodies to satisfy all the moms and kids in our playgroup, everything was so good we didn’t have to worry about leftovers!  It’s a shame if you live in the neighborhood and haven’t stopped in – the honey cinnamon cookies are excellent, but the buttercreams are my favorite!

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