By Jamie Hiskes
Chicago’s Greektown was not always the upscale, vibrant community that it is today. Filled with poor immigrants in the late 19th century, it quickly acquired an unflattering reputation as a filthy and unpleasant place to live.
But despite its rough beginnings, this community has grown into a richly cultural and extremely proud area in the heart of Chicago’s South Side.
“It was a slum,” said Chelsea Trembly, 24, a public educator for the National Hellenic Museum on Halsted Street in the center of Greektown. “Now, while they don’t necessarily think of it as their center, it’s a place where Greeks can come and see remnants of their heritage.”
Greektown was originally formed in the 1880s as Chicago’s 18th Ward, when Greeks first started immigrating to Chicago in droves. They had left their home country for mainly economic reasons, seeking jobs and an income to provide for their families both here in the Unites States and in Greece.
When it was first settled, Greektown was concentrated around Harrison, Blue Island, and Halsted streets, but after the University of Illinois Chicago and the Kennedy Expressway were built in the 1960s it was relocated. It is now established in a small area bordered by Madison Street on the north, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Expressways on the south and east, and Green Street on the west. The population is only 880, according to city-data.com, but that small number does nothing to hinder the strong cultural vibe that one feels the moment they cross into the community.
Throughout this small but exciting community, elements of Greek architecture and styling are visible in the several Greek temples scattered throughout the area and even in the designs of the sidewalks. This helps provide a sense of familiarity and pride for the Greek residents and visitors of Greektown.
Sotirios Gardiakos, 70, is an artist from Valta, Greece, who goes by the penname “Garsot.” He owns an art shop across the street from the Hellenic Museum, and says he is extremely proud to be Greek.
“I am an artist first,” he said, “and my genes are from the creators of the greatest art in the history of the world. It is a very proud feeling.”