“For the Greeks, this area was the mecca of meccas,” said Georgia Generalis in a February 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer interview. Generalis was a well-known member of Greektown, who ran the Hellenic Center on south 10th Street. Today, little is left of Philadelphia’s iconic Greektown, and while most have passed and the memory has begun to fade, the Greek American Heritage Society of Philadelphia is on a quest to preserve that history with a Pennsylvania Historical Marker.
Last Thursday, the seven-member committee from GAHSP met at the corner of 10th and Locust Streets, a one-time bustling intersection, arguably the center of the thriving community and where the Historical Marker will likely be placed. They were given a tour of the old Greek neighborhood by Kostis Kourelis, an Associate Professor of Art History at Franklin and Marshall College and an architectural historian and archaeologist. He is also the current President of St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral Parish Council, which still stands in historic Greektown. Professor Kourelis has been working for several years with his students to map out the historic Greek neighborhood (Mapping the Immigrant Past In Cities). The map shows the residence of the 1,800 Greeks from the 1920 census in blue dots, while the red square represents the location of “Greeks” according to a 1922 map by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
Artemis “Tami” Tsingiropoulos, President of GAHSP stated, “It is important to document and preserve the beginnings of our Greek-American community, which, in one way, we can do with a Historic Marker. In order to be approved, we need to demonstrate to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission the impact our Greek-American community had, not only in Philadelphia, but Pennsylvania, and we feel we can truly do this.”
The team examined several locations and reviewed the neighborhood. They walked through the historic alleys around a six-block radius that was Greektown and recalled family stories and pointed out where their families lived. Besides the family residences, the one-time neighborhood featured bars, coffeehouses, clubhouses, different businesses, and two churches. The neighborhood was also known for some very important Greek musicians that played in the area and recorded at RCA Studios across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey.
One of the most influential businesses was the Stefanou Brothers Cigarette Company, located at 10th and Walnut, which, it is thought, employed over twenty-five percent of the Greek-Americans in the area. One of the better-known businesses in the 1970s and 1980s was the Hellenic Center. The Hellenic Center was a general store, where proprietor, Georgia Generalis, according to the 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer article stated, “…offered everything from Byzantine religious icons to the latest musical comedy videotapes from Athens.”
In the late 19th Century, the first Greek immigrants arrived in waves in the city of Philadelphia and its outlying communities. By the beginning of the 20th Century, they formed their own communities with churches at the center. Annunciation/Evangelismos was established nearby, and it is the sixth oldest Greek Orthodox congregation in North America. It eventually moved out to Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Just a few blocks at 8th and Locust Streets, St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral, originally St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, was purchased in 1921 by the Greek community and is celebrating its 100th Anniversary. Two churches just a few blocks apart made this community the historic hub and what was Philadelphia’s Greektown.
The application process for the Historical Marker will begin in the fall of 2021. “I believe we will finally have this marker and our place in this city as having contributed to the historical making of this city, which is, after all, Greek named,” GAHSP President Tsingiropoulos said. “Next year in the spring, we will likely have an unveiling ceremony, and we can finally tell our story of the Greeks in Philadelphia.”