New York City And The Greeks
( Originally Published 1924 )
FROM Syria to Greece is not a very long journey. It can be made overland or by sea. The route I took was the land route, although the sea route is just as fascinating, and perhaps even shorter. You can take a motor-boat at the Battery, and when the rollers raised by the large steamers have settled, you slip through, wave a hand to the government ferry to Ellis Island, from which people of a hundred nations call to you in a Babel of tongues, avoid the numerous barges towed up and down the Hudson, or coming from the East River for some longer trip, carrying on their decks railroad-cars, and after you have adroitly and safely negotiated the currents formed by the merging of the East River with the Hudson, it is but a choice at which pier you should land on South Street, capricious South Street that follows the contour of the shore. There is the old Market SIip which looks out from the water, or the Catharine Slip with its broad piazza and dejected, rat-infested, windowless old dwellings that have been transformed into warehouses, or you could land at old Peck Slip, the most picturesque of all the wharves in the city, where the boats that came from Brooklyn when it was yet Breukeleri were towed back and forth, to give the farmers from across the river a chance to market their wares.
But it is more convenient to travel the land route. One gets a whiff of the western civilization that lies between Syria and Greece. You hurry through West Broadway. If it is daytime you will have to work your way between the trucks and street-cars and automobiles; with a passing glimpse at Trinity Church, with a smile perhaps to one of the beautiful young ladies eating her lunch in the cemetery of the church, or keeping a tryst on the benches between old tombstones. But if the time be after sundown, that part of Broadway is as deserted as if evacuated because of a disease or before the bombardment of some enemy. The impossible gray architecture of the Post-office is to the right; the Woolworth Building is to the left. Its gilded facade and the tall, slender colonnades which hold this tremendous structure give one fear that it might suddenly break somewhere, bulge and break, so slender and crisp in its elegance, so slender in its strength which carries it so high above the ground, as if it were a magnified structure of a vase by Benvenuto Cellini.
You may take a rest, if you are tired, in City Hall Park,. the park which was the cradle of the Revolution and on which once reveled the Manhattan Indians; the fierce and ferocious offshoot of the Lenni-Lenape nation. All the temporary failures of the world seem to congregate there, occupying benches and looking bewilderedly about them. The ones coarsened to their condition, collarless, sleep peacefully on ; while the younger ones who had come to see the big city, from Oshkosh and Oklahoma, from Darmstadt or the Volga, from Turkestan or Orleans, the youngsters still trying to preserve decent appearance for a possible job on the morrow, are continually awakened by the piercing hooting and shrieking of the boats on the rivers near-bywhen they are not rapped on the heels by the policeman's club. City Hall faces you with its clock and the broad stairs that seem to lead nowhere.
On the other side of the open space is Park Row, from which angles away Nassau Street. Narrow, crowded, hurried, perspiring Nassau Street, broadened out toward its mouth, where numerous street fakers and peddlers hawk their wares. Watch out ! I f you look like a prosperous provincial a man in overalls will approach you with an offer of a gold watch which he has just found; a precious gold watch he is willing to sell for only ten dollars. He follows your steps, walks by your side, and shows you his find in his cupped palms. And if you are anxious for bar-gains, perhaps to make the expenses of your trip, the watch will soon be yours. But you may soon discover, when you anxiously look a little later at it, that the gold watch is a heavy brass onion, costing probably a dollar and a half, and worth a good deal less. Diamond rings and ear-rings, furs and cigarette-cases and other things, are sold that way by a special class of the underworld. It were also better to hurry on when a sailor-looking man is offering you a bottle of this or that or the other liquor that he has just carried off the boat. You will be lucky if it is only tea.
Pass rapidly under the arch of the bridge that extends from the Municipal Building to Brooklyn Bridge, near the Pulitzer Building which at the time of its erection was the tallest in the city, and is now dwarfed by buildings three times its height, pass on and you emerge to where you get a glimpse of the East River, and you are in a dark street, lined with pawn-shops and hardware shops on both sides, with dingy restaurants where saloons have been, and sulphur-smelling hotels, and drunkards decrepit and broken down, leering with shifty, watery eyes at you from every hallway, accosting you with demands for a cup of coffee and a cruller. The pullers-in of the second-hand stores cry their wares in your face, barring your way to the middle of the street. A Gipsy woman wants to tell your fortune. Half a dozen boys offer you papers. A Chinaman looks at you.
Forget that you are in New York. This is the lower part of a Levantine port. Cross one of the right-hand streets into Pearl Street. Walk up to the corner of Canal Street, after passing Fraunce's Tavern where Washington was received by his friends, and you are at the old Jewish Cemetery, which, according to the tablet on the arched door inside, beyond the huge iron fence, was inaugurated in 1656, and had been fortified during the Revolution. The cemetery is between an old wooden shanty inhabited by a Greek cobbler and an Italian grocery store on the corner. The gray and brown tombstones lean pitifully on one another as if looking for support in the last agony of their lives. Long lines of wash flutter diagonally across the burial-grounds. Colored aprons and children's dresses and underwear filled with the wind will make you think of what life is; a momentary inflation of a flexible shell and then deflation again. Thus the traveler has improved his mind by humbling himself.
Look up! Between Henry and Oliver Streets stands the massive square structure of the old Mariners Temple, which had originally been the Baptist Meeting-house in 1795. This part of Oliver Street, in rows of old red-brick houses, -is still inhabited by old Dutch families, who so much resent the foreign invasion about them that their children, if any, are seldom seen on the street. There are some wonderfully beautiful doors and copings in these old houses. The street is remarkably clean . . . but without any animation. The Greek and Italian children in the neighborhood call it Old Man's Street.
I say Greece, but I should perhaps say a Greek city; perhaps only a reproduction of the Greek quarters in Stamboul. Stamboul on the Hudson ! For though the down-town Greek section is in many respects the principal one, there are several other Greek quarters, the importance of the Madison Street district being chiefly in the fact that the Greeks living there and on the side streets leading toward the East River wharves are here with their families, while the other Greek quarters up town, between Twenty-seventh and Thirty-sixth Streets and Sixth Avenue, are only merchants' quarters. Their families are living in Greece, and their children are brought up there until they have reached the working age, when they are imported here to work, if "Patera" has not returned to Corfu or Candia a millionaire meanwhile. For whatever one may say of the Greek he is a very calculating and economical animal. It is cheaper to raise a family in Greece, where American dollars are translated into drachmas and lephtas. One can live there a month on what it would take to live here two days. The growing family is being visited every other year or so. It is absentee fatherhood with a vengeance.
One is struck on Madison Street by the innumerable coffee-houses. The windows are curtainless and the swarthy men inside play cards as furiously, as passionately, as if their lives depended on the turn of the next card. There are numerous small banking-houses, combined with barber-shop and tobacco-dealing facilities. The banker, between more important business, is keeping his fingers supple rolling cigarettes in the window of his establishment. On *the street men drag their babouches slowly.
The hurry, the noise and bustle do not affect them. They are accustomed to it from childhood. Born somewhere near other wharves, on the AEgean or the Ionian Seas, life there is at as rapid a tempo as here. Not because of individual hurry, but because of the simultaneous multitude of movements in different directions.
Madison Street, from Pearl Street to Market Street, is the main street of the principal Greek section of New York. At Market Street it ends, after thinning out at the fringe like a border town, where the Italians and the Jews are disputing for supremacy, with the Italians in the better strategic position. The boundary line at Market Street is marked by the Maternity Center. On the steps, after school hours, the older children wait for the doors to open so they can see their mothers within, and their new little brothers and sisters. It is an Italian Maternity Center. One might as well concede that, but the ground is still disputed. Close by the Maternity Center, in one building, is a Spanish barber in the basement, an Italian political association on the ground floor, and a Jewish congregation on the floor above that.
The streets branching out from Madison Street and Cherry Street, from Pearl Street on, are all occupied by Greek families. Only on the fringe toward South Street, which is the shore-line of the East River, are living Spanish families. They are mostly recent settlers, who cannot pay the high rents of the Spanish district further up town. They are wedging in in the continual displacement of group populations in the city. One can easily see the difference between the two peoples, not only in the signs on the Spanish store windows, but also in the bits of color that appear, and the red and green curtains with which the doors of the grocery stores are hung. The Spaniard loves to live behind curtains, the Greek in a show-case.
There are but few Greek stores. They are further up town. The first thing a Greek business man does when looking for a location is to ascertain there are not many Greeks living in the neighborhood. It is indeed a very difficult matter for one Greek to sell to another and make profit on the transaction.
The old houses are probably the most decrepit in the city. The rear houses especially seem unfit for human habitation, with their peeling walls and rickety stairs, and none of the modern accommodations. Even the comfort-rooms are down-stairs, as well as the water. Many of the oldest houses have no gas and are using kerosene lamps. It is only chance, and because the people living there have lived in similar conditions across the water, that fires do not occur more frequently in that district. Should anything happen, whether it begins on Cherry Street, the first house under the bridge, which is a wooden shack, or begins at the other end near Catharine Slip, the whole section might go up in flames ere the fleetest firemen could apply their hose to it. In such a holocaust I have no doubt many people would perish, for there is a great scarcity of fire-escapes or other means of saving oneself from such a catastrophe. It is interesting to note that according to official figures the density of population on the lower East Side is three times greater than the densest London quarters.
From Catharine Slip, from the corner of South Street, where the San Catharine Mission is, or from the mission-house at the corner of James Slip, standing under the sign over the barred windows, "You must be born again," one can see the spans o f three bridges, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg, from the same point. I know of no more magnificent sight at night when the bridges are lit; or early, on a misty morning with the gray buildings across the river rising like giant shadows into the dusky light above. It is worth while staying up late; worth while getting up early.
Most of the Greeks living in this neighborhood are not only dark but also extremely pale. The air is thick. The houses are so close to one another, the rooms so small, so dark, dank, and lifeless, that only the celebrated "lung blocks" owned by one of our wealthiest churches can compete in darkness. The morning starts around three o'clock, when the rumbling trucks to and from the wharves begin to pass through the narrow streets, the wheels entangling themselves in one another, the drivers cursing, the horses neighing, the automobiles roaring, and above all rises the shrill, hollow siren call from the incoming and departing steamers. The day ends at midnight. Sleep is impossible.
On Cherry Street. the Spaniards, the ones lately arrived, have wedged in. This also is disputed territory. The Spaniards envy the better homes of the Greeks, not daring even to think of the luxurious homes of the Italians in the neighborhood. One side of the street is inhabited by Greeks, the other by Spaniards pressing further down. The windows of the few Greek stores are pasted with announcements of incoming and departing boats. The windows of the Spanish barbers in the neighborhood carry big show-cards advertising the Spanish Players performing at the Daly Theater.
At 24 Cherry Street there is an open-vaulted portico, which ends in a large square place, margined by the high brick walls of adjoining factories. The cobblestones of the pavement are in figured patterns, squares, circles, triangles, of the most beautiful and perfect design. At night, when the children of the neighborhood play in that walled in square, it is as if Victor Hugo's Cour de Miracles had suddenly materialized. Evidently the place has once been a fortification of some kind. In daytime it is now an open-air stable.
Through the district, to the squat Presbyterian Church at Henry and Market Streets, there are beautiful old doors and fine window openings, with bits of fine masonry work. What pity that such beauty is lost in the decrepitude surrounding it !
This Greek district has not been Greek for very long. The Greeks formerly occupied the Syrian section, and have been pressed out from there. Of twenty children below sixteen years, I have only found one that was born in this country. It is only very recently that some of the Greeks have called their families here. The rest of them are still transitory, waiting until they have made a sufficiency to return. Compared with other people, the Greeks have the smallest native-born population in this city. There is not a single public library in the district, not one park or public playground, except Jackson Park, further down beyond the Greek section, and not one public bath.
These are not the descendants of the old Greeks, not the descendants of Plato, Socrates, Euripides, or Demosthenes, but just Levantines, mixtures of a hundred races, that have come to be called Greeks. But here and there, among the men, women, or children, there looms up a beautiful face, as though carved in bronzen marble, the paleness of which is accented by the s hock of black hair, like a black onyx crown on a golden figure. Here and there, while the children dance to the music of the organ-grinders, to some old jazz or rag tune, one sees beautiful limbs that move about more gracefully than any. There is my little friend Perisa, the daughter of a barber in the neighborhood. I hope no Broadway manager ever puts his eyes on her, to curb and destroy the rhythm with which she was born. To see Perisa dance in the mud-puddles formed by the depressions in the pavement of the street, to see Perisa walk down the sidewalk, to watch Perisa toss her head, is great enough a delight for living near wherever she lives, so as to see her frequently enough.
On Water Street :s the store of Yanaides. It is in that part of Water Street which is inhabited by Jews. Yanaides is one of the oldest Greek inhabitants of that district. I went to see him, desiring information from several things of which I was inquiring. I talked to him in English. He did not understand me. His Greek was rusty. But he spoke a perfect Yiddish. This was the language he had learned in this country. As his store is open seven days a week, and he is very stout and heavy, Yanaides has never been above Pearl Street and never further than Second Street. The rest of New York he will see, as he told me, through the windows of the hearse when they carry him on his way to the cemetery. He has heard of the existence of a Broadway. He reads in the Yiddish papers of things that go on in other parts of the city. His family, whatever there is of it, is still living in Greece, because, as he says, "It is too expensive to keep them here."
"Every day it becomes more expensive," he complained. "Things for which I pay wholesale here five dollars, my family can get there retail for one tenth that price."
"But then why live if you do not expect even to return home with your riches?" I asked Yanaides.
He shrugged his shoulders enigmatically, as if he would say: "I myself do not know. But I merely go on."
"You must like the Jews very much to prefer living among them?" I asked.
"Like them! I? [ hate them! They. are spendthrifts!"
Some years ago I met in one of the coffee-houses a young Greek poet who had come to this country with the firm desire to uplift his people. He was a young and handsome chap, and his wife, equally handsome, had a beautiful voice. The couple used to go from coffee-house to coffee-house, where Greeks assembled, and recite and sing their songs, after which they used to sell the mimeographed ditties. They lived in a little garret on Roosevelt Street, where I visited them frequently. The poet was a scholar, a re-former, and a nationalist. He cursed America for what it had done to the Greek. It had debased him through gold. The influence showed itself even in Greece, where all the youth dreamt of America and the flow of dollars. Greece was being transformed into a country of women. "Nurseries for America!" he exclaimed often.
I found the young couple one day in a very dejected mood. They were making no headway. Their work made but little impression on the people. They were poor, hungry, starved. They were being mocked and derided. The couple had some admirers in the neighborhood, notably a Greek wholesale grocer, who proposed to them that the poet and his wife should give themselves over to business for a few years. He would let them manage one of his stores on Nineteenth Street below Avenue A, which is also a Greek quarter in miniature, after which they might retire on the profits made and saved, and produce poetry without depending on it for bread and butter. They were tempted to accept.
I saw my friend the poet a few years after that, greasy and stout and sloppy, and his wife heavy from not moving about enough, for she was standing the whole day behind a cash-register, and I talked to them. They were still of the same mind. Another year and they would withdraw from business to return to poetry and uplift work.
I saw them again the other day, back on Roosevelt Street, my poet considerably thinner than when I had last seen him, with patches of gray hair on his temples, and his wife haggard and worn out. They were again at it, singing their poetry in the neighborhood coffee-houses.
"What has happened?" I asked my friend.
"Well," he answered, "after I had withdrawn from business with enough money and a comfortable home, I could not write poetry. It had all evaporated with the smell of oil and cheese and kerosene. I had a nervous breakdown. The doctor advised travel. And so we traveled until we finished our last dollar. Then we came to live here again, and I am writing poetry as good as when I left it off. And from all the years of business all that is left to me is this." And he showed me his gray hair.
There is another man I know and love. Cresoveloni is his name. He is a Greek Paytone+One, living on I do not know what, dressed in the garb of Paytone+Ones of two thousand years ago, speaking beautifully French and English, and he holds forth about his theories of life to the truck-drivers and chauffeurs waiting their turn to line up at one of the wharves. I have seen many a truck-driver listening earnestly and sincerely to Cresoveloni's theories about Plato, whom he accuses of all the ills of the world; because he had corrupted the philosophy of Socrates, and rationalized paganism out of existence. "Business, hurry, bee work, all caused by Plato's philosophy."
At other times the Paytone+One, sitting on one of the brownstone steps, between two garbage-cans overflowing with the litter of the street, the streets of the district being so very seldom really cleaned, is teaching the children Greek. He makes them recite after him the Philippics of Demosthenes. School fashion, the children repeat after him, "Pedi the vechia Athena," "Children of old Athens," while bonfires made by the Italian boys across the street crackle and spit sparks, and old mattresses and broken-down furniture are thrown with loud huzzas on the fire. Above the hissing of the flames around, Cresoveloni's voice, accompanied by the twenty or more voices of the children, rises in one of the old Greek chants.
It is people like my poet friend and Cresoveloni the Paytone+One who will eventually do something, or are already doing, to bring relief to the crushed and displaced souls in that neighborhood. Not the settlement workers who come to them bearing precious gifts in charity. They do not understand and do not appreciate the struggle of these people. It is not physical only. The factory-fashion Americanizers who hold forth for a few minutes on the corner of the street, before election, telling them what a great man this and that and the other politician is, will also have no influence on them. And not even the public schools in the neighborhood, grinding out Americans in the same fashion as sausages, all in the same casing though from different kinds of meats. Not from any of these agencies will relief ever come, relief or understanding or help in the assimilation process. Their own poet and their own Paytone+One speak to them in a language they under-stand, in a manner they understand, appeal to them with an appeal that comes from the same source as their own; appealing to them to be better Greeks first, that they may become better Americans. It is a crime that people should be permitted to live in such homes as they do. It is a blotch on civilization that there should be owners who receive rent, profits from such kennels. Razing these houses to the ground would be good Americanization work. Other-wise we merely desire multiplying peanut-venders, shoe-shiners, petty merchants, waiters, consumptives, insane, and degenerates.
It is remarkable that commercially in this city the Greeks have competed only with the Italians. The two nations are competitors in every port of Europe. In the last ten years the Greeks have practically appropriated the whole shoe-shine trade of the city, indeed of the country. Wherever there was an Italian is now a Greek. It is not because the Italians have gone on to more remunerative occupations, but because of the better padrone system, the hiring of cheaper labor by the Greeks, that one man was able to buy off ten, twenty, thirty, or more shoe-shine stands. They import young boys from Greece, and deduct the cost of the ship ticket from the next-to-nothing salary. Yet, living economically, these youngsters save enough to open their own shoe-shine parlors or stands, and import them-selves one or more laborers, whom they in turn exploit as mercilessly as they have been exploited.
The fruit-stand business of the city has passed from the hands of the Italians into the hands of Greeks. It is true that in this particular trade the Greeks excel the Italians because of the numerous fruits in their own country, which they know how to preserve and keep beautiful and fresh. The Italian is neither as economical nor as hard-working as the Greek. At first the Greeks opened competitive stands with the Italians, underselling them. Having accomplished that, having driven them out, the Greeks returned to the original prices and soon bettered them. There is no competition among Greeks. Chains of stands and stores are owned by one individual in a section of the city.
The ice-cream parlors, and the small quick-lunch rooms all over the city, and in practically every other big city of the United States, are in the hands of Greeks, and have been taken away from the Italians who were running them until a few years ago. They are run according to an Old-World system, by gerie or share partnerships, on a tenper-cent-of-profit basis. It is the system most in vogue with the Greek business men here. A share of the profits instead of salary stimulates business.
An example of this competition between the Greeks and Italians can be seen on Ninth Avenue and Thirty-sixth Street, where the Greek business men are trying to squeeze the Italian business men out of the street. Already the Greek stores are more numerous. They compete by importing the same products as the Italians, only they import from Greece at a smaller cost, and are therefore able to undersell the Italians in their own stronghold. The Italian woman buys where it is cheaper. The Greeks also have a much more attractive way of displaying their wares. Greeks are born advertisers. They know how to arrange the wares in an attractive manner. They are also more adroit because of greater experience in foreign countries. You will seldom find Italian stores away from the Italian districts. But Greeks avoid their own districts. Their people are too economical. The Italians spend their earnings in food and clothing. There is no profit in selling to one's own people, who know the exact value of the thing they buy. There is not a block in the city that has not a Greek store of some sort in its neighborhood.
There are two Greek newspapers in the city, the "Atlantis" and the "National Herald," both of them published up town. There are also several magazines but very few book-stores, for illiteracy among the Greeks is very great. A young Greek who had been shining my shoes for several years once asked me if I could read his language. I told him that my knowledge of it was very rusty. Whereupon he insisted that he speak Greek to me every time I came . in. A few months later, while he was alone with me in the store, he begged me to read him a letter he had received from his family. Remarking that the postmark of the letter was six months old, I asked:
"Why, haven't you had that letter read to you before?"
"No," he answered me. "There is not a single man in whom I have confidence to read that letter. I expect important news from my family."
It turned out to be a communication written for his mother by the public letter-writer of Piraeus, the port near his birthplace, in which she told him that their goat had given birth to a kid.
"By golly," he remarked in English, "they must be milking that kid now already."
"It may be a buck," I told him.
"No, no, it is a milch goat. Otherwise mother would not write. It costs more to write a letter than a he-goat is worth. She would have killed him for food."
With a little practice one can find out by the odor in what part of the city he is. The odors that rise from kitchens and restaurants are like signs in windows. The Greek odor is one of olive-oil, cooked tomatoes, and garlic. These three things seem to be the main foundation of their cooking. The Greeks have also a different method of brewing their finely ground coffee, the odor of which is much stronger than the odor of the coffee ground in any other Oriental district. There are not half as many desserts as there are, for instance, in the Syrian restaurants. Food is considered a necessity, not a luxury. One gets along with as little as one can, the Greeks being as frugal as the Arabs or the Spaniards.
All the years of my association with Greeks here, Greeks in all the walks of life, I have never seen any drinking among them. Here and there a man would nip from a little bottle of rachiu. Though the Greek liquors have the best name in Europe, they are very little drunk in their native country. They are made for sale, not for home use.
I do not believe there are a hundred manual workers, in factories or shops, among the Greeks in this city, although there are some thirty thousand living here. Still, wherever the Greek may have his business place, whether it is a pea-nut stand at Bronx Park, a florist shop in Washington Park or on Fifth Avenue, or a restaurant on Broadway, at the close of his business he will go among his own people. And when I say among his own people, I do not mean merely among the people of Greece. For there are streets occupied by Greeks whose home originally was in Alexandria, Egypt, and other streets of Greeks whose home was in Cairo. The Greeks of old Stamboul, descendants of the Fanariots, the fathers of many of whom have under duress accepted the religion of the Moslem, live separately from the others. The Greeks from Corfu crowd in one part, and the Greeks from Athens in another part of the district. Really the Greek quarter is another repetitior. of factional Greece. which though to us known as an entity is only so geographically; while, racially, it is composed of people as different from one another as any other people might be:
So far the Greeks have contributed nothing to the spiritual life of the country. They take no interest in the political life of the country, either. New York is to them a transitory station on the way to . . . nowhere.