It was at the turn of the 20th Century that the first Greek immigrants arrived in metro Detroit and settled along Detroit’s Monroe Avenue, between Brush and St. Antoine streets. In 1912, the beginning of Greek persecution by the Ottoman Empire incited a period of peak immigration from Greece, which would last until 1917. Combined with Henry Ford’s 1914 offer of $5-per-day jobs, this caused rapid expansion of Detroit’s Greek settlement, which would one day become known as Greektown.
Now a vibrant dining and entertainment district, Greektown was once a residential area as well. Some of the new Greek Detroiters worked in the automobile or railroad industries, but many became merchants, often living above or near their places of business. The area was seen as a comprehensive community where one could work, reside, shop, and recreate. “Then known as ‘Little Greece,’ Monroe Street was home to 10 grocery stores, 14 restaurants, 12 coffee houses, two drugstores, and several barbershops and boutiques,” says Kathryn Dimond, executive director of the Hellenic Museum of Michigan.
The 1920s, however, saw Greektown shift to a commercial area. Though they maintained their restaurants and stores, the area’s Greek residents began to withdraw, and its population diversified. Residential spaces were slowly disappearing until the 1950s and ’60s, when much of the enduring neighborhood was razed to make room for downtown parking and institutional buildings.
Even Greektown’s commercial district shrunk to a single block — but this did not hinder its growing popularity. Over the next several decades, as sports and convention facilities took hold downtown, businesses popped up across the area, marketed at commuters and event-goers. Greektown transformed, becoming a prominent destination for suburbanites and tourists alike.
In 1982, the Greektown Historic District, one of downtown’s last surviving commercial streetscapes from the Victorian era, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Greektown may no longer be the concentrated center for the region’s Greek community, but Dimond says, “It’s still one of the best-known ethnic regions in metro Detroit.”
As Greektown transformed, the local Greek community banded together in an effort to preserve the area’s ethnic identity. In 1965, they assembled the city’s first Greektown Heritage Festival. The event is now held each July by the Greektown Neighborhood Partnership, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the area’s cultural vibrancy and economic success. Each year at festival time, Monroe Street comes to life with live music, traditional Greek dancers, and craftspeople from around Michigan, celebrating the neighborhood’s rich Greek heritage. Local food vendors line the streets, offering traditional Greek bites, such as kebabs, cheese pies, and Greek sausages. The highlight of the event, however, is a street-side lamb roast so large it requires several spits.
Greece observes Independence Day each year on March 25 — a date that, this year, marked the 200th anniversary of Greek freedom from Ottoman rule. This year’s celebrations was canceled due to COVID-19, but for nearly 20 years, this triumph has been honored locally with the Detroit Greek Independence Day Parade. The procession of floats, contingents from Greek organizations and churches, and traditional musicians and dancers marches through Greektown and raises money for the Hellenic Museum of Michigan.
The Hellenic Museum of Michigan on East Kirby Street in Detroit aims to educate patrons about Greek culture, heritage, and history and to preserve the legacy of metro Detroit’s Greek immigrant community. The contributions and achievements of this community are well-documented through its collection of artifacts, documents, and photographs. In addition to its five permanent exhibits, the museum regularly introduces rotating exhibits and hosts educational workshops, guest lectures, and cultural events. The museum has been closed during the pandemic, but Dimond says it plans to reopen this spring. “We will be reopening with a new exhibition — the Inaugural Hellenic Art Exhibition, which showcases current artists of Hellenic heritage.”
The Real Deal
St. Clair Shores imported grocer Stoukas Imports carries a wide variety of Greek staples, including beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, pasta, and phyllo dough.
The Hellenic Bakery and Market in Livonia is run, to this day, by John and Katina Liogas, who opened the space in 1972. The couple use traditional recipes and baking techniques to make their Greek breads and sweets, including spinach and cheese pies, baklava, and galaktoboureko — a decadent pastry of baked custard and phyllo. They also carry imported grocery items, such as Mediterranean cheeses, olive oil, wine, coffee, tea, and spices.
When it comes to Greek dining options, Dimond has no hesitation: “Greektown, of course!” Although she declines to choose one restaurant over another — “They are all excellent” — there are a few that undoubtedly stand out. Arguably Greektown’s most recognizable business, the Pegasus Taverna is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The family-owned eatery is known for traditional Greek fare, including moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, various lamb dishes, and pastitsio — baked pasta with ground meat and béchamel sauce. The dessert menu is equally loaded with authentic treats, such as Greek-style ice cream, Greek donuts called loukoumades, and a honey-drizzled, house-made yogurt known as giaourti.
Greektown’s longest-running restaurant, however, is Golden Fleece, which opened in 1971. The cozy Monroe Street staple is best known for its homemade gyros, which are widely regarded as the best in the region, but it also offers a number of other authentically Greek dishes. Standouts include kebabs, saganaki, salads, and a selection of Greek wraps called diplota.
The Greek, conversely, is Greektown’s newest eatery. Brick walls, black fixtures, and a large bar backlit by blue neon lights give its interior a more modern feel, compared to other spots. The restaurant’s menu is full of contemporary yet authentic Greek dishes, such as a pork gyro, a lamb burger with tzatziki and feta, and the shrimp Santorini — white-wine sautéed jumbo shrimp in a garlic butter sauce. Plus, that grand bar is as functional as it is aesthetically appealing, carrying an impressive array of beer, wine, and liquor. Among the most intriguing beverage options are The Greek’s creative cocktails, including a strawberry shortcake martini; a jalapeño mule; and the Mediterranean Blue Bowl with blue raspberry Jolly Rancher vodka, island punch pucker, and gummy sharks.
Established by the Teftis family in 1971, the Astoria Pastry Shop offers more than 100 pastries, which can be enjoyed alongside its house-roasted gourmet coffees. Naturally, the
menu has an entire section dedicated to Greek honey pastries, such as baklava, custard rolls, and chocolate walnut rolls. The Greektown and Royal Oak bake shop also offers brunch pastries, such as muffins and croissants, as well as cakes, tortes, and macrons.
Did You Know?
Ypsilanti is named after modern Greece’s first field marshal, Demetrios Ypsilanti, who had distinguished himself during the war for independence. His bust stands between American and Greek flags at the base of the landmark Ypsilanti Water Tower.