Astoria Holds on to Greek Identity

Astoria Music, established in 1922, sells authentic Greek instruments called bouzoukis and offers bouzouki lessons.

Article, photo and video by Michael Petropoulos

As gentrification brings change to Astoria, Queens, long-time residents worry that their Greek culture is at ebb tide, fearing both the impact of newcomers and the lack of interest of younger Greek Americans in their heritage.

“The biggest challenge for Greek Astorians is teaching the younger generations to preserve Greek culture and heritage and instilling in them the pride that comes with hailing from such a historically rich background,” said Aravella Simotas, a lifelong Astoria resident and the first Greek-American woman elected to office in New York State. She has been a state assemblywoman since 2010.

George Stelios, the owner of Teddy’s Florist for almost 40 years, said: “The younger, new generation of Greek Americans are not spreading the culture as much. Instead they’re more involved in Instagram or whatever you guys are using these days.”

In recent decades, Astoria has been one of the mostly ethnically diverse communities in the city, placing 11th on a list of gentrifying neighborhoods in New York in a study by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University. It found that the average rent had increased 27.6 percent between 1990 and 2014, and the percentage of the population with a college degree rose to 40.5 percent from 24.6 percent.

The share of nonfamily households rose to 48.5 percent  from 40.9 percent, as younger people continued to move to Astoria, drawn by proximity to Manhattan and what were relatively lower rents. Families with only one or two wage earners are often hard-pressed to meet the higher rents.

Now, Astoria is home to an area known as Little Egypt, with Middle Eastern bakeries, restaurants, cafes, hookah bars and three mosques, as well as a great many Asian restaurants, French cafes and other non-Greek cultural choices.

Yet Greek pride and Greek culture remain strong. “Astoria is filled with Greek culture. It’s the most culturally driven Greek hub outside of Athens,” said George Phillips, who owners and operates Astoria Music. “We have Greek Orthodox Churches and we have Greek businesses and clubs. It’s everything you need as a Greek.”

Harriet Kounas, a 60-year-old lifelong Astorian who works for a fashion company, attends community events in Greek Orthodox churches, Hellenic Cultural Centers and Greek restaurants. She loves to share and celebrate her culture with other Greeks.

But she, too, is concerned about the changes she sees. “Astoria is becoming so much more expensive, so new Greek families can’t move in,” she said. “You don’t see the first-generation Greeks like we used to. Like my parents were. Now the culture is dependent on the second and third generation, but generations sometimes forget their culture faster.”

Nicholas Stamatiades, 27, also a lifelong Astorian, is part of the younger generational his elders worry about – and he agreed with their concerns. “Social media is kind of ruining culture,” he said. “The new generation of Greeks and kids in general would rather take selfies and show that they’re cool than learn about religion or culture.”

For all their concerns, many residents say they are confident Greek-Americans will keep Astoria a Greek center for years to come. “I would not want to live anywhere else,” said Kounas. “Such a friendly neighborhood with such a strong Greek presence. I really hope it stays that way.”