A Greektown odyssey

Special to the Tribune

Next time you visit Greektown, look down. In stretches of Halsted Street sidewalk you will spot the Meander, one of the most universally-recognized symbols of Greek culture. Often called the Greek key, it appears as a continuous decorative line that twists and turns, much the same way as does the Maeander River, for which it's named.

The Greek key serves to open the door, as it were, to a one-of-a-kind Chicago neighborhood, tiny compared to most Windy City communities, but as irresistible as a savory, flaming slab of saganaki. The city boasts myriad ethnic enclaves, most of them known for their taste-tempting culinary arts. But just try to identify one as close to the Loop, as conveniently located to expressways, bus lines and rapid transit stations, or as tightly shoe-horned into one multi-block stretch, as Chicago's beloved Greektown.

It's that easy-to-reach location, along with the dizzying array of tantalizing Greek eateries, that makes Greektown a favorite of native Chicagoans and visitors to the city, said Greek-American Jim Psyhogios, vice president and broker with Weichert Realtors-Frankel & Giles, who knows Greektown both personally and professionally.

"I've seen it grow from the time I was a kid, when it was just a small colony of restaurants owned by Greek immigrants, to what it is today," said Psyhogios, whose company has developed hundreds of housing units in the West Loop.

What it is today, he added, is a bastion of fine Greek dining served up in bistros that could not be more independent. "You know you're going to get a quality meal, and that the food will be prepared by someone whose heart is really in it. When you walk into these family-owned restaurants, it's like you're walking into the owners' homes."

TV journalist Anna Davlantes, whose Greek ancestors settled nearby, concurs. "Halsted Street is home to some of the best Greek and Mediterranean restaurants in the city," she said. "And they're also some of the best meals for the money."

While best known for its cuisine and conviviality, today's Greektown is much more than a skein of restaurants. It's also a place to find unique boutiques and shops like the Athenian Candle Co., Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop and Greektown Music. And it's become a cultural destination as well, with the 2004 move of the National Hellenic Museum -- which connects generations through Greek history, culture and art -- from its former digs on Michigan Avenue to its Greektown location at 801 W. Adams St.

Above all, Greektown today is a place where people don't just visit, but settle. The community has benefited from the movement back into the city by folks intent on putting all they want in life within walking distance.

"Here, you can walk to Dominick's, walk to restaurants," Psyhogios said. "People are looking to simplify their lives."

One of those in the forefront of that movement was Eve Moran, who along with her husband Jack Moran settled in Greektown in 1983 -- and never left.

Despite being a Polish-American girl who would marry into an Irish family, Moran always felt an affinity for Greektown. She gravitated to the burgeoning Halsted Street strip in the 1970s, rubbing shoulders with its "early adopters," from businessmen to University of Illinois Chicago students. She and her husband even hosted their wedding reception at the departed Diana's restaurant and grocery. A tip from then "mayor of Greektown" Pete Kogiones led the couple to buy an available nearby three-flat building.

"When I first moved in, it was kind of an unkempt neighborhood," Moran recalled. "It was a little rough. But then everybody began remodeling the old classics like Parthenon, Roditys and Greek Islands. Then you got some stunning newcomers like Athena, Santorini, Pegasus and Costa's. So, now you have a great, vibrant street."

Costas Stylianou, owner of Venus Greek Cypriot restaurant, and a veteran of nearly 30 years in Greektown, witnessed the same evolution. "The neighborhood has changed tremendously," he said. "When I came to this country, I was afraid to walk up and down the streets [of Greektown]. Now it's very upscale and a very happening area."

The last half decade has witnessed the greatest transfiguration, most agree. One of two critical changes occurred five years ago, when the National Hellenic Museum, then called the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center, moved into the area.

Executive director Stephanie Vlahakis reports the museum is open to the public and showcases exhibits from historical and ancient history to modern Greek history and contemporary artists. This fall, it will house an exhibit called "Neolaia/Pathos New Youth Passion," spotlighting the artwork of 13 up-and-coming Greek Americans.

Past exhibitions have included "A Day in the Life of an Ancient Greek" and "Remembering Generations: The Greek Immigrant's Journey."

"We also have a tremendous educational outreach," Vlahakis said. "School groups come here, and we also take our educational efforts to schools throughout the Chicago area." Its nomadic days over, the museum will be a permanent Greektown anchor with its slated 2011 move to a building to be constructed at 333 S. Halsted St.

The other significant development is the transformation of the area around Greektown from a district of storage buildings into a booming residential enclave. Among those helping to usher in a wave of Greektown arrivals is Bill Senne, CEO of Senco, the Chicago developer of Emerald Chicago, which fills the Green Street site formerly occupied by the Christian Industrial League. The development features 212 units across two towers, connected by an 8,000-square-foot lobby. The approximately 75 units remaining for sale are listed from $350,000 to the high-$500,000s, Senne said.

That residents can walk to two different restaurant rows (the other on Fulton Street) is just one reason condo buyers like the location. "You can't beat the proximity to the Loop, and you can't beat the proximity to the expressways," Senne said. "You can jump on the expressway and be at U.S. Cellular, Wrigley or Soldier Field in 15 minutes."

The growing popularity of any city neighborhood can sometimes bring fallout, and Greektown is no exception to this general rule, Moran said.

"In being upscale [it] has lost a bit of its charm," she said. "Traffic is bad, especially on Halsted, and it's pretty bad all the time because Halsted is a great roadway to different parts of the city. And that's compounded by all the cars coming to the restaurants. . . . The other problem is parking. Some of the restaurants have expanded and can accommodate a lot more people, but there's no place to park."

These issues, however, aren't likely to keep Greektown from remaining a favorite with people near and far. As Psyhogios noted: "You're coming to a neighborhood with history, culture and ethnicity. That's attractive to people."

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