Real Estate

Greektown a flavorful mix of old and new

Just east of Highlandtown, the bustle of downtown becomes irrelevant.

Maybe it's the vitality of the grapevines adorning arbors in the paved alleys and the prevalence of blue and white flags hanging over porches. Maybe it's the restaurant walls decorated with photographs from Ikaria and Paros. Maybe it's the sense of familiarity among the men speaking Greek and playing cards in a small Eastern Avenue coffee shop.

Wherever you look, authentic pieces of Greece are proudly nestled throughout Baltimore's Greektown.

"Little tomato plants, little pepper plants, the flowers from their home," said Xenos Kohilas, whose older brother Theodossios opened Ikaros, the first Greek restaurant in the area, in 1969. "You see, the back yards look like the ones in Greece."

The Southeast Baltimore neighborhood has been recognized lately as an affordable alternative to more expensive Canton and Fells Point.

The average price of a house sold in Greektown last year was $56,399. The averages were $185,920 in Canton and $211,630 in Fells Point, according to Live Baltimore.

Greektown prices have averaged $64,029 since the beginning of this year.

"I think it's the next up-and-coming community," said John Gavrilis, executive director of Greektown Community Development Corp.

The development group, which was formed in 1998, has developed a plan for revitalizing the community. It is focusing on improvements including business development and crime prevention.

Greektown was settled during the early 20th century by mostly working-class, European immigrants, among them Irish, Italians, Poles and Ukrainians. The establishment of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church during the 1950s made the neighborhood a natural spot for Greek families, whose numbers grew rapidly through the 1960s and into the 1970s.

Originally known as "the Hill," the area was not officially named until the late 1980s, when the community petitioned the city to be recognized as Greektown, the area's unofficial designation for decades. It still is an attraction for young couples who want to raise their children with the influence of Greek culture.

Two- and three-bedroom rowhouses are common, with Formstone and brick facades and second-floor bay windows. Some homes have the white marble steps traditional to Baltimore, stained glass over the front doors and hand-carved woodwork inside.

Stacey Lioreisis, 32, moved from Essex to Greektown seven years ago when she married John Lioreisis, an immigrant from Karpathos.

She noted the accessibility of Interstates 95 and 895, the Greek Orthodox church and the proximity of stores as advantages of the area.

"It's wonderful to be able to pretty much walk everywhere and speak a second language," she said. "It's a great influence for my child."

Lioreisis plans to send her son, 4, to the afternoon Greek school at Saint Nicholas.

Gavrilis estimated that the city has contributed more than $7 million to improve the underpass on the western boundary of the community and to build sidewalks, repair streets and add lighting in the Eastern Avenue business district.

"The city has been extremely responsive to us and to our effort to turn our community around," said Gavrilis, a retired city police officer.

Funding has come from sources including state and local government and private donations. A new mural celebrating Greek-American culture, which was unveiled June 11 on Oldham Street, was sponsored by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and The Arts.

The Greektown development group is leading an effort to renovate 20 homes, the first of which was completed recently. A contract on the home, built in 1923 at 402 S. Newkirk St., was secured for $155,000 - $5,000 more than the list price - after it had been on the market for five days.

"We have people asking us to reserve the next two homes we're doing," Gavrilis said.

Although most of the population is of Greek origin, Greektown considers itself a diverse community.

Mexican, Chinese and Italian restaurants can be found in the area, and over the past 10 years, there has been an influx of immigrants.

"I like this area," said Elmahdi Errajraji, who immigrated from Morocco in 1989 and moved from O'Donnell Heights to Oldham Street in January. "It's convenient."

Fighting crime

The community has been making strides to address public safety concerns such as loitering and drug activity. The Greektown development group will pay to install outdoor lights in the 300 block of Macon St. The project is to begin this month, said Todd Bonicker, chairman of the Safety Ambassador Program and the housing committee in the Greektown development group.

In addition, the community has hired off-duty police officers to patrol the area, and the business district is monitored daily by closed-circuit television cameras.

"We've made several arrests due to our vigilance and our volunteers watching those cameras," Bonicker said.

Maintaining traditions

Amid new developments, area residents continue to celebrate the traditions of the Old World.

"You can hear the Greek music coming out of the doors; you can hear the sounds of the bouzouki," Kohilas said. "It's very characteristic."