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Greektown heritage meets Spanish-speaking influx

Greektown is a Baltimore neighborhood that had a strong Greek population but now has a growing Spanish population. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

Though it's located in the heart of Greektown, John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School is 72 percent Hispanic. As about 800 pupils walk home with their mothers on a fall afternoon after the final bell has rung, about half are speaking in Spanish, their primary language.

They walk down a block where the Greek Town Grill nestles up against El Merengue restaurant, where the Kentrikon Gift Shop sells Greek-language newspapers, while a sign outside Mama Tana restaurant advertises the traditional Salvadoran pupusas, or corn tortillas stuffed with meat or cheese.

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The influx of a Latino population into the bastion of Greek culture is as dramatic as it is recent. Greektown is a neighborhood where St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church remains a center of community life and where Greece's 1821 fight for independence continues to be celebrated annually with a parade.

Rosa Pinguil of Ecuador and her daughter Esther, 10, are pictured at John Ruhrah Elementary Middle School in Greektown where Esther attends school. Greektown has a growing Spanish-speaking population.
Rosa Pinguil of Ecuador and her daughter Esther, 10, are pictured at John Ruhrah Elementary Middle School in Greektown where Esther attends school. Greektown has a growing Spanish-speaking population. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

In 2000, Hispanics made up just 5.6 percent of Greektown's residents, according to census data. Just 10 years later, that had exploded to 35.2 percent.

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"It's a pretty dramatic shift," says Chris Ryer, president of the Southeast Community Development Corp., adding that he'd estimate that about 30 percent of the area's Latinos are in the country without legal documentation. "The 2010 census already is out of date. We see no evidence that the numbers are decreasing."

Nitsa Morekas has worked in Kentrikon, the shop started by her cousin and that Morekas now owns, since 1959. She can remember when Eastern Avenue was an unbroken mass of storefronts decorated in Greece's national colors of blue and white. She remembers when just one Greek neighborhood association would have been woefully inadequate to serve local residents.

How many Greek associations were there?

"Let's see," Morekas says, ticking them off. "There was an organization for people who came from the island of Ikaria. They're the ones who started the Ikaros Restaurant.

Archbishop Michael holds service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in 1957.
Archbishop Michael holds service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in 1957. (Albert D. Cochran / Baltimore Sun)

"The Greeks who were involved in the Chios Society ate at the Acropolis. One of the most active organizations was the Laconia association, which represented people from the Peloponnese peninsula. They had a big dance every Thanksgiving Eve at the Emerson Hotel.

"But all the Greek organizations put on three, four, five social functions a year."

Jason Filippou, a real estate agent and former executive director of the Greektown Community Development Corp., thinks that Latino and Greek cultures have a natural affinity.

"The way I see it, Greeks are already half-Spanish, and Hispanics are half-Greek," he says. "Both cultures are all about home and food and family and church."

Ruhrah Principal Mary Donnelly often faces an influx of new pupils from El Salvador and Honduras in January, the ending of the school year there. Some are sent to escape civil unrest.

"It's a huge challenge," Donnelly says, "for us and for them."

It's not unusual for parents to show up to attend school alongside their offspring, she says. Not only is that customary back home, but the parents often need instruction as much as their children.

Ruhrah school's solution? Courses for adults in everything from child care practices to English as a second language.

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"The parents are very invested in trying to learn," Donnelly says. "I see them standing outside the classroom at 8:30 a.m., waiting for the teacher to come and unlock the door."

Ryer said that the Latino influx also has skewed the housing market toward rentals. After the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms were enacted in 2010, he says, banks were no longer willing to give mortgages to immigrants without Social Security cards.

Complicating matters is that affordable Greektown may be ripe for gentrification. Community members are paying particular attention to the fate of the old Crown Cork & Seal complex at 4401 Eastern Ave. Now, the area is zoned for industrial use. But the building could potentially be approved for mixed-use commercial and residential development.

"This neighborhood still has an immigrant feel to it" Filippou says, "an authenticity, and you can't get that just by painting a mural."

Not only did Filippou grow up in Greektown, he met his future wife, Maria, playing in the alley her family shared with his cousins. He can't help thinking that the neighborhood's multicultural character must be preserved at all costs.

"Across the nation, you see the wealthy returning to cities," he says.

"Greektown is ground zero for where that's happening in Baltimore. Our goal is for this to continue to be an international neighborhood. We want to make sure that the people who came here when the market wasn't hot can continue to live here."

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