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Old memories in step with annual tradition; Parade: Love of heritage and love of community mingle for Baltimore's Greeks.


Tugged by tradition and tousled by a warm spring wind, 10,000 people lined Eastern Avenue in Baltimore yesterday to celebrate the 179th anniversary of Greek Independence Day with a parade, prayers and feasting.

For the Greek immigrants who settled so thickly in the southeast corner of the city's Highlandtown that their neighborhood was eventually dubbed "Greektown," it was a day to remember the villages they left behind.

For their children and grandchildren, it was a day to return to their village -- an urban enclave built around St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, where Greeks and other immigrants so dominated the shops and restaurants, churches and taverns that English was the foreign tongue.

"We've all got our best childhood memories here," said parade co-Chairman Steve G. Mavrinis, a 37-year-old engineer who grew up in Edgemere in Baltimore County, but was constantly scampering in and out of his grandparents' rowhouse on Oldham Street. "Growing up, the unity of this neighborhood was incredible."

Mavrinis, who helped organize the fourth annual parade of costumed marchers and floats, said the tide has turned for Greektown. Once a haven for immigrants who worked in their nearby canneries and at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant, the neighborhood has struggled with unemployment and crime in recent years. The jobs went away, as did many of the original settlers' children, seeking a better life in the suburbs.

But the grandchildren prefer city life, Mavrinis said. He lives in Little Italy, "but my heart is here and I'm here every day of the week."

Crime has declined since last year, when the Police Department installed video cameras that keep a wide swath of the neighborhood under constant surveillance, said retired Baltimore City Police Col. John Gavrilis, 47, a Greektown native.

"We've had a good number of young people moving into the neighborhood," Gavrilis said. "These are people whose parents moved out of the neighborhood and who now are moving back in. They want to keep their traditions -- and be close to all the good restaurants."

In the 1920s, the neighborhood was a mixture of Greeks and Spaniards, Germans and Poles. Baltimore's first Greek school was founded in the neighborhood in the 1920s, said the Rev. Manuel J. Burdusi, a lifelong member of St. Nicholas and its pastor since 1991.

The founding of the church on Ponca Street in 1952 was followed by a new wave of Greek immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s. Soon afterward, the neighborhood population peaked at about four-fifths Greek.

Today, Greek families fill about two-thirds of the brick-fronted, marble-stepped rowhouses and run practically all of the neighborhood's bustling restaurants and bakeries. The stretch of Eastern Avenue that runs through Greektown is dotted with hole-in-the-wall cafes and social clubs, where men in dark suits sip coffee, chain-smoke and chat above the tape-recorded thrum of bouzouki music.

One such club is the Olympia Brotherhood of America at 4602 Eastern Ave., a home-away-from-home for about 50 families who hail from the village of Olympos on the island of Karpathos. The tiny club, in the midst of a wall-to-wall remodeling, was founded in 1972 to help immigrants from Olympos get their bearings in the new country, said Vice President George Giorgakis, 39.

Yesterday, police estimated the number of paradegoers at 10,000. The narrow storefront of the Olympia club was jammed with fathers and mothers primping their children and putting the finishing touches on their own distinctive costumes: The women in black -- flouncy black skirts and blouses trimmed with fuchsia-and-orange braid, black head scarves printed with cabbage roses in neon shades, black shoes trimmed with gold or silver glitter. The men in black and white -- black knee breeches, white shirts, black vests with all the trimmings -- accented with sashes of red velveteen and long-tasseled stocking caps in the same soft stuff.

This is "a Byzantine tradition," everyday dress back in Olympos but reserved for special occasions in Baltimore, according to Vasilios Nikolaides, 52, a retired electrician for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and a 30-year resident of Greektown.

The 30-person contingent from Olympos made its appearance near the end of the hourlong, 80-group parade. First was Bishop Demetrios of Xanthos, an honored visitor surrounded by black-robed priests and acolytes in gold brocade who represented more than 20 Greek Orthodox churches in Maryland and Virginia.

Then came the floats, painstakingly assembled over a month's worth of nights and weekends in a borrowed Little Italy warehouse. A traditional Greek taverna was represented, then a replica of the Colossus of Rhodes straddling two cliffs, a model sailboat tacking between his gold-painted shins. Then a Trojan horse made of sheets of wood paneling, its belly stuffed with balloons in blue and white, the colors of the Greek flag.

Finally, behind the Baltimore Ravens marching band, marched the hometown contingents, honoring places some of them left long ago and others had never seen.

"This is what we are all about," said Giorgakis. "Our main purpose is to keep our tradition alive."

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