Does The Danforth Have An Identity Crisis?

Nestled between a Starbucks and Holy Name Catholic Church is St. Irene Chrisovalantou Greek Orthodox Church. A former body shop, the space was converted into a church in 1974 in response to members of the Greek community who wanted a place to preserve their culture. However, you would literally miss it in a blink of an eye.

“It’s always been off to the side,” said Katy Haralampidis, 42, whose Danforth experience started in the church.

The church remains accessible to Greeks who live in the area; however, there is a string of disappointment in its lack of structural development over the years.

“I remember going to play with my friends at the church across the street because they had bigger grounds,” said Haralampidis, who takes her son to the church during holidays such as Easter.

“It would have been nice to have a church of a greater visual presence in terms of the Greek Orthodox style on the Danforth,” said Bessie Kambouris, 50, who also grew up in the church.

With the core of the Greek culture plainly out of sight in Greektown, questions as to the preservation of that culture leaves the identity of the Danforth in limbo.

“It’s a hipster-chic Riverdale crowd—it’s quaint,” Haralampidis said.

“It has lost its authenticity,” Kambouris added.

What’s concerning is the departure of Greek business staples and what they have been replaced with. In the last couple of years, Greek restaurant Omonia was replaced by a franchised sports bar; Greek City Music, which sold popular Greek albums, moved to Scarborough; and Friendly Greek, on south side of the Danforth, has been replaced with has been replaced with a sushi bar and a delicatessen.

The identity crisis of the Danforth from an ethnic enclave raises the question of whether the historic neighbourhood really is Greek anymore, and what’s to become of it.

This is a story that Pat McCarthy, who has lived on the Danforth for most of her 70 years, has seen before.

“I’ve seen it change enough times to know that it will change again. The Greeks are moving out and will slowly relocate their businesses like the groups before them,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy moved to the Danforth in 1950, when the shops were family owned by British and Eastern-European families. The area had three movie theatres (one being Allen’s Danforth, also known as the Danforth Music Hall). She has fond memories of times with her friends at Kresge’s and Woolworth’s lunch counters (west of Woodbine). As time went on, Italian grocery stores, bakeries and meat shops started to take root on the Danforth.

“I went away to university, and when I came back, my Italian neighbourhood had turned into a Greek one. It was a total surprise.”

McCarthy, who worked in Little Italy, observed how, over a twelve-year period, it became Little Portugal, which is the same transition we’re currently seeing on the Danforth.

“The flavour of the neighbourhood has changed—it’s becoming more mixed,” she said. The community feeling is still there but the ethnic identity of the Danforth is literally being divided.

The stretch from Chester to Pape Avenues is undergoing a transition away from its Greek identity. Beginning at Logan Avenue, the area becomes “more boutique, catering to the Riverdale crowd,” said McCarthy. East of Jones Avenue is rather Middle Eastern. There is also a rise of Mexican and Japanese restaurants in Greektown.

“I would say the area is being rebranded and recomposed demographically and socio-economically,” said Parastou Saberi, professor of human geography at the University of Toronto. Saberi explains that, with southern-European families moving out of the city, “what has remained, and aggressively being sold, is Greek food, café life, and vibe.”

Although positive about the Danforth’s future, Albert Stortchak, chair of the Danforth BIA, who has also lived in the area all his life, is concerned about the “homogenization of corporate businesses,” which poses a threat to the unique identity of the neighborhood.

“East of Greektown is in the cycle where quirky mom-and-pop shops are emerging. Most importantly: who owns those shops is what defines an area.”

This is a cycle that is in its early stages along Pape Avenue, with newer generations of Greeks opening their own businesses such as flower shops, furniture stores, restaurants and cafes. With a new possible relocation of a Greektown more reminiscent of the one that used to be, the identity of the current one, which Stortchak believes to be more of a melting pot, with the “cultures who lived there leaving a stamp behind them,” remains to be seen.

“It is the community that lives, plays, works and dreams on the Danforth Avenue,” said Councillor Mary Fragedakis of Ward 29 Toronto-Danforth, and a life-long resident of the area.

Fragedakis believes that the Danforth is still Greek, just in a different way. That doesn’t mean that the Greek culture will be erased, but perhaps has the opportunity to showcase its remaining Greek roots.

“Communities respond to that in ways that strengthen and revitalize their culture. Greektown is a community creatively coping with challenges in a way that is true to their roots and their values,” she said.

It’s a cycle that is in the stages of uncertainty, especially for business owners who have to find a way to withhold their own roots and brand.

If anyone knows what it takes to survive on the Danforth, its Chris Christodoulou, 59, restaurant owner of Pan. Since 1979, Christodoulou has owned restaurants on the Danforth. His first was a greasy spoon named Caravan Restaurant. He started making souvlaki and expanded to make it into Mr. Greek in 1981. After franchising within a year, Christodoulou sold it in 1987 and opened Friendly Greek on the south side of the Danforth, again, franchising it with 15 restaurants. After selling that franchise, he and his wife Soula, took over Pan in 2004.

Chris Christodoulou, 59, has owned restaurants on the Danforth for 37 years
(Photo By: Tina Adamopoulos).

“We are afraid of losing our identity.” Reflecting on what the Danforth was and what it has become, Christodoulou said: “What we are missing is ‘mayerika’ food. It is homemade, seasonal food that showcases dishes beyond Americanized Greek fast food.” Christodoulou adapted to the times with fine dining Greek cuisine.

Christodoulou also suggests that Alexander Square, at Danforth and Logan avenues, needs to be more of a ‘platia’ (or town square), with nights where old Greek movies could be played to showcase Greek culture.

“The rate we are going, it’s just going to be another area. St. Clair isn’t really Italian anymore. The same thing is happening to the Greeks.”

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