Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Skokie's Cultural Excursion to Greektown Comes Together Quite Communally

Museum Recap

National Hellenic Museum
Visited February 16, 2013
Main exhibit seen: American Moments

Upon seeing the title of this post, those few raving Sethaholics--a.k.a. insomniacs--who read everything I write may wonder why I have penned a piece about Greektown so soon after posting about a Greek meal I enjoyed at Mykonos (in Niles) as part of my Chicago Dining World Tour.

Well, although my visit to Greektown last weekend included some refreshments at a charming cafe--and an interesting personal twist--this piece is not primarily about food, Greek or otherwise.

Rather it is about culture and community, both Grecian and Skokian.

You see, my hometown and place of residence, Skokie, Illinois, is justifiably proud of the widespread diversity of its population. Each May the village holds a Festival of Cultures at which numerous ethnic groups showcase their countries of origin and cultural characteristics. And each of the past four years, Skokie has highlighted a different culture through the various programs and events that comprise Coming Together in Skokie.

After focusing on Asian Indian, Filipino and Assyrian communities, from January through March of 2013 Skokie is celebrating Greek Culture.

So on Saturday, my mom, sister Allison, a family friend and I boarded a school bus at the Skokie Heritage Museum--along with about 25 other people, at least half of whom seemed to know my mom--for a field trip to the National Hellenic Museum.

Though the museum previously existed on the 4th floor above the Greek Islands restaurant, in December 2011 it opened anew in an impressive building at 333 S. Halsted, designed by Greek-American architect Demetrios Stavrianos.

Chicago has one of the largest Greek populations in the world and the museum is said to be the only of its kind in the U.S. And among much that I learned from Mary, the terrific docent who led our group on a tour (primarily of the American Moments exhibit about Greek emigration and societal contributions) is that the current Greektown--roughly centered around Halsted and Adams--is a few block north of Chicago's original Greektown.

As one-sixth of Greece's people left behind hard times in their home country--sadly, what's old is new again--and came through Ellis Island between 1890-1920, many who made their way to Chicago settled near Halsted and Harrison (and Blue Island Avenue, which no longer intersects there).

In the 1960s, the expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago displaced the Greektown neighborhood and residents dispersed, which is why the current Chicago Greektown is largely a restaurant row, but not a heavily Greek residential community.

The docent, Mary (herself a Skokian), imparted why many Greek immigrants opened restaurants and diners--likely a consequence of coffee shops having been a common gathering place for men in Greece--and how at one point 1-in-10 Greek men in the U.S. owned a candy or ice cream shop.

That's when we learned that one of the members of our delegation was the daughter of the man who--along with his brother, her uncle--invented the Dove Bar (as the proprietors of Cupid and Dove Candies, respectively).

Unfortunately, she hadn't brought any to share.

But after learning about how people of Greek origin have made major contributions in many facets of American life--including within the labor movement, civil rights movement, military, medicine, sports and more--and taking a quick look at small exhibits on the 1st and 3rd floors of the museum (which is still very much in a fundraising/development/growth mode), we headed across the street to Artopolis, billed as a Bakery, Cafe and Agora. (I'll share a few more photos from the museum at bottom.)

I still am not clear if the cafe's owners had a direct connection to any of us assembled, or just graciously offered to feed us, but we were treated to free cookies, spanikopita (spinach pies), loukoumades (Greek donut holes) and coffee/tea.

Though we didn't have a ton of time to spend there, we were also able to order items beyond the compliments. My mom and I split a Smoky Harvest sandwich comprised of roasted vegetables, Provolone, spices and tomato sauce on herbed Foccacia. It was quite tasty.

Artopolis was rather charming and had three mouth-watering display cases of beautiful bakery treats. It also afforded me a minor ego thrill, as from our perch on a loft-like balcony, I looked down and saw a poster displayed in the general vicinity of the cash register.

"I think I took that picture," I uttered to my mom and sister, who didn't instantly grasp what I was referencing.

But at least 15 years ago or so, I wrote copy for the Greektown tourist brochure shown below, as part of a freelance project with a former art director colleague. And while I am not claiming to have done the design, the photo of the main structure shown--the round thing with columns; sorry, I don't know what it's called--is one that I took.

I thought it was a rather odd coincidence, especially as I don't think the poster is advertising a promotion anywhere close to current. But someone must like it, and if I may say so myself, one of the most striking things about the poster--which I didn't know was ever created--is my photo.

Upon comprehending what I was sputtering on about, Allison told a lady at the register that I had taken the photo and had done work for Greektown in the past.

To which she said, "We need you to do it again," albeit not in a way that implied she really wanted to immediately engage me. But Chris Diamond -- the designer who had the original connections -- if you stumble across this, get in touch.

Anyway, even without my own bit of ancient history resurrecting itself, it was a very nice day spent with nice people, learning interesting stuff and eating good food.

As I said to my mom on the bus on the way back, "You can't just spend all your life fiddling around on Facebook and playing Angry Birds."

To which she looked at me, puzzled. I think it was Greek to her.

Some additional pictures from the National Hellenic Museum and the Artopolis Bakery & Cafe:

The fustanella skirt shown at right has 400 pleats, marking the four centuries Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
One of the museum visitors in our group said it really should have had 500 pleats.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not to sound a discordant note, but no way does that particular skirt have 400 pleats, or triangular shaped folds. From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to Greek independence it was 376 years. Of course, the invaders had launched excursions into areas of the Balkans at times before that, and the Greeks weren't the only people who objected. Ask the Romanians. I've seen one reference in a travel book of the 1950's about a fustanella skirt for men having 500 pleats. Sounds nice!