Greek immigrants bring new life to Toronto’s east end.
In spring of 1966, the once thriving commercial strip along the western portion of Danforth Avenue appeared to be struggling. “The area, universally referred to as ‘The Danforth,’ was the classic Canadian shopping strip of the Nineteen Forties and early Fifties,” reported the Globe and Mail that April. “[The district featured] local merchants in small stores, block after block of them, prospering on neighbourhood pedestrian traffic.” The opening of the Bloor-Danforth subway that February, however, gave local residents easier access to downtown shops, and meant the end of the streetcar service along Danforth, which had previously delivered shoppers to the front doors of east-end businesses. Danforth-based business owners told the Globe and Mail that the subway was “taking customers away from us,” and, fearing that the neighbourhood would go into decline, circulated a petition to reinstate regular surface transit along Danforth. Within a decade, however, the Danforth had reemerged as a popular commercial strip, but as one with a considerably different look and identity.
The decades after the Second World War saw an unprecedented rise in the number of European immigrants to Canada, and to Toronto specifically. In 1960, the Globe and Mail reported that close to 500,000 European immigrants had come to the Toronto area since the war, and that “the city of Toronto, stubbornly traditional, unquestionably British, unopposedly Protestant, shook itself after the chief force of the immigration wave was spent, [and] came to the startled realization that the newcomers make up almost one third of its total population.” Toronto had maintained a small population of Greek immigrants in the first half of the 20th century, estimated at a low four-digit figure prior to the 1940s. For Greece, the decades immediately following the war were marked by considerable political instability, and by 1950, Toronto’s Greek population was estimated at 5,000, rising to 12,500 in 1960.
The Toronto establishment soon noticed the city’s emerging cosmopolitan identity. In the 1960s, the mainstream Toronto press began highlighting the city’s newly prominent immigrant groups and reporting on some of the challenges and community supports (or lack thereof) that existed for the city’s changing population.
As part of a 1967 series sharing accounts of individual Toronto immigrants’ stories, the Telegram profiled Peter Skretas, who had emigrated from Thessaly at age 19, eight years earlier. Skretas had begun work in Toronto as a busboy, and then as a waiter at Barberian’s Steak House, all in the hopes of earning money to help support his family’s grocery store back home. Skretas, the Telegram reported, had managed to send $8,000 home in five years, but his plans soon changed. After learning the restaurant trade, Skretas opened a steak house of his own in Etobicoke, and helped bring two of his siblings to Canada, explaining to the Telegram that he now felt at home in Toronto and no longer planned to return to Greece.
Research by numerous writers indicates that Peter Skretas’ story represents a typical experience for many Greek immigrants in Toronto at this time. In a 1973 research paper, Konstantine Konstantinou observed that many of Toronto’s Greek immigrants in the 1960s were rural-born young men with limited English, and with a “plan of staying for a few years only.” Both Konstantinou and several Toronto journalists also noted the very high proportion of Greek immigrants who entered the restaurant industry. In his 1980 book, The Canadian Odyssey: The Greek Experience in Canada, Peter D. Chimbos notes that “an immigrant could enter the [restaurant] business with a small investment, no academic training, and little knowledge of the English or French language. In was an enterprise where the ambitious, talkative, and hospitable Greek had the opportunity to interact with his patrons, work hard to satisfy them, and become economically successful.”
(Above: Peter Skretas, as seen in the Toronto Telegram, February 6, 1967.)
In 1960, the Globe reported that the Toronto Planning Board was attempting to map clusters of immigrants in the city, to help assess the needs of different neighbourhoods. The Danforth was one of several neighbourhoods at this time identified with a sizeable Italian population; Ukrainian and Estonian pockets were also noted on the Danforth, but the article makes no mention at all of a Greek community in the area. Other articles from the 1960s note the presence of immigrants from northern Greece and Macedonia in several other neighbourhoods including Parkdale, Bloor and Bathurst, Bloor and Lansdowne, multiple stretches of St. Clair Avenue, and a section of downtown immediately east of Yonge, centred around St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church on Bond Street. Many of these neighbourhoods featured Greek-run businesses, day-cares, social and political clubs, and theatres that screened Greek films, but none of these areas were specifically associated in the public mind as being predominantly Greek.
The first hint that the Danforth would emerge as the heart of the city’s Greek community came in 1964, when the Star‘s humour writer Robert Thomas Allen noted the changing identity of the strip, with the growing presence of both Italian and Greek businesses. “Just walking along Danforth now is a broadening experience,” Allen wrote. “Grocery stores with coloured-ribboned doorways are stocked with Bucatini, Perciatelli, Ziti, Fettuce, Lasagna, Risini, Gnochetti, Hermes olive oil, Minerva olive oil, barrels of olives, provana cheese.”
A second Allen column from 1970 proclaimed that “the Danforth has probably undergone the sharpest, most extreme cultural impact of any area in Toronto” noting the presence of Greek, Italian, Chinese, Estonian, and Finnish businesses in the neighbourhood. At Hogan Motors, a car dealership at Danforth and Chester, “the sales staff speak a total of twelve languages. Paul Juttus, an Estonian, who speaks four languages himself, said cheerfully, ‘Some days around here it sounds like the United Nations.'”
Although Allen notes that the Greek population in the area was barely more than half that of the Italian population in the same neighbourhood, it is the Greek character of the area that he singles out. Amongst other businesses, Allen describes the Neraida Club, also known as Harry’s Steak House. “The Neraida] features an Athenian belly dancer, bouzouki music, and a bar that serves the powerful Greek aperitif Ouzo. When things get rolling around one in the morning, an old gent of 84, a regular customer, will likely get up and start circling a girl and doing a dance called the ‘Tsifteteli,’ and a group of men customers will link arms and dance the Hasapiko.”
“It’s no secret that the majority of Toronto’s restaurant workers…are of Greek extraction,” wrote the Star‘s restaurant reviewer Charles Oberdorf in 1971. “It’s surprising, though, to realize that until a couple of years ago few restaurants in the city served Greek cuisine.” Most Toronto restaurants which served Greek food up until this time had presumably catered to a largely Greek immigrant clientele. This changed during the 1970s, with an increasing number of Greek restaurants along the Danforth meriting reviews in the Star and Globe and Mail. Reviewers often felt obliged to describe the nature of Greek cuisine as part of the review, alerting readers to what meats and vegetables would be on offer, with many making a reference to whether or not readers might find the expected octopus on the menu.
Greek emigration continued into the early 1970s, spurred by the 1967 coup d’etat which led to seven years of right-wing, military rule in Greece. Contemporary sources report that greater numbers of Greek immigrants with professional training came to Toronto during these years. In 1973, George Papadatos, representing the Greek immigrant support organization Eastminster Community Services, wrote to the Globe, and indicated that Toronto was now home to 300 Greek university graduates and 30 doctors. Exiled economist and politician Andreas Papandreou temporarily relocated to King City and taught at York University, before returning to Greece and resuming his political career. (Papandreou later served two terms as prime minister of Greece.)
Numerous articles note the lack of a cohesive Greek community in Toronto during these years, with many Greek Toronto organizations affiliating themselves with specific political views, or specific home towns or villages. In his letter to the Globe, Papadatos wrote that Toronto then had 75 different Greek recreational organizations, seven movie theatres, and numerous Greek language newspapers, radio programs, and television shows. Increasingly, it became evident that the city’s Greek community saw the Danforth as its cultural hub. In July 1974, the Toronto Star reported that a group of 400 protestors, about half Greek and half Cypriot, protested Greece’s junta government and its efforts to overthrow Archbishop Makarios. The demonstration started at Danforth and Broadview and “paraded through the predominantly Greek area” before reaching the Greek consulate on University Avenue. “I support Makarios because I don’t want the junta in Greece and because I don’t want the junta interfering in Cyprus,” labourer Jim Tsolatis, identified as a Greek national, told the Star.
In 1976, the Star‘s Warren Gerard claimed the Danforth was now known as “Little Athens,” and had a population of 30,000 Greek immigrants. “On Saturdays, from small homes and above-store apartments in the area [of Danforth and Pape], many of the more than 65,000 Greeks who live in Toronto emerge to walk the streets,” wrote Christie Blatchford in the Globe and Mail. “They walk in families, the women dressed in black, the men flanking the small children, all of whom seem to wear white knee socks and stripped ribbons.”
The English-language Toronto press of the 1970s got more excited, however, by the experience offered by Greek restaurants and cafes in the later hours of the night. “Strangers to Greek ways,” wrote Val Clery for the Globe in 1974, “when they venture after the novelty of Greek food at their normal eating hours of 7 or 8 p.m., are often puzzled or disappointed by the dead emptiness they find in the taverns.” Evening entertainment in most of the city’s Greek clubs, Clery claimed, did not begin until 10, when the Greek musical ensembles, usually featuring at least one bouzouki player, took to the stage, while staff cleared a dance floor.
As early as 1970, the Globe and Mail‘s Blaik Kirby included two Danforth-based clubs in an overview of Greek Toronto nightlife. Kirby included the Neraida at 129 Danforth (noting it had the highest prices and the loudest music of all the city’s Greek clubs), and the Deilina, east of Pape. Kirby writes that the Deilina was the city’s newest Greek club, and describes it as “a long, narrow room [where] the musicians and customers are close together.”
Of considerable interest to Kirby was the phenomenon of plate-smashing. “Most of Toronto’s Greek clubs try to ban plate-smashing now,” Kirby writes, “but at home in Greece it is still a sign of happy excitement, a tribute to a performer who has made a man (always a man, never a woman) forget his worries.” According to Kirby, many of the Toronto clubs would charge for the privilege of throwing plates (as much as $10 per plate at the Neraida), and special, thinner plates were generally reserved for the purpose.
Further east along Danforth was the Odyssey, which, in one Star article, owner Dennis Gergolas claimed was the Danforth’s first Greek restaurant. Val Clery’s 1974 Globe article describes the tavern as being “at the hub of Toronto’s largest Greek locality, near the intersection of Logan and Danforth Avenue, a broad artery of midtown eastwards where most of the stores proclaim their wares in Greek; lamb in the butcher’s stores, red bass and mullet in the fishmonger’s, vivid piles of aubergines and peppers…” By 1976, the Odyssey was one of several Greek-identified businesses in the area catering to more than just the immigrant population; in Gerard’s Star article, “Gergolas estimates that today 85 per cent of his business comes from Canadians, not Greeks.”
At 179 Danforth, there was the Trojan Horse, a coffee shop opened by Nikos Tsingos and his Toronto-born wife, poet Gwendolyn MacEwen. “It’s a coffee house, much like the folk coffee houses of the late ’50s and early ’60s, except that it is devoted to Greek music,” wrote Val Clery. “Not the laiki music of the taverns…but what the young Greeks who come here call Neo Kyma, the new wave of Greek music, deriving from more purely Greek folk music…It’s a gathering place for young Greek radicals, students and writers and musicians, who sit along the benches that line the walls of the long room, drink coffee, talk, and listen.”
(Above: Near Danforth and Pape. The Toronto Star, September 20, 1977.)
Both the Trojan Horse and a second Greek coffee house located near Harry’s Steak House, the Esperides, enjoyed reputations for featuring politically charged music that lasted late into the night. “Unlicensed,” wrote B. Derek Johnson in a 1978 Globe article, “they pay their musicians by serving various coffees at $2 a cup, and despite the price, healthy crowds come six nights a week to hear music that starts at 10 p.m. and continues until 3 a.m.”
Before the end of the 1970s, the clientele of the Trojan Horse was already changing. An article in the Star that year noted that an increasing number of recent Chilean immigrants were now frequenting the coffee house, and that a Chilean ensemble, Companeros, had been playing there regularly for the past year. “The remarkable quality of the Trojan Horse is the universality of the audience,” wrote reporter Krystyna Hunt. “Latins, Greeks, leftists for sure, but also stock-brokers in three-piece suits, grandmas and grandpas from suburbs, office girls, gays, and Jewish housewives from North York sit at the same tables, chatting amiably.”
In a 2005 research paper, Jason Hackworth and Josephine Rekers note that while the data is incomplete, the number of Danforth-area residents speaking Greek or otherwise identifying as Greek had declined by the end of the 1970s, and continued to do so over the subsequent decades. The number of clearly Greek businesses in the area, however, increased, from just over 5 per cent in 1970 to over 20 per cent in 1990 and 2000.
In 1986, just a few months after their first apparent use of the term “Greektown” to describe the Danforth, the Toronto Star noted that the neighbourhood was now associated with “yuppies”; Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates referred to the “Danforth yuppifcation” a few years later. The local Business Improvement Association (BIA) had a stretch of the Danforth officially rebranded as “Greektown on the Danforth” in 1993. “We wanted to give the area a true identity,” BIA chair Andonis Artemakis told the Star at the time of the neighbourhood’s rebranding. “Artemakis,” reported the Star‘s Tony Wong, “said the [BIA] has hired an urban planning firm to convert the area over the next few years into a slice of the Mediterranean.”
Additional material from: Peter D. Chimbos, The Canadian Odyssey: The Greek Experience in Canada (McClelland and Stewart, 1980: Toronto); The Globe and Mail (June 23, 1960; September 9, September 10, September 11, 1964; April 29, 1966; February 26, November 28, 1970; October 20, 1972; February 27, March 7, 1973; December 7, 1974; January 4, 1978; May 19, 1979; November 20, December 20, 1980; February 4, 1989); Jason Hackworth and Josephine Rekers, Ethnic Identity, Place Marketing, and Gentrification in Toronto, Research Paper (Centre for Urban and Community Studies, University of Toronto, April 2005); Konstantine Konstantinou, Greek Immigrants: Their Cultural Background and Problems in Acculturation, Qualifying Research Paper (Curriculum Department, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1973); Lorne S. Miller, Our Danforth: One Hundred Years of Memories (Lorne Miller & Associates, 2008: Toronto); Noula Mina, Homeland Activism, Performance, and the Construction of Identity: An Examination of Greek Canadian Transnationalism, 1900s–1990s, Ph.D. Thesis (Graduate Department of History, University of Toronto, 2015); Elizabeth Gillan Muir, Riverdale: East of the Don (Dundurn, 2014: Toronto); Barbara Myrvold, The Danforth in Pictures: A Brief History of the Danforth (Toronto Public Library, 1979); Barbara Myrvold, Historical Walking Tour of the Danforth (Toronto Public Library, 1992); The Toronto Star (February 19, October 2, 1964; July 23, 1966; September 13, 1969; April 18, October 10, 1970; May 1, 1971; March 12, July 17; 1974; February 24, 1976; September 20, 1977; December 27, 1979; June 8, 1980; March 21, June 16, 1986; June 4, 1993); The [Toronto] Evening Telegram (April 2, 1955; February 6, 1967); Toronto 200 Community History: Greek Community (Toronto Historical Board, 1993); Toronto Planning Board, Plan for West Danforth (1967: Toronto).
Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Did you like this article? Do you love Torontoist? Support articles like this by becoming one of the first Torontoist subscribers. Get great perks and fund local journalism that makes a difference—join Raccoon Nation now.