Greektown walking tour illuminates Danforth history

Inspired by the Greek Independence Day parade, the tour attracted a healthy turnout last weekend

March 25, according to the Julian Calendar followed by the Greek Orthodox Church, marks the Feast of the Annunciation. On that day in 1821, the Greeks began a long revolt against the ruling Ottoman Empire. The Greek Independence Day parade on the Danforth inspired Myseum of Toronto to organize a free historic walk through Greektown last weekend.

Myseum is an organization dedicated to engaging people with local history projects around the city. The Greektown historic walking tours were hosted by Chris Grafos, Professor of history at York University and co-founder of The Greek Canadian History Project. The tours ran twice each day last weekend and were well-attended, attracting curious passersby as the tour progressed along the Danforth from the Pape Library toward Broadview Avenue.

From their first arrivals in nineteenth century Canada, many Greeks, like other non-Anglo immigrants, seldom celebrated their cultural background publicly. Greek neighbourhoods were scattered around Toronto, centred around the Danforth for a few decades before many of the residents moved to the suburbs.

Sometime between proving themselves distinguished allies in the Second World War and the start of the Independence Day Parade in the 1970s,  Toronto’s Greek community was embraced as a cultural force reviving Danforth Avenue businesses. Danforth became the largest Greektown in North America at the time, but many left the area for suburban locales.

The first stop at St. Irene Orthodox Church further north on Pape was followed by a stroll to the heart of the community, Alexander the Great Parkette. The prominent bust of Alexander the Great was donated by the Pan-Macedonian Community of Toronto in 1990. There have been tensions between local Greeks and Macedonians, which have occasionally erupted into non-lethal physical violence, Grafos said.

Throughout the tour, Grafos’s assistants held up large historic pictures of the Toronto Greek community, which came from the Clara Thomas Archives at York University. The images depicted everyday life and holidays. Some ceremonies have disappeared, possibly for the better. In the 1960s one such practice included having a priest throw a crucifix into Lake Ontario, with the promise of one year’s blessing for whomever could retrieve the item. One must remember how polluted the lake around Toronto became — nobody swam at city beaches for decades, Grafos said.

After Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in 1973, many Chileans came here, and there were a few Danforth coffeehouses to cater to a mix of politically charged Greek and Latino Torontonians. Greece was in the final stages of its last dictatorship, and the two exile communities had some common ground.

The “boite” culture origins of Danforth nightclub singers (from the French term “Boite a chanson,” meaning “song box”) saw Greek folk music replaced with more political singers and an occasional blending of Greek and Latin music styles, as was the case with local band Companeros at their regular spot, the Trojan Horse Coffee House.

The historian Grafos discussed other aspects of local Greek history, such as former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou’s time as an exile here, teaching at York University.

Grafos also suggested that one reason Greeks gravitated toward the restaurant trade was not so much a love of preparing food as making the most of limited opportunities. Many Greeks who came here in the decades following the war were unskilled rural people who didn’t speak English, he said, so starting out as a dishwasher could enable one to scrape together enough money to start their own restaurant.

The tour concluded on Broadview, with Grafos taking attendees’ questions. That the already full tour was augmented by random people joining in speaks to its appeal. This summer, Grafos is working on a tour documenting one of our city’s low points: the 1918 anti-Greek riots.