Living The American Dream In 'Little Athens'
Olimpia Hangiaris was a small girl, her uncle was kidnapped by
marauding pirates – Turks who tore through her small Greek village
of Pily. Her uncle was returned to the family for ransom, but not
before his captors cut off his ear.
as a young woman, joined other villagers in a resistance movement
against Italian Fascists and Nazis who arrived with occupation troops
during WWII, to take over Pily.
statue of Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, stands strong in Athens
Square Park in the Greek
neighborhood of Astoria.
Photo by Ira Cohen
villagers hid in caves atop mountains that surround the village, where
they assisted resistance forces – and watched in horror as the enemy
burned the town to the ground.
left Pily in 1947, headed for the U.S., where she would join her
brother and seek the American dream. She brought with her few material
things; but she possessed a strength, determination and the
willingness to make a better life in “the land of opportunity,”
settled, shortly after she arrived in New York City, in Richmond Hill.
By then a new bride, she quickly settled into the fabric of the
borough, with its many cultures and ethnicities. She was one of
thousands of Greek immigrants who would carve a lifestyle in Queens,
in neighborhoods where the scent of souvlaki now fills the air, where
signs reading “Elliniko” (we speak Greek) are as common today as
corner street signs.
and her husband, Theodore, raised three children in Queens – each of
whom inherited their mother’s determination to succeed. Her son,
Angelo, is a professor of history at Hunter College. He is in the
process of publishing his first book on American History, and is
credited as an expert on the subject, Hunter officials said. A
daughter, Effie, is an officer with the New York State Court System,
and a third daughter, Eleftheria, was just appointed principal at P.S.
78 in Long Island City – the “City Lights” elementary school
located within the Queens West development at Hunters Point.
Home In Astoria
age 81, Hangiaris now lives in Astoria, near Eleftheria – also known
as Terry Delis, wife of CB1 District Manager George Delis.
food stores line the streets of Astoria, where a large Greek population
continues to thrive.
Delis is a vibrant, intellectual, street-savvy Queensite – always on
the go, a soft spoken woman of purpose. She attributes her success to
a legacy of hard work handed down to her by her parents.
live in Astoria because this is where we want to be,” Delis said.
“I feel very lucky to live in a place of opportunity where dreams
create success stories.
is a port of call for everyone who dreams of success – a better way
is one of 30,000 Greeks who currently live in Astoria. Many children
of Greek parents who settled there in the 1960s have chosen to move to
Whitestone, Bayside and other eastern Queens communities. But they
come home, Delis said, for holidays, celebrations – and to stay in
touch with the largest Greek community outside Athens.
history of Queens’ “little Athens” began in 1927, with 16
newly-settled Greek immigrant families.
Cafe in Long Island City is one of many Greek restaurants that fill
the streets of Queens.
Photo by Ira Cohen
were the ‘pioneers’ of the Greek community in Astoria,” said
George Zachariadis, Community Manager of St. Demetrios Cathedral.
“Those families worked to raise funds to build a Greek Orthodox
Church in the area. They were only able to raise enough funds to lay a
foundation, and build the church basement,” he said. “And for the
next 13 years, members of the Greek community in Astoria worshipped in
1940, with the help and generosity of a growing community, the church
was completed, Zachariadis said. The church was renamed St. Demetrios
Cathedral in 1985, he said, “…in honor of the oldest Greek
American community in Queens and Long Island.” Today, St. Demetrios
is the centerpoint of the Greek community in Astoria, with an
elementary school established in 1958 and a high school, which was
opened in 1980.
are now more than two dozen Greek Orthodox Churches in Queens, helping
to preserve the rich culture and history of Greece for everyone living
Principal Terry Delis (left)
and her mother, Greek immigrant
Olimpia Hangiaris, have made
a successful life in Astoria.
Hangiaris was named for Mount Olympus, which sits like a great
warrior, overlooking her village of Pily. When she arrived in the
U.S., Hangiaris’ first name was misspelled by immigration officials
– who refused to correct the error.
“So she has remained Olimpia,” Delis said. And while the
original Olympic games were held miles away from her birthplace,
Hangiaris has always shared a special link with the history of the
games because of her name.
principal of P.S. 78, Terry Delis may soon be in a position to bring
her mother’s “link” to the Olympics full circle.
New York City is chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games, the Hunters
Point area in Long Island City – particularly the Queens West
Development – will play a pivotal role in hosting athletes and other
participants. And Terry Delis will be in a role through which she can
educate and inspire youngsters at P.S. 78 with the rich history of the
is one of many second-generation Greek Americans who have achieved
success through hard work.
recently elected its first Greek American to public office. Michael
Gianaris, an Astoria resident, fought hard for and won a seat in the
New York State Assembly in November 2000. Today, Gianaris serves
almost 200,000 constituents from his offices on Ditmars Boulevard in
Astoria. Italians, Hispanics, Asians and Greek Americans seek his help
and counsel on any number of issues.
Astoria Greek community is a classic New York story,” Gianaris said.
“It is a story of immigrants coming to this country, working hard
and making a better life for their children than they had
parents, Nicholas and Magna, arrived in Astoria with their children in
the mid-1960s from Kalavrytha, Greece – a town where Nazi occupation
troops killed almost every adult male during “the biggest Greek
massacre of WWII,” he said.
parents came here with limited knowledge of English, they worked hard
and got to a place where they are now represented in the New York
State Assembly by their own son,” Gianaris said. “Hopefully, the
success we have had is only the beginning. Hopefully, we will see
other young sons and daughters of immigrants follow in our
who is a product of the Queens public school system (P.S. in Richmond
Hill, Van Wyck J.H.S. in Briarwood and Richmond Hill High School),
graduated from Hunter College and headed to a job at P.S. 45 in South
Ozone Park (District 27), where she taught first and second graders.
estimated that she has taught more than 1,050 students in her career.
She said it is “very gratifying” to live in the same area as these
students – who are now lawyers, teachers and other professionals.
meet on the street,” she said. “And while many of these students
moved out of Astoria at some point, they are now returning to the
said the area’s cultural and educational opportunities often
encourage the twenty-something group to “come back home.”
have P.S. I, the Astoria Museum of the Moving Image, The African
Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park, the Noguci Museum – and it’s all
located at a stone’s throw from Manhattan and its opportunities,”