Greektown: The Tourist Attraction
Along with a one-block section of Monroe Street in downtown Detroit is one of the city’s oldest, somewhat-in-tact neighborhoods: Greektown. The tourist attraction is filled with Victorian-era, red-brick buildings that house a mix of restaurants – Greek and otherwise – as well as a host of stores, bakeries and nightclubs. For a generation of baby boomers who grew up in Detroit’s suburbs, the area provides the charming urban streetscape expected in a major American city. It also makes a great place to hang out on a Saturday night, especially now that the neighborhood is also home to the Greektown Casino Hotel and within walking distance of Comerica Park and Ford Field.
The History of the Greektown Neighborhood
As it turns out, the area now known as Greektown wasn’t always filled with Greeks. While the Detroit neighborhood dates back to the1830s, the original immigrants who lived in the neighborhood were German. In fact, the area was originally known as Little Berlin.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that Greek immigrants began arriving in the Detroit area from the southern mainland of Greece. In fact, the first documented Greek immigrant didn’t settle in Detroit until 1890. Once the Greeks started coming to Detroit, however, they settled in the area along Monroe Street between Beaubien and St. Antoine and opened bakeries, coffeehouses, and restaurants, including Demetrios Antonopoulos’ Hellas Café in 1895. (The New Hellas Café finally closed in 2008). Originally, the Greek immigrants lived above their shops or on nearby Macomb Street.
By 1910, most of the Germans had moved out, and the neighborhood was distinctly Greek. This was evident in the coffee shops along Macomb and Macomb Streets filled with men aged 20 to 35 playing a backgammon-like game and/or smoking water pipes. The 250 (or so) Greeks in the area also got together around this time to build the first Greek Orthodox Church of Detroit.
Over the next few decades, the area continued to be known as the traditional center of the Greek community in Detroit. This was true even as new sets of immigrants from Poland, Italy, and Lebanon gradually moved into the neighborhood and Greeks began moving to other areas of the city to live. The Greek businesses remained, however, leaving the area at least commercially Greek.
Keeping it Greek
The Greektown neighborhood was reduced to one block in 1960 with the razing of the Greek Orthodox Church. This prompted the Greektown Merchants to band together to sponsor the first Greek Festival in 1965, a move that helped to further identify and brand the neighborhood at a time when much of the rest of the city was in decline.
In 1985, developers Cordish Embry & Associates transformed several historic buildings along Monroe Street in Greektown into an enclosed mall. The buildings were originally owned by old Traugott Schmidt, who used them as a fur processing center back in the day. Inspired by Faneuil Hall in Boston, the developers created a festival marketplace. The five-story, exposed-brick structure contained five open levels filled with unique retail stores, psychics, souvenir shops and The Fudgery. The atrium was accented with brass and covered with an enormous glass roof.
With fairy lights and street artists, the Greektown neighborhood of the 1990s was all about atmosphere, and the average visitor -- age 34, income more than $40,000 a year -– soaked it up. Some of the businesses along Monroe Street during this period included Pegasus Restaurant, The Hellas, The New Parthenon, Astoria Pastry, Aegean Ice Cream, Simeon Bakery, Athens Bar, The Golden Fleece, The Athens Bakery, The Laikon Café and The Olympia. Then, as is now, St. Mary’s Catholic Church anchored the neighborhood.
Michigan voters gave the go-ahead for three casinos to be built in downtown Detroit in 1996. Out of eleven applicants (including seven companies that operated casinos in Las Vegas and New Jersey), Greektown Casino, L.L.C. emerged as one of the three finalists. Despite the involvement of Greektown Merchants, however, the mayor later announced his plan that all three casinos to be clustered at the city’s riverfront. After several obstacles and delays, however, the city eventually agreed to temporary structures located throughout the city, thus paving the way for Greektown Casino to actually be located in Greektown – in the former Trapper’s Alley property to be exact.
While more political wrangling followed, the city eventually gave up on the riverfront idea in favor of getting the permanent casino hotels up and running in time for the 2006 Super Bowl. The city agreed to amend the original development agreements and allow the three casinos to build smaller, permanent hotel facilities at or near their temporary locations.
Permanent Casino Hotel
Greektown Casino opened its 400-room hotel in February of 2009 at a location kitty-corner from its casino. The two buildings are connected by a sky walkway and take up a sizeable chunk of “Greektown.”
Afterculture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History by Jerry Herron (1993)
Greektown Historic District / National Park Service
This is Detroit, 1701-2001 by Arthur M. Woodford (2001)
Chapter 5: Casinos and Other Legal Gambling / Michigan in Brief (2002-03)
History of Gaming in Michigan / Michigan Gaming Control Board