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Chicago’s Greektown shares its stories through the National Hellenic Museum

From marching in the Greek Independence Day Parade to her first date with her husband, Chicago’s Greektown is special to Beth Flessor.

Flessor is a museum assistant at The National Hellenic Museum in Chicago’s Greektown. The three-story museum holds many exhibits, including Reaching for the American Dream: The Greek Story in America. The 36-year-old museum, originally a cultural center in downtown Chicago, relocated to Greektown in 2004.

After its relocation, the center rebranded and launched with a new mission statement: “Connecting generations through Greek history, culture and art.”

“It’s all of our stories,” Flessor said. “The stories I’ve heard up there, my father told me that my grandfather went through when he came over from Greece.”

The exhibit tells the stories of Greeks immigrating to the U.S. through Ellis Island to many cities in America, including Chicago.

Today there are 94.8 thousand Greek descendants in the Chicago area according to the Statistical Atlas. Most Greeks now live toward the suburbs, with the Maine and North Field areas having a higher population at 3.1%.

People from across the country—and the world—come to visit the National Hellenic Museum, which has a large collection of Greek-American artifacts.

Texan Joann Hunt who found the museum through a web search and was visiting Chicago for a weekend said, “I came to see the art, the culture, and religion.”

Flessor said visitors  to the museum often have stories of their own.  One, she recalled, was from Greece and was stationed in Virginia when he came to the museum.

“It made him feel really good that we’re remembering our history of where we came from and how we got here,” Flessor said. “And some of the stories that we’ve recorded here actually because of all the turmoil that Greece has been through recently, sometimes they forget.  So, it’s nice to know that someone here remembers the best—our story.”

The exhibit also has a section on Greektown, a neighborhood which itself has relocated over the years. It originally began near the ‘Greek Delta’ of Halsted Street, Harrison Street, and Blue Island Avenue, locally known as the Deltaibut, but was displaced by the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s just like a little neighborhood. It’s a country within a country,” Flessor said.

Greektown has, however, over the past few years started to change, “we’re getting a lot more development.” Flessor said. She still remembers a time when there were more small businesses around the town.

“Pegasus which just recently closed that made me sad because we had a lot of memories there. I had my first date with my husband [there]. When we got married afterwards we had our engagement party there they had a nice rooftop garden there. And you never went in there without getting hugged and kissed by the owners.”

Freelance photographer George Merelos who grew up in Chicago and visited Greektown often also said the neighborhood has changed over the years.

One of Merelos’s favorite places in Greektown was at Diane’s restaurant, a place that had live Greek music and dancing.

“Every time I talk to people about Greektown I ask them about that place and if they had ever gone because it was just a fun place.” said Merelos.

Despite the recent development the neighborhood hasn’t completely lost its roots, “It still has that Greek flavor and I think the museum helps anchor that.” said Flessor.

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