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The Spirit of The Danforth

Updated: Feb 24

Summer. A time of year that often stirs up memories and emotions of a different time and place. For some it’s a fully loaded hot dog at the ball park, while for others it’s the sound of the ice cream truck or sunsets at the cottage. For me it’s a couple of blocks on an avenue, a long stretch of street, known as ‘The Danforth’. A place that reminds me of my youth and where I came from.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to watch me during the day sometimes while my parents were at work. She lived in the east end of Toronto, on a side street off Danforth Avenue. Danforth was and currently is known for its Greek culture, stores and cuisine. Back then it was just a village and wasn’t very big at all. In 1993 it was officially rebranded to ‘Greektown on the Danforth’ and my Yiayia’s (grandmother’s) house was less than a three-minute walk to the main strip. Often, while in her care, we’d walk there for lunch. We’d walk up and down the strip bumping into this person and that person. My grandmother was a well-known socialite and she loved introducing me to her friends. I was only 4 or 5 years old at the time but I still remember the smell of flaming ‘saganaki’ cheese and ‘souvlaki’ skewers on the grill as they sizzled. Back then Greek food on the Danforth was authentically real ‘Greek’ food and every meal was served with pride. It was almost as good as eating at my Yiayia’s house. Always prepared with love and care, beautifully presented and never disappointing. In those days, English spoken on the strip was a second language, with Greek its native tongue. Today, street signs remain in Greek (and English) as an indication that the Greek culture in Toronto is strong and has stood the test of time.

For me, the Danforth is more than food and culture though. For me it represents comfort, belonging and a place where the extraordinary history of my forefathers – the Greeks - can be celebrated and remembered.

As a nation, we have much to be thankful for. Each year on March 25, men, women and children dress from head to toe in traditional clothing and proudly march in the Greek Independence Day parade. It has been celebrated since the end of the Greek Revolution, and honours the Greek’s fight for their freedom after being occupied by the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years. I was one of the many first-generation children who took part in this annual event. Hundreds participated while hundreds more stood on the sidelines waving their Greek flags with pride. A flag that represents both our freedom and our faith in Christianity.

When it comes to our faith, Orthodox Christianity has always played a major role and is at the core of everything we are as a people. In 1974, one of the first Greek churches in Toronto was resurrected at the corner of Gough and Danforth Avenue. Today, St. Irene Chrisovalantou Greek Orthodox church is still considered one of the busiest Greek churches in the city. During the day, the doors remain open to the public and it welcomes all. I popped in a couple of times over the last few weeks to light some candles. I’ve been making a habit of stopping by whenever I’m there, which is often. It was nice to see that it hasn’t really changed much and it pleasantly reminded me of all the years I celebrated Easter there with my Yiayia, parents and other relatives. Each year, on Holy Saturday, we would gather at my Yiayia’s house and walk to church in the evening, each of us with our unlit candle in hand. There we’d meet up with friends and family and every other Greek in the city. Together we listened as the priest sang and chanted the holy service. As a child it was exciting. Not only did I get to see my cousins, but I was allowed to stay up way past my bedtime. Just before midnight, the priest would carry the holy flame to the people outside and one by one all the candles were lit. From a distance there was a glow in the sky above the church and as the flames lit the open air, the people began and in unity they sang:

Christόs anésti ek nekrόn

Christ is risen from the dead,

Thanáto thánaton patísas

Trampling down death by death

Ké tís en tís mnímasi

And upon those in the tombs

Zoín charisámenos!

Bestowing Life!

It was a time of hope, love, family and prosperity and it felt magical.

I didn’t know it then but my grandparents and parents were amongst the 12,500 individuals who immigrated to Toronto from Greece during the 1950s and 1960s. After settling in, my grandfather opened and operated a shoe store on Danforth Avenue near Logan. Although he didn’t live long enough to watch it flourish, my mother took over the family business and managed it. The direct ties I have to the strip help to explain why I’ve always been partial to this end of town. Before living in the east end, my husband and I lived downtown Toronto with our two children. Our house quickly got small and the time came to move. It’s been five years since we’ve been east enders and now that we are less than an eight minute drive to the Danforth, it is a place we frequently visit.

For the most part, East York and its famous Greektown are safe to live in. Kids still ride their bikes alone in these parts of the city and with the help of the neighbourhood watch groups (Facebook), residents of the area intend to keep it that way. Nowhere is perfect though. Over the years the Danforth has witnessed some tragic and fatal attacks, with the 2018 mass shooting being the worst, leaving 2 dead and 13 injured. I wasn’t there that night but I could have been. It was no different than any other summer evening on the strip, until it was. My cousin was there. He lives in my Yiayia’s old house and he was finding shelter in an alley not too far from the gunman. A few days after the shooting I found myself amongst the many laying flowers in honour of those whose lives were taken on that night in July. Since then, trees have been planted in the local park in memory of the young girls who lost their lives that evening. Each passing year on the anniversary, a memorial is held and many attend in support of the tragic turn of events of that night. It’s been a few years now since the shooting and although it goes unforgotten, together the community has pulled through and remains strong.

It hasn’t all been tragic though. Greektown has had its share of celebrations too. In 2004 Greece shocked the world when it beat Portugal 1-0 winning the Euro Cup. It was a perfectly warm summer afternoon and I was on a patio sipping on a frappe, watching the game when Greece scored. Immediately the crowds went wild and the noise level turned up 1000 notches. The energy in the air was no longer tense but at ease and truly happy. The skies opened up and there was this incredible downpour. It rained and rained but the people rejoiced waving our nations flag and for miles that’s all you could see. There were thousands of them. What a sight! The Danforth was exploding with people from everywhere celebrating the victory win. The music was blaring and the whistles were blowing nonstop while happy Greeks danced the streets all afternoon and into the night. Many paraded the strip and climbed lamp posts cheering in victory while others dressed as Spartan Warriors and Ancient Greek Gods. It was extraordinary to see. I’m glad I was there!

Witnessing a very special Greek victory on the world stage seemed fitting, as the Danforth itself has evolved beyond its borders and has become home to many cultures from around the world. Over the years many ethnic restaurants and shops have opened up, including Spanish, Jamaican, Mexican, Ethiopian, Hungarian, Japanese and Indian to name a few. This expansion of the Danforth is a tribute to the welcoming nature and work ethic of the brave men and women (including my grandparents) who originally developed this special place. Despite its multicultural evolution, progress and growth, the community remains as friendly and welcoming as ever. For me, Greektown has always been a symbol of opportunity and a beacon of hope.

As the proverb goes ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ and thankfully the Danforth is no exception.

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