With a rich cultural and architectural legacy, Greektown boasts one of the last surviving Victorian-era commercial streetscapes in downtown Detroit and has been a traditional center of ethnic retailing that has served multiple communities in its 190 year history.
The area that today is known as Greektown was first developed by German immigrants in the 1830s. Narrow two to four-story Victorian storefronts were originally developed as neighborhood businesses, uniquely fashioned to emphasize service for the bustling retail district. The original cornerstone of Old St. Mary’s Church, the third oldest Roman Catholic parish in Detroit, was laid in 1841. This was later replaced in 1885 by a grand church built in the Pisan Romanesque and Venetian Renaissance style. Today it remains one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the City of Detroit.
While the neighborhood was primarily German during this period, other ethnic groups also called the area home. African Americans settled in the area known as Black Bottom, where the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park is today. The Second Baptist Church was established in 1857, and is the oldest African American church in all the Midwestern United States. It played a pivotal role in the operation of the Underground Railroad. The first Jewish synagogue was also established in the area during the same period.
Vestiges of industry in pre-automobile Detroit can also be seen in Greektown today. The enormous Traugott Schmidt and Ferry Seed Warehouse complexes on the south side of Monroe Street in the district harken to Detroit’s fur trading and industrial history. Several building additions from the growth of the Traugott Schmidt Company in the 1850s through the 1920s occurred and adaption of the behemoth in the 1980s transformed the complex into “Trappers Alley,” a highly successful commercial and retail adaptive reuse. Today the complex is the home of Greektown Casino-Hotel. A block down, the Ferry Seed Warehouse box factory annex is a reminder of Detroit’s nineteenth century seed industry for the D.M. Ferry Seed Company. Built in 1891, it’s now the headquarters of Greektown Neighborhood Partnership, and houses many other businesses and dining options such as Fishbones Rhythm Kitchen Café.
By the early twentieth century the neighborhood had become increasingly multicultural. German immigrants began to move out of the neighborhood into areas further from downtown, and between 1905 and 1910 the ethnic makeup transitioned from Germans to Greeks seemingly overnight. Through the help of Theodore Gerasimos, the first documented Greek immigrant to Detroit in 1890, newly arrived Greek immigrants began moving into the neighborhood and established businesses. Greek-inspired flourishes and details were applied to the German-built commercial buildings, carrying on a tradition in the neighborhood of thoughtfully customizing facades to suit business needs and celebrate cultural history. This tradition carries on today. In the early years, Greektown was not only a business district, but a residential area as well. In fact, for many it represented a complete community where one could work, reside, shop, entertain, and pray. Coffee houses were abundant where many sipped strong Greek coffee, played Tavlie (backgammon), smoked the “nargileh” (a water pipe) and talked of home.
Changing land use patterns have also been an essential part of the evolution of the neighborhood. By the 1920s, Greektown was becoming primarily commercial – most of the Greek immigrants moved out of the area, but restaurants, coffee houses, boutiques, and small groceries remained. Detroit Police Headquarters was also in the district for 90 years, housed in the 1923 Albert-Kahn designed building at 1300 Beaubien. Over the next three decades, Polish, Italian, Lebanese, Mexican, African Americans, and some Greeks occupied what little residential spaces were left in the neighborhood. During the 1950s and 1960s, much of the neighborhood was razed, including the Greek Orthodox Church, to provide sites for downtown parking and institutional buildings.
Realizing that Greektown’s heritage was in danger, the city's Greek community banded together to hold the first ethnic festival in 1965. Business owners realized that what made their block of restaurants and shops significant was that it was distinctly Greek. As sports and convention facilities opened downtown over the next several decades, the area transformed to support the eating, drinking, and parking needs of event goers.
Today, many tourists and residents of Detroit flock to Greektown to experience the vibrant dining and entertainment district. As the changing landscape of Detroit evolves, Greektown has an exciting future as the eastern gateway to downtown.
The neighborhood has two National Historic Districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Download below)
For more information about the history of the Greek community, please visit the The Hellenic Museum of Michigan.