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History > General History > The Greek Peddlers of New York City. Part Eight.

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submitted by Steve Frangos on 12.10.2006

The Greek Peddlers of New York City. Part Eight.

Steve Frangos, c. 2006

Contact, Steve Frangos

The late historian and folklorist Helen Zeese Papanikolas once told me of a conversation she had with Theodore Saloutos. Professor Saloutos was the noted American historian who had written, among many other books, the landmark study, The Greeks in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964). When Helen asked Saloutos why he had not included more on Greeks in the labor movement he told her that he never wanted to present anything “that would give the Greeks a bad name.”

Dr. Saloutos was not alone in his avoidance of detailing American labor history. Nevertheless by omitting known historical facts we only get a flawed version of our collective heritage. Without a full knowledge of our collective past, whatever it may hold, we are inevitably unprepared for the accusations of non-Greeks when it comes to our history, culture and collective nature.

We also miss the every day reasons that Greek immigrant’s sought to take direct action. As Dan Georgakas has stressed the establishment of AHEPA was not to have a Greek social club such as the Elks or Kiwanis rather it was like the NAACP to rally collectively against oppression. Yet somehow Greek Americans have kept the shell of this historical experience but not the core substance.

Louis Tikas, the Cretan-born American labor leader, is an international hero of the Progressive movement. Known as one of the ‘Martyrs of Ludlow’ many Greeks in the American West know nothing of this man or when they do they reject him as a mindless radical. Tikas and other Greek immigrant workers were struggling for a fair wage, safe working conditions and health care. How radical does that sound to you? Why would Greek American community leaders ignore or side against this man?

A close review of the unvarnished past offers us the very foundations of our collective experience. The Greek peddlers did not get off the streets because they were driven off by unprovoked attacks. As we have seen, in one news accounts after another, the Greeks held their ground. These men choose to move on when they were assured better pay elsewhere.

The Fakirs of Old New York

Native New Yorkers, or those who claimed that title, soon came to call all the new street peddlers, “fakirs.” Fakir is a Persian word for a Sufi or Hindu holy man. This Thousand and One Nights image when used sarcastically, as it was among New Yorkers, meant a near naked or dirty street beggar whose ‘holy chants’ were his street calls, which announced the peddler’s wares. It was also a way to dehumanize the immigrants. A way for one class of people to demean another.

What drove Greeks from street peddling, violence aside, was first the Depression of 1893 and then the Panic of 1907. The Depression of 1893 was the worst economic crisis to hit the United States to that point. While much has been written about the causes of this first major Depression in the end “over 15,000 companies and 500 banks failed (many in the west)…About 12% - 18% of the workforce was unemployed” at the peak of this Depression ( Many Greek peddlers in New York City left their pushcarts behind and sought work in the mill towns of New England. The Greek community of Lowell, Massachusetts recognizes the 1893 Depression as bringing many new Greek immigrants to their region.

The Panic of 1907, the fourth in 34 years, also was a turning point for the Greek laborers. The Federal Reserve System was inaugurated to coup with the evolving economy. Greek immigrants scattered to better paying jobs where ever they might be found. Causation, something not often discussed in American high school textbooks, can well be understood when we know of these sever economic depressions. Is it any wonder that Greek labor agents had so much influence among the general Greek population at this time? As Helen Papanikolas has stressed more Greek immigrant workers were living west of the Mississippi River before World War I than anywhere else in the nation.

The Greek peddlers of New York City may have been simple fakirs to the native-born Americans but when the waves of massive bank panics came every five to ten years these immigrants, recognized when others didn’t, to seek other means and places of employment.

Still in all fairness to the America in which all the new immigrants entered, not everyone openly feared, mistrusted or attacked the ‘greenhorns.’

The American Way

It’s hard to fool a native New Yorker. They have eyes and ears and could see for themselves how the street peddlers and all the newly arrived immigrants were being treated on a daily basis by the police and other city officials. Gradual recognition that the old laws concerning street peddling have become obsolete became self-evident. Self-regulation by New York City officials of the corrupt police, aldermen and judges took some time but did in fact occur.

It speaks volumes that the average American often responded faster to help the new arrivals than did the city’s official power structure. While unprovoked attacks against the newly arrived foreigners was a daily occurrence it is also true that gradually and without thought the average New Yorker began to step in and aid their fellows in distress.

Here are three selected news accounts. One account reports on the actions of a nameless trolley car motorman, the other on a rich lady, and the last of a judge.
Many ethnic Greek immigrants had difficulty retaining their names in North America. Persons identified as “Greeks” in the newspaper articles I have read have names such as ‘George Thompson,’ ‘Jean George Seizel,’ and even ‘Peter Schultz.’ In other news accounts the Greek’s name is not spelled the same from one paragraph to another. In the following story a man by the name of “Tolasian” is identified as Greek. For those aware of such things “Tolasian” is an Armenian name. Please do not write me and say I have misidentified an Armenian for a Greek. Peter Schultz “was vehement in his declaration that he could not sing “Die Wacht Am Rein” when mercilessly teased to do so by city police (New York Times September 27, 1903).” It is also more to the point that the police and the original readers of this article thought Tolasian was a Greek, whatever the case may be.

“Pressing a Columbus Avenue surface car [trolley car] into service George Tolasian, a Greek peddler, last night chased three boys who according to the police, were trying to steal the wagon, which contained more than $1,000 worth of fancy rugs….The peddler said the boys drove away in his wagon while he was delivering some rugs in a house on 115th Street. Tolasian boarded a south-bound car on Morningside Avenue and told the motorman that three boys were running away with his wagon. The motorman turned the controller and put on all speed. Reaching Columbus Avenue, it sped on without making any stops to take on passengers. At 104th Street the [trolley] car caught up with the wagon, which was going rapidly. The would be thieves were quickly gathered in (New York Times October 23, 1906).”

On the night before Christmas 1907, we learn that “[S]eeing Steliananos Papageorgiou, a Greek peddler, knocked down and run over by a cab at Sixth Avenue and Thirty-Third Street last night, Mrs. Paul La Croix of 275 Central Park West jumped from her automobile, and finding tat the man had been seriously injured, ordered him placed in her car and taken to the New York Hospital. Mrs. La Croix and a policeman accompanied the peddler, who was found to be suffering from contusions about the body and possible internal injuries…At the hospital it was said that the injured man would probably recover (December 25, New York Times).”

Not every judge was against the foreigners, many supported the law and or common sense. “Magistrate Hogan has clashed with James Banks Reynolds, Secretary to Mayor Low, and acting head of the License Bureau in the City Hall. When two Italians were arraigned before the Magistrate in the Tombs Police Court yesterday charged with peddling without licenses, the Magistrate looked annoyed. This annoyance grew as the policeman explained to him that the foreigners often, after obtaining their first citizenship papers, apply for licenses, but are kept waiting several days before they obtain an audience and then have to wait several days more before it is determined whether they can peddle or not.

“What difference does all that make, said the Magistrate. “There is no reason why licenses should be given to some and not to others. There are business men in this city who never have become citizens, some of them never having even taken out first papers. It is an awful state of affairs for these men who are seeking to make an honest living. A few years ago, the man who is giving out the licenses at the City hall acted as a champion of these poor people. Now things have changed. The men are discharged.

Mr. Reynolds was pained deeply when he heard of the happenings at the court, and said he firmly believed the Magistrate had exaggerated matters…”There was a time when graft may have helped in this bureau…but that long ago died out, and now we have established a system under which we believe such a thing is not possible. We have found that the Italian and Greek peddlers impose on us, and that the padrone system flourishes among the pushcart men, all of which we have sought to break up. Our object has been to enforce the law, and that alone (New York Times August 14, 1903).”

The history and experiences of the Greek peddlers who sold their wares in New York City from 1880 to 1911 is not a story with a sound-bite finish. It is a cautionary tale. The case can be made that Greek immigrants fought for basic rights and public recognition up to World War II as a direct causal consequence of these earlier attacks. Learning why these attacks took place and where we now stand collective in this country is the project for a lifetime of reading and reflection.

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