Detroit - Growing Up Greek American
Review by Willard Manus
Dan Georgakas's MY DETROIT isn't your usual Greek-American family saga, an exercise in nostalgia and reminiscence. To be sure, the author, a distinguished teacher, scholar and editor, looks back on his coming-of-age days in 1950-65 Detroit with much affection and warmth. The only child in a traditional Greek-American household, he came to value his upbringing in the small, tight-knit community on the east side of Detroit. Although he was keenly interested in American pop culture and literature, he did not turn his back on his parents' Old World values.
"We children of immigrants never doubted that our elders were more Greek than American," he writes, "but as we went into the world and interacted with other ethnics and mainstream Americans, we began to appreciate that more of their Greekness had been transferred to us than either they or we imagined. We had always thought of the immigrant generation as unique, but our proximity to them had made us unique as well. We might be undistinguishable from other Americans in terms of dress and speech, but many of us retained a certain cultural distance, a way of looking from another perspective that only children of the foreign-born can have. It would be decades before we fully understood how our two generations had shaped one another, how we had amused one another, how we had disappointed one another, and ultimately how profoundly we had loved one another."
Georgakas's autobiographical portrait is rich and detailed; the family, friends, oddballs, priests, teachers, politicians and businessmen he met in and around Greektown spring to full-dimensional life. Georgakas is also adept at sketching the social ferment and excitement of the 60s--founding a literary magazine at Wayne State University, joining an avant-garde theatre group, demonstrating against the Viet Nam war. But then, in the last third of the book, he changes gears, becomes angry and bitter over the demise not just of Greektown but of Detroit itself.
Georgakas puts the blame for the Motor City's race riots, white flight and urban decay squarely on the rich and powerful: the Fords, Chryslers, Briggs and Kaisers who had created a golden age after World War Two, only to betray and abandon it out of short-sightedness, greed and racism.
MY DETROIT tells a sad story, a tragic story, but the author relates it well and movingly. ($17 ppbk., Pella Publishing Co, 212-279-0586)