Culture  My big fat Greek exodus

One family's experience of cultural transformations in Parc Ex

No one was all too surprised when my cousin Ann-Marie married a Greek. Although predominantly Irish, my mother’s side of the family all grew up in the Parc Extension neighbourhood of Montreal. In their opinion, Parc Ex was a fantastic place to grow up in the late 70s and early 80s. As my cousin Tommy notes, “Every alley had a hockey team!” Yet few remnants survive of the largely Greek, family friendly neighbourhood.

Greeks used to own most of the commercial property on Jean-Talon between Acadie and Parc, though only a few Greek businesses exist there today. Most of my family members have moved out of the area, and only cousins’ weddings and their children’s baptisms have brought us back to Koimisis Tis Theotokou Orthodox church on St. Roch. Parc Ex lives on in laughter, or, “Hey, bro, remember that,” times, but never in PX itself (local lingo).

My experience of the Greek lifestyle in Parc Ex, in a few words, is free shots of Sambuca, tzatziki, and that confusing circular dance to what I am certain is the same song playing over and over. Picture My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but with an urban attitude… and cigarettes. Needless to say, growing up in the same neighbourhood, my family naturally made Greek friends whom they have kept today. Yet why the exodus? Where did they go? I called my newly-Greek cousin, Ann-Marie Georgousis (née Holmes) to find out.

“Well the Greeks weren’t smart. They wanted to be better than where they were,” she opined. “They couldn’t afford TMR [Town of Mount Royal], they couldn’t afford Côte Saint-Luc, and the housing in Laval and Chomedey was cheap.” Laval promised a home rather than an apartment, which the Greeks prided themselves on owning. By 1985, most had bought single-dwelling bungalows. As with many European ethnic groups in Montreal, when one went, so did all the others. Housing obviously played a significant role, considering Parc Ex has always been a lower-income area for new immigrants.

The Greeks were not by any means the first immigrant population to fully inhabit Parc Ex. During the first half of the 20th century, Parc Ex was made up of Italians, Greeks, Jews, Poles, and Germans, immigrating to Montreal with little money. By the 1950s, the neighbourhood was a thriving, predominantly Jewish community, but eventually this demographic also dwindled. One can still find a Jewish mortuary and a kosher bakery, but little else. The Greeks moved in to take their place, but, like the Jews, have also moved on.

Interestingly enough, the significantly Jewish Outremont neighbourhood seems to be on the same track. Yet why did the Jews leave Parc Ex? Tension between the Jewish and Greek communities had something to do with it. My cousin’s husband John told me that many Greeks felt the Jews resented their presence in the neighbourhood. It seems as if this neighborhood is founded on periods of racial tension and consequential geographical shifts rather than ethnic harmony, despite being so emblematic of the “Canadian mosaic.”

As for the Greeks, “there is no polite way to say it. The Haitians and Pakistanis moved in, and Greek racism took to Laval,” says Ann-Marie. Previously, Parc Ex was one homogenous neighbourhood where “everybody knew everybody. Each section had its own bakery, its own dep…the guy at the store knew who you were and knew what you wanted,” she continued. John said that the majority of Greek women stayed at home to care for the kids and thus the neighborhood was kept safe. Simply stated, “you didn’t have to worry.” Yet despite having faced anti-Greek sentiment in the 1950s, the Greeks themselves were suspicious of incoming migrants. As soon as the properties were paid off, housing was sold to poorer immigrants and by the 90s the Greek community had started to leave.

The current Greek population is comprised of the older generations who continue to enjoy the cheaper housing and central location of Parc Ex. “With such accessibility to the metro, major highways, and the Jean-Talon market, the location is golden,” John remarked. A few markets do remain, and for the older populations the quick walk to the store or to church holds great significance. Also typical to many European immigrant families, children who don’t marry don’t necessarily move from their parents’ homes.

Greece lives on in the bakeries and churches that still line St. Roch and Ogilvy, but uneasily so for those who remain. As I walked around and spoke with some elderly people (assuring them first that of course I was a Parc Ex-er myself), I honestly expected some angered racial slurs but was met more with a nostalgia for what once was. They feel abandoned by those who left and pretty pissed off. Language barriers made for some difficulty but the Greek “Moutza” hand gestures said it all – gesticulating with both hands with palms down clearly conveying insult.

Yet this exodus may have been inevitable. A huge influx of Greeks appeared in Montreal post-World War II, but immigraton levels have dwindled since then. Essentially, no more Greeks are coming – instead, Middle Eastern and African populations are growing rapidly. This is why my cousin John believes that from now on, “the neighbourhood won’t change.” With so many cultures represented within only a few blocks, the area will never again be so homogeneously populated by one nationality.

Migration northward is now a growing trend among students and artists seeking cheaper rents and alternative architecture. Parc Ex now reflects not only a multiplicity of nationalities, but also of social and economic strata. Who can tell what the future will bring for neighborhoods like Parc Ex, with Montreal’s very transient population and simultaneous influx of immigrants? The new demographic is in danger of pushing rent prices up, especially in such a desirable location. From what I can tell, Souvlaki is soon to be hip.