It Takes a Greek Town
The defining moment in the history of Denver's Greek Town passed unnoticed a few months ago, when Takis Dadiotis went to city officials to complain about the sidewalk. The sidewalk was all wrong.
Dadiotis, proprietor of a Greek restaurant on East Colfax Avenue, had already managed to coax one block of streetscaping out of city officials as part of his effort to establish Greek Town, Denver's first officially designated ethnic community. The improvements included trees, pedestrian lights, metal benches and trash receptacles--painted blue, not the city's standard pine-green--and a multicolored Greek key pattern in the sidewalk. But the new sidewalk was gold and white, not blue and white, as Dadiotis had envisioned. This was particularly galling, since it happened to be the sidewalk outside Dadiotis's restaurant--the former Golden Bell Diner, strategically renamed the Greektown Cafe.
Dadiotis was adamant. The sidewalk had to be blue and white. Blue and white are the colors of the Greek flag. They are the colors of the whitewashed village of Santorini kissed by an azure Mediterranean sky, the colors of a sun-drenched Mykonos beach in the warm embrace of the Aegean Sea. The Greektown Cafe is blue and white. The sidewalk in Greek Town had to be blue and white.
"They say, 'Blue and white, that's not our theme,'" Dadiotis recalls. "I say, 'Yeah, but you never had a Greek Town.'"
The city agreed to turn the gold squares into blue ones. That was when Takis Dadiotis--"Taki" to his friends, "Pete" to his customers--knew that Greek Town was really going to be something.
"I do feel it's going to be a second LoDo," he says. "The city is behind us. The city council, the mayor--they were very cooperative. I had a little difficulty with the colors. I have to explain to them: It's marketing. It's something different."
For Dadiotis, the concession was one more step toward the realization of a dream he's been chasing for more than six years, ever since he took over the Golden Bell, practically across the street from another Greek restaurant, Pete Contos's Gyros Place. What would happen, he wondered, if the two Petes could persuade other Greeks to invest in that much-abused stretch of Colfax? Open more restaurants, a grocery, souvenir stands...chase out the bums and the hookers...get the city to put up a few signs...and what have you got? A blue-and-white, flaming-cheese-and-gyros, ouzo-tippling, foot-tapping, worrybead-clacking, money-pumping tourist attraction, that's what.
"I'm thinking more like what they got in Chicago or Detroit," Dadiotis says. "In Chicago, it took forty years to finish it, and it's the most beautiful thing Chicago's got. Now it's the thing to start a Greek Town in Denver. It's a metropolitan city, and why not? Every other place in the United States, they have a Greek Town. Why not in Denver?"
A special designation for a bustling ethnic neighborhood is hardly a new idea. New York City has its Little Italy; San Francisco has its Chinatown; even Columbus, Ohio, has its German Village. What is startling about Denver's Greek Town is that it represents the use of an ethnic label to further economic development along a battered retail strip that has little, if any, traditional association with Greeks or any other ethnic community.
Officially, Greek Town encompasses six blocks between Columbine and St. Paul streets; if you're heading east on Colfax, its borders are fixed by the blue-and-white "Welcome to Greek Town" sign across from East High School and the "Yasou" sign outside the Executive Inn, bidding farewell to the passing motorist. But the current Greek content of Greek Town can be counted on one hand: two restaurants, a bakery and the Greek Social Club, where a few old-timers gather to play cards and backgammon, eat loukamades and wash them down with thick, sweet coffee.
The rest of Greek Town consists of three antique stores, an electronics store, a veterinarian's office, a comics shop, a hair salon, a TV repair shop, a Greek-owned ice-cream shop, a pizza parlor, a Jamaican bakery, an Ethiopian restaurant, a gay bar, an outpatient clinic operated by the Mental Health Corporation of Denver, a postal service center, two houses (one used as a lawyer's office), an office building, a dilapidated motel, an abandoned Red Barn, several other graffiti-bedecked vacant storefronts and a couple of weed-strewn vacant lots. In other words, it's East Colfax, where struggling commerce meets up with desolation row.
For all that, establishing a Greek Town here makes perfect sense, insists Jim Peros, president of the Greek Chamber of Commerce. The Greek presence in the six-block area is actually greater than it appears, he says, since much of the property is actually owned by Greeks and more are thinking about opening businesses there.
Along with the local restaurant owners, Peros's group has spearheaded the effort to win official designation for Greek Town. The Greek chamber claims 200 members, the most visible and influential folks among Denver's Greek-American community, which is estimated to total about 6,000 people.
"We're not excitingly large, but we're pretty active," Peros explains, "and we're getting a lot of interest from various Greek businesspeople. I'm not going to pull your leg; not everybody in the Greek community was for the project. There were some people who were vehemently opposed to it being on East Colfax. But we did some research, and we found that the corridor we picked had more businesses and more land owned by Greeks or people associated with the Greeks, like the Ethiopians, than anywhere else in the city."
Much of the opposition, Peros figures, was merely an expression of "jealousy" of restaurateurs Dadiotis and Contos, both prominent members of the Greek Chamber of Commerce. "I think a lot of it was, 'This thing is only for Taki and Pete Contos,'" Peros says. "Any time you do a project like this, you have the naysayers. We ignored that."
The larger and more indelicate question is not why there's a Greek Town on East Colfax but why the city has chosen to bestow its official blessing on the project--and to spend public money to make it happen, in the form of street improvements and low-interest loans to property owners interested in developing Greek Town.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are an enterprising Lebanese restaurateur in North Cherry Creek. Your place serves the best raw kibbeh this side of Beirut, and your methle (which the Greeks drown in honey and call baklava) is to die for. You have a dream, too, and that dream is to transform East Third Avenue into Little Lebanon and to rename your place the Little Lebanon Cafe. Maybe, just maybe, the city will help you make your dream come true--and maybe the Rockies will win the pennant this year.
But then, Cherry Creek is not East Colfax, and Little Lebanon is not Greek Town. Most important of all, you are not Taki Dadiotis.
When the man they call "the Mayor of Greek Town" gazes out across the concrete expanse of Colfax, he doesn't see just graffiti and weeds. He sees the future: A clean, well-lighted street lined with Greek columns and hungry tourists wandering among souvenir stands, Mediterranean groceries and specialty shops, taking in the floor show at a classy Greek nightclub, and sampling the bill of fare at a wide variety of Greek restaurants--high-end, Santorini-type fish houses, casual lamb-chop-and-gyro emporiums like the Greektown Cafe, even quick-and-easy souvlaki stands. Ask him why no other ethnic group has managed to bring such an attraction to Denver--an Asia Town, say, in the heart of the Vietnamese enclave of South Federal Boulevard--and he merely shrugs.
"Somebody has to start," he says. "Nobody likes to do the work. I started it. The motivation with me is big. The vision is big. I was taking the positive attitude. I'm looking positive."
Looking positive has taken Dadiotis a long way. A first-generation immigrant, he's been involved in the Denver restaurant business for more than thirty years, including the old Lafitte's in Larimer Square and the popular Athenian restaurant of the early 1980s, sometimes working as many as three jobs at at time to support his family. It's not unusual for him to close up his place at 2:30 in the morning and then attend a crack-of-dawn Colfax on the Hill meeting to discuss the future of the strip.
Dadiotis is reluctant to discuss his background, which includes a 1993 bankruptcy in which he claimed to have virtually no assets or income; court records indicate that two months after the bankruptcy was discharged, he purchased a new Lexus worth $63,000. Dadiotis says the filing was a matter of principle, stemming from a dispute with a single creditor whom he refused to pay. As far as he's concerned, it's all so much ancient history, like the Peloponnesian War; his attention is focused on the glory that will be Greek Town.
Dadiotis says he knew the area around East High School had promise when he took over the Golden Bell six years ago. He enlisted Contos in his cause, and the two of them, with the aid of the Greek Chamber of Commerce, lobbied Denver City Council members Ed Thomas and Hiawatha Davis, who soon warmed to the idea. In 1994 the council unanimously passed a resolution recognizing Greek Town as Denver's first official ethnic enclave, but it wasn't until earlier this year that the district was officially dedicated, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by Mayor Wellington Webb. (The Greek community has been generally supportive of Webb's administration, particularly during the 1995 mayoral race, in which Contos was a prominent donor; in addition, Jim Dadiotis, Taki's son, works as a neighborhood coordinator in the city's Planning and Community Development Office.)
To date the city's investment in Greek Town has been quite modest--a $200,000 community-development block grant to fund the street improvements in front of Dadiotis's and Contos's restaurants. Bill Lysaught, deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, likens the project to other streetscaping the city has done on Santa Fe Drive or in the Highland Square development in northwest Denver to help property owners who are seeking to revitalize aging business districts.
"These are areas we've concluded that, without the city playing a catalyst role, it's unlikely that things are going to happen," Lysaught explains. "In most cases, we've been pretty successful."
For all his tireless campaigning, Dadiotis doesn't have much to show tourists yet: a few signs and benches, the soon-to-be-blue sidewalk. But there's more coming, he vows--and much of it will be coming out of his own pocket and those of other property owners. In a few weeks he will begin renovation of his restaurant, closing off the sidewalk patio and putting up a new facade girded by majestic Corinthian columns; the columns alone cost several hundred dollars apiece, and Dadiotis wants fourteen of them. It won't be the Parthenon, exactly, but it will show his customers and his neighbors just how serious he is about Greek Town.
"You have to give back to people," he says. "I do feel like I have good food and good prices. They like it, but they want to see a little more."
The expansion will help the Greektown Cafe accommodate more customers year-round, Dadiotis says. More important, it will help establish a look for other businesses to emulate. Nicholas Antonopoulos, the Greek-American architect he's hired to design the new look, has drawn up similar Hellenistic designs for the facades of various buildings in the district, and Dadiotis hopes to persuade others to renovate their places, too.
"We plan to fix the facades of four buildings by October," he says. "We want something like you see on the old Greek buildings, like in the movies--with the Greek columns, to give identity, to look like a Greek Town."
In addition to the new facades, Dadiotis has been talking to entrepreneurs who are interested in investing in Greek Town; one even wanted to know if the district's eastern border could be extended to Colorado Boulevard. He's working on getting a Greek grocery to take over one of the vacant properties and wants to add a souvenir stand (Taki Souvenirs?) to his own operation so visitors can haul T-shirts and trinkets bearing the Greek Town logo to the folks back home, spreading the word.
Some people, Dadiotis acknowledges, may view his quest as self-serving. But he insists that the economic benefits he may reap from Greek Town aren't what's driving him. He talks passionately about making Colfax a clean, safe place for women and children, about the benefits to the strip and to the city as a whole, about leaving a legacy, something that will help instill pride and a sense of identity in the local Greek-American community for generations to come.
"Everybody wants to do better," he says, sitting on the patio of his restaurant sipping a mix of iced tea and lemonade. "But my vision isn't just this place. My vision is the whole Greek Town. I want to see more restaurants. I love competition."
Still, one of the most tangible accomplishments of the project to date has been a slight increase in the number of bodies wandering into the Greektown Cafe, looking for its namesake municipality. A few months ago the Regional Transportation District agreed to add Greek Town to the list of stops served by its Cultural Connection Trolley, a bus that circulates among local tourist magnets such as the U.S. Mint, Larimer Square, LoDo, Elitch's, the Cherry Creek shopping district and the Denver Museum of Natural History. Out-of-towners in search of Denver's premiere cultural attractions can now include Greek Town in their itinerary and hop off on East Colfax, right in front of the Greektown Cafe. (RTD boardmember Jack McCroskey defends the decision to include the district in the cultural trolley route as an "accommodation" of local business owners. "We didn't have to go out of our way to do it," he notes. "There was no reason not to do it.")
Dadiotis says he's had tourists from Texas, Michigan and New York step off the bus and come into his place. "They want to see the Greek Town," he says. "They ask, 'Where is it?' And I explain it to them: 'It's nothing yet. We're just starting. But be patient. We're working hard, and next year it's going to be better.'"
Pete Contos knows East Colfax the way a shepherd knows his own flock. In his expert opinion, the stretch from Grant to Downing streets falls into the category of "not so good." Ditto the stretch from Monaco to Yosemite. But from Downing to Monaco, things are looking up, he says--and Greek Town is going to make life on the strip even better.
Contos has been in business on Colfax for 35 years. He opened the legendary Satire Lounge in 1962; since that time, he's added Pete's Kitchen, Pete's Gyros Place and Pete's Ice Cream & Coffee to his culinary empire, as well as the University Park Cafe. For several years he also operated a popular Greek nightclub, the Olympic Flame, and his Gyros Place was the first restaurant to introduce Chicago-style gyros to Denver. Over the past decade, he says, the area surrounding his Colfax restaurants has changed dramatically.
"Colfax has been cleaned up," he declares. "I think it's the business owners, mostly. You never see any prostitutes on the corner outside my place. If I see them, they're gone, and Taki's the same way."
Like Dadiotis, Contos is a first-generation immigrant. Except for Taki's trademark suspenders, the two restaurateurs could practically pass for brothers: barrel-chested, laconic, with a fondness for gold chains and pinkie rings. Dadiotis has been the more visible crusader for Greek Town, but it's actually Contos who has more to gain--or lose--from the venture. In addition to the Gyros Place and the ice-cream shop, his holdings in Greek Town include the vacant lot next to the Ethiopian restaurant and a half-block of retail space that he's recently renovated.
Contos talks about building a small retail mall on the vacant lot, housing possibly a market or gift shops; he'd also like to see a Greek-style nightclub, with belly dancers and bazouki music, that would help anchor Greek Town. "You can't put a restaurant in every door," he says. "We'd like to see a lot of different businesses here."
To a great extent, the future of Greek Town hinges on the kind of investment Contos and other property owners are willing to make. Bill Lysaught says that the city won't be putting any more improvements into the district until the private sector makes its move.
"Some people believe a designation like this means instant grants and tax relief," Lysaught says. "But there will not be additional public improvement construction up there beyond the one block if more of the property owners do not commit to the renovation of their buildings, contributing to the Greek Town image. Right now the only approved loan application, the only property we're aware of that's under way, is [renovation of] the Greektown Cafe."
The owners of 60 percent of the frontage of a given block would have to invest in facades and other improvements before the city would consider streetscaping that block, Lysaught says. That's in keeping with the city's policy to avoid trying to "jump-start" economic development in areas where a local commitment is lacking.
"Greek Town, clearly, was the dream of Taki Dadiotis," adds Jennifer Moulton, director of the city's planning and development office. "Quite frankly, we've been working pretty hard to try and bring enthusiasm back to Colfax, and when he came forward and said he wanted to do this, we said okay. I believe it's much better to have a part of town in the hands of the people who are living and working there rather than [their] beating on our door, saying, 'You do this.'"
But, Moulton cautions, future city assistance will depend on how many people follow Dadiotis's lead. "I'm very enthusiastic to help somebody like Mr. Dadiotis," she says, "because then the investments are longer-lasting. But if we try to force it to happen, it's not a good thing."
Contos says he isn't sure whether Denver's version will ever draw the kind of crowds found in Chicago's Greek Town, which recently underwent a multi-million-dollar makeover funded by the city, private interests, and grants from the Greek government. "I don't know if people will come here," he says simply. "It will take a long time."
His doubts haven't stopped him from forging ahead with his own plans for development, but Contos suggests that concerns about the long-term nature of the project may be keeping other members of the Greek business community from taking the plunge. "They'd like to, but people are scared," he says. "They think Colfax is worse than it is."
Dadiotis says his fellow Greek entrepreneurs are playing a waiting game. They want to see what his facade will look like and whether Contos and other property owners will follow suit. "They're waiting to see if it's going to happen," he chuckles. "But I do believe when it happens, it's going to be too late for them to move in."
Peros, of the Greek Chamber of Commerce, has a harsher assessment. "Unfortunately, among the Greek community, there are people who are waiting around to see if there any failures so they can go in and buy it for ten cents on the dollar," he says. "But knowing Pete Contos and Pete Dadiotis, that just ain't going to happen. Realistically, it's going to be a five- to ten-year project."
Dadiotis, though, is champing at the bit; he's a headstrong Odysseus, not a patient Penelope. A few months ago he announced plans for a massive street festival in Greek Town this month that would have involved closing Colfax to traffic for several hours. Although he collected signatures from surrounding neighbors and found overwhelming support for the idea--"Every single person signed except for two, and those two people, anything you ask them, they say no"--he ultimately decided to postpone the festival until next summer in order to have time to secure more corporate sponsorship.
Like Greek Town itself, the festival is a controversial issue in some quarters of the Greek community. Dadiotis had to reassure leaders of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Denver that the event wouldn't compete with their annual festival and bazaar at the Cathedral of the Assumption. But he pledges that next year's blowout will be big--big enough to show the city and the business community that Greek Town can deliver on its promise of good times and ethnic spectacle. He's even talking to the Greek government about flying in a special contingent of the palace guard to parade down Colfax in their traditional white-skirted uniforms.
"I got a big vision for the party next year," he says. "I'm going to give them something they never see anyplace else in the United States." The main attraction, he adds, will be the subject of press conferences and will be talked about in Denver for years to come.
Greco-Roman wrestling? A re-enactment of the Battle of Marathon? A special appearance by Yanni?
"It's not a big secret," Dadiotis says. "I plan to put up about thirty lambs and some pigs, right in the middle of Colfax. Rotisserie. Something they've never seen before, right in the middle of Colfax."
Most of what is being planned for Greek Town is hardly etched in stone--or marble, as the case may be. But the proposed facelift is already raising eyebrows in Denver's urban-design community. Some observers consider the proposal to be a sharp departure from other city-assisted economic-development projects.
"Ethnicizing something that only has a bare hint of it and dolling it up with Greek columns is a little more than they've been doing in the past," notes Christine Ford of the Urban Design Forum. "That's a new wrinkle. It's the theme-park influence on urban design."
"It sounds thoroughly contrived," adds architect David Wise, a former director of urban design for the Downtown Denver Partnership who's served on a number of city committees dealing with design issues downtown and on Capitol Hill. "Whether that's a bad thing or not is open to discussion. I was involved in Coors Field, and there's a lot about that project that's very contrived, but people love it."
Wise notes that immigrant neighborhoods often take on a different look as the new arrivals adapt to American life, but "this sounds like a very different kind of structure. It's not as if we have an enclave, with all routines of life included. If people don't live there and support the full routine of a given culture, then why call it a town?"
Yet the retail revitalization promised by Greek Town, he adds, may make the project worthwhile. His chief reservation about the plan has to do with the degree to which the streetscaping could alter Colfax in order to accommodate private interests. "You don't want to put down one particular group's aesthetic, but I don't understand the public sector's role in this," Wise says. "There ought to be a pretty clear distinction between private property and public right-of-way. The rest can be whatever it wants to be, but when you get out on the sidewalk, it's everybody's business."
Others, though, don't see any downside in planting a patchwork of blue-and-white on the humdrum plain of Denver's main east-west artery. "We think this fits with the eclecticism of East Colfax. We're all for them," says Dave Walstrom, executive director of the Colfax on the Hill business association. "You cannot redevelop a four-mile street, from Broadway to Colorado Boulevard, as one congruous ribbon. You need to pay attention to the culture of individual pockets."
Walstrom sees Greek Town as a welcome addition to the overall renaissance of East Colfax, which has been boosted in recent years by major reinvestment along the entire Broadway-to-Colorado corridor and a declining crime rate. Townhomes and condos are sprouting in the surrounding neighborhoods, displacing aging businesses and run-down apartment houses, and several large projects--such as the redevelopment of St. Luke's Hospital, which will add 800 residential units to the area--will put even more pedestrians on the strip in search of services and entertainment. And while the crime rate continues to fall all over Capitol Hill, the numbers are particularly impressive in the precincts along Colfax--a shift Walstrom credits to increased community policing and the creation of a new police station, District Six, in an area that previously had been bifurcated.
"People are coming back to the city," Walstrom notes. "We're actually fashionable again. That's putting pressure on property owners to make improvements and piquing the interest of banks and developers. I've never seen so many developers wandering around our place as now."
But not every business owner in Greek Town is enthusiastic at having been included in the project. Attorney John Maley practices law out of the house he grew up in at Colfax and Fillmore, a stately red-brick affair that his parents bought in 1919, when Maley was a year old. Maley says he likes all his neighbors, but he's not wild about the special improvement district that was created as part of the Greek Town deal; he says he's been assessed $250 this year to fund and maintain the street improvements the city has made and wonders how much more the project will cost him as it evolves.
"I'd like to sue about it, but I didn't have time to do it," Maley says. "I wrote them a nasty letter about it, but I never got a reply. I think just about every property owner gnashed his teeth when he saw the bill."
Jim Peros says the maintenance district was approved by the Greek Town Neighborhood Association, which originally had members of the Greek Chamber of Commerce serving as interim officers but is now headed by businesspeople in the district, elected by their fellow property owners. "When we had the public hearing on it, there were a couple of people who spoke against it," Peros says, "but by the time the hearing was over, they were thoroughly convinced that everything was going to be okay."
The concept of Greek Town is supported by a strong majority of the businesses there, Peros says, whether they're Greek or not. The owners of the Ethiopian and Jamaican eateries in the district couldn't be reached for comment, but Peros insists that there's room for them in Greek Town, too.
"The term Hellenism means to incorporate all cultures together as separate entities," he says. "We're not trying to change their culture; we want them to be separate but within a part of our culture. We don't want just Greek businesses. We want a multicultural, multiethnic group there to form the Hellenistic community."
Peros believes the greatest challenge facing Greek Town will be the struggle to unite the north and south sides of the street into one cohesive unit that would be attractive to pedestrians as well as motorists. He'd like to see medians built in the middle of the street, blue-and-white islands with benches and trees, that would provide a safe haven for visitors trying to cross the manic thoroughfare. That won't be easy to do; monkeying with the street itself, which is also a state highway (U.S. 40), will involve running a gauntlet of state and local planning agencies.
Dadiotis isn't daunted by such details. He's looking positive, thinking big. Despite the current abundance of parking in the area, he's already working on ways to alleviate the inevitable traffic crunch once Greek Town takes off. He talks about running a free shuttle service from downtown hotels to bring conventioneers to Greek Town; if they go to Contos's place instead of his, so what? The important thing, he says, is to get people to come and see for themselves what's cooking: guys hollering "Opaa!" as they set your cheese on fire, parades of mustachioed soldiers in white skirts, thirty spits of lamb down the middle of Colfax. And when the new facades start showing up and other investors start sinking millions into fixing up the rest of Greek Town, the crowds will just keep growing.
"I don't care if I don't sleep at all," Dadiotis says. "I don't care what I have to do--to a point, you know what I mean. I want to see it happen. I want a history. I want to leave it nice and clean. I'm going to be dead, and the Greek Town is going to stay, and it's going to be booming."
That's taking the long view, of course. But when you're trying to squeeze three thousand years of history and culture into six blocks of Colfax, what else can you do?
Peros says it's important for the Greek community to be patient with the process of "growing" Greek Town; like they say, Athens wasn't built in a day.
"We don't want to put any pressure on anybody," he says. "We want to move this project ahead with a sense of direction and professionalism. We Greeks tend to sometimes get emotionally out of hand.
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