Astoria’s Greek community celebrate independence with two events

By Bill Parry

With hundreds of visitors from Greece in town for last Sunday’s annual Greek Independence Day parade on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, Astoria held two special events on Saturday. First a street co-naming for a longtime leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church followed by the unveiling of a new statue in Athens Square Park.

In conjunction with the commemoration of the 194th anniversary of Greek independence from 400 years of Turkish-Ottoman control, Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) and state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), the first Greek-American to hold elected office in New York, had the state Senate and Assembly adopt a resolution proclaiming March 2015 to be Greek History Month in New York.

Members of the Greek military and government, and a dance troupe from Anatolia College in Thessaloikjoined hundreds of Astoria residents

for the unveiling of a bronze statue of Sophocles, the final piece of the Athens Square Park project.

The seven-foot sculpture of the playwright, by neighborhood artist Chris Vilardi, joins a bronze bust of Aristotle, a sculpture of Socrates, a statue of Athena and the three fluted Doric columns that form the granite centerpiece of the park. Greece’s Presidential Guard made the trip from Athens and stood at attention in traditional military costumes in front of the columns as past and present community leaders and elected officials praised Dennis Syntilas, the driving force behind the park’s creation, who died in January at the age of 85.

“It’s too bad Dennis couldn’t be here to see his dream come true,” Gianaris said. “He made so many sacrifices not just for this park but for the Greek community and all the immigrants who made their way here over the decades.”

The former Speaker of the City Council, Paul Vallone, Sr., who represented Astoria from 1974 to 2001, said he was the first to contribute to the fund-raising efforts for Athens Square.

“Thirty-two years ago this was nothing but an empty space where kids were up to no good,” he said, “until Dennis had this dream.”

City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) watched as a young man as Syntilas’ “grand vision” unfolded. “His efforts to make Athens Square Park a reality, navigating through all the government agencies along the way, he wouldn’t give up and now it is an iconic part of the Astoria landscape,” he said. “I’m sure he was with us in spirit.”

Earlier Saturday, most of the throng at the park was part of a standing-room-only crowd that packed into St. Catherine and St. George Cathedral, the Eastern Orthodox Church at 22-30 33rd St., to celebrate the life of Iakovos. As the leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America for 37 years, from 1959-1996, he was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders in Selma in 1965.

State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) called the archbishop a “symbol of courage and conviction” not just for the Greek-Orthodox faith but for all Americans.

“At a time when many were silent, the archbishop marched against hatred and oppression,” Simotas said. “It is truly fitting that we honor him ahead on the 50th anniversary of the archbishop and Reverend King’s civil rights march on Selma.”

City Public Advocate Letitia James praised the archbishop, saying, “He was not afraid to stand up for what is right and to cross bridges and break down walls.” The large gathering left the cathedral and marched through a snow squall to the corner of Ditmars and 33rd Street, now called Archbishop Iakovos of America Way.

“It’s an honor to be part of renaming this street after Archbishop Iakovos, who was the spiritual leader on a national level and a cornerstone of the Greek-American community,” Gianaris said. “It is fitting that a street will now bear his name in a neighborhood that benefitted so much from his work to make the world a better place. I hope this street will inspire future generations to follow the exemplary way in which he lived his life.”

President Jimmy Carter awarded Iakovos the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. He died in 2005 at the age of 93.

“He was a man who brought people of all faiths together,” Constantinides said. “The values that he stood for go way beyond 33rd Street. Now all of the passers-by who come to Astoria will know his name.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

More from Around New York