By Mary Sinanidis
The very first Greeks to have settled in Footscray early last century may be forgotten in time. They were mainly working-class people in search of a better life, helping each other adjust to their new home. By post-war, the suburb was bustling with Greekness, and this is the focus of the suburb’s latest mural, Hidden Hellenism, unveiled on Yewers Street on Saturday, September 9, thanks to the efforts of the Greek Youth Generator (GYG) who used graffiti art to pay homage to the early Greeks of the once gritty, now gentrified, inner city suburb of Melbourne.
Bouzouki player Thomas Papadopoulos – one of the faces of Footscray depicted in the mural – told The Greek Herald, that Hellenism once thrived here. “There were around 80 Greek-Australian businesses in the area. But the kids grew up, got educated and left the businesses of their parents,” he said, remembering his own restaurant-reception hall which he ran with his brother Lazaros and brother-in-law George in the 1980s.
Gina Hasapis, daughter of Olympic Hot Doughnuts van owner Nick Tsiligiris, said her father was very focused on his children getting an education, going to university, progressing. He is featured with his grand-daughter, lawyer Anthea Hasapis, on his lap, as he holds a tray of doughnuts. GYG’s Peter Giasoumis approached Anthea to have her grandfather featured on the mural, and the family agreed.
Many locals remember Nick’s van operating outside Footscray station for 40 years. It was so popular that when the Regional Rail Link project caused many shops to be demolished, public outcry from local residents ensured that the van would remain open. Gina remembered visiting her father in Footscray on a Friday night with friends and family. “Who wouldn’t want to be the daughter of the doughnut van owner? There were always free doughnuts, especially for the children.”
She told The Greek Herald she felt “emotional” seeing her father featured on the wall two years after his passing.
Passing the baton
The mural of the well-known faces of Footscray during the suburb’s height of Hellenism is aptly featured on the wall of Conway’s Fishing Trading, a business handed down from Con Goulas to his son Dimitris. “When we heard Dean (Kotsianis) wanted to create a mural in Footscray but was having trouble getting permission, we offered our wall,” Dimitris told The Greek Herald.
“I’m the young fellow at the back, behind my mother who passed in June, with my father beside her. I was 21 at the time, and my son looks just like me on that wall. I’d come here every Saturday and during school holidays to help my father and two uncles, and gradually, as the business got larger, I started working here full time in 1979 after I left school.”
In the 1980s, the business expanded, and the family bought other buildings around Yewers Street, a popular Footscray thoroughfare. “Now there are bars here, and Footscray is experiencing gentrification. We’re the last business in an area that was once all industrial. In the past, undesirable people would gather here at night, but now we no longer have break-ins as there are people all over the place. And I live in a high-rise down the road.”
Con Goulas, the founder of the business, was moved to see the work, a tribute to Greeks like himself. He told The Greek Herald that it wasn’t always easy and there was a lot of hard work put into the business. “We worked from morning until night, six days a week. The seventh was for God,” he said.
Father Stergios Patsouris from Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Footscray offered his blessing at the official unveiling. He said that these days the parish is not as full as it once was. Built in 1952, the church is frequented by the remaining Greeks and Father Stelios is happy that young Greeks were keeping the faith, language and traditions. He rushed from the blessing of the mural to take his grandchildren to their dance classes.
Pontiaki Estia’s dancers were present to pay homage to the Club’s years in Footscray. Chris Kanteler remembers learning Pontian dances at the Club in Footscray when he was just five, a passion that continues to this day. His love affair with his wife, Connie, also blossomed at the Pontiaki Estia after they met nine years ago. She is now the group’s treasurer.
Litsa Athanasiadis pointed to the dancers depicted in the mural. “My girls!” she says, before introducing me to her daughter Madeleine.
Relationships and perspectives
Young and old gathered at the launch, sharing a banter, revelling in camaraderie.
Dean Kotsianis, who heads the GYG, said it took two years to create the project. “You couldn’t rush the friendships we created, you couldn’t rush the arrival and good conversations that we had and ultimately the shared vision. Deep community consultation and the hands-on involvement that we offered were the cornerstone of success of what we’ve done,” he said.
For urban planner George Mellos, also a GYG member, the work is particularly interesting in the way it “changes people’s perspective of the laneway”. He said that working with other members of the GYG, each coming from different spheres, was particularly exciting. “It’s really great that we have common interests and passions so when we come together, we can present projects like this. This wouldn’t have been possible without community engagement.”
The generations mingled at the laneway, but not resting on their laurels. Already discussions are underway for another mural, known as the Oakleigh Project, featuring the history of Hellenism from Oakleigh station. Stay tuned!