How the Greek Precinct Association plans to reimagine the historic Greek neighbourhood as a multicultural strip under Greek leadership.
The signs are still there, maeander-adorned, informing the passersby of the character of the neighbourhood, and so are the Greek names and words on (some of the) shops and restaurants – Karras, Tsindos, Stalaktites …
But the overall Greek presence in the busy area is like the discobole on the facade of the Greek Community building, towering over the corner of Lonsdale and Russel; you may see him, if you tilt your head and squint a bit, but he’s not visible in plain sight.
The slow decline of the ‘Greek Precinct’, which threatens to make the name a relic of the past, has been well documented, as have the echoes of concerned voices for the plight of the ‘historic’ neighbourhood where Greek-owned businesses used to thrive.
Some lament this loss of Greek character, but others are determined to fight back and reclaim Lonsdale Street on behalf of the Greek businesses and celebrate not only its historical Greek presence, but also its current status as an entertainment and restaurant precinct, still under Greek influence.
This is the goal of the Lonsdale Street Greek Precinct Association – to represent the Lonsdale Street Greek Traders, but “over and above, that it represents all the traders in the street”, explains Elly Symons, a representative of the Association’s committee.
“So, anyone with a connection to Lonsdale Street and Russel Street, whether they’re Greek or not,” she says, noting that although the area will always be known as Melbourne’s ‘historic Greek precinct’, there’s no point in denying its current character; in fact, the association is working around it, reimagining it as a ‘multicultural’ strip, with Greeks playing a leading role.
“There’s been a lot of talk about it declining and dying, and we want to say that this is not the case.
“We’re in the process of rebuilding. The precinct is very busy and thriving. There are more stories to tell. We’re looking forward to a new future, a new story that we’re going to be telling, with different layers,” she says.
“The Greek flavour, the Greek theme, will always be there, underlying the area, but now we’re incorporating all these other retail and entertainment destinations, hoping to weave all that together into a vibrant and happening precinct.”
In this endeavour, the Greek Centre is bound to play an active role, being both the point of reference, “a tangible and significant focal point on that corner, that really symbolises the continuing historic Greek presence”, but also as a hub for new Greek businesses.
“Quite literally, there used to be 20 or 30 Greek shopfronts on Lonsdale Street and now we’re down to six or seven,” admits Elly Symons.
“However, in the Greek Building alone we have 15 new Greek-owned businesses. Some of these businesses, mostly the Greek Centre and the language schools, are bringing up to 2,000 people through that centre every week. Whether they are of Greek origin or not, they do come to the building for a Greek purpose, either to listen to a lecture or to attend a Greek event or to learn Greek. So that engagement and activation through that building is the heart and soul of the Greek part of that precinct.”
This fact justifies the concept of the centre being a ‘vertical’ precinct, as it was defined by Professor Nikos Papastergiadis, in one of the first lectures held at the Greek Cultural Centre.
Its director, Jorge Menidis, seems to agree.
“The Greek Precinct is the historic heart of Greek Melbourne. It is also the site of more than 19 million dollars of investment by Greek business. It is a cultural and entertainment hub that will continue to evolve,” he says.
The mandate of the association is not to attract more Greek businesses back to the CBD, although that has happened, after the opening of the new building.
“We do have some control over the tenancies of the Greek building and we encourage other buildings in the area to support Greek tenancies wherever possible, but the mandate of the association is to acquire members and promote the precinct in general as a retailing and entertainment district that is part of the city of Melbourne.”
“We are very excited about the entertainment precinct that has developed in this great part of the CBD, with amazing rooftop bars, restaurants and shopping; it is definitely one of Melbourne’s top destinations,” says Harry Tsindos, president of the association’s committee.
Apart from ensuring the precinct’s current status as an entertainment destination, the association’s secondary goal would be to tell the historic Greek story and to activate as much traffic and engagement as possible, “both Greek and non-Greek”.
For the moment, there is a marketing plan under way and a lot of ideas are being discussed, such as the placement of artwork installations – sculptures and historic markers – in the surrounding laneways, to both beautify the streetscape and acknowledge some of the Greek presence.
Having a Greek point of reference in the Melbourne CBD – which is constantly growing as a tourist destination – is very important, says Elly Symons.
“It’s symbolic of the Greeks that helped build the city of Melbourne and make it the international cosmopolitan multicultural city it has become. We have been here since the 1880s; our grandfathers had the cafes, the oyster bars, groceries, fish shops, they were the foundation of the hospitality industry which is now one of the big success stories of Melbourne. Greek businesses were instrumental in developing retail, hospitality and entertainment. It’s in our blood, it’s our heritage, it’s what we do well and we are still doing it.”