In Astoria, Queens, the far-away financial crisis in Greece is a local story

On the streets of Astoria, Queens, where signs are in Greek and English, there are no whiffs of tear-gas, but passions run high. Despite words of blunt criticism, many wonder how they can help.

By , Staff writer

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    A protester walks in front of a burning vehicle in Syntagma square, central Athens, Wednesday. While protests erupt in Greece, Greek Americans in the Astoria neighborhood in New York City worry about their relatives back in Greece.
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For Americans not tracking the plight of financial markets, the scenes of rioters and tear gas in Athens, not to mention the whole issue of restructuring an entire country’s debts, may seem a long way away.

But, not for the residents of Astoria, Queens, where storefronts have names in Greek and English.

Greek-Americans are glued to television sets showing the shifting political events in Athens. They talk at coffee shops and bemoan how relatives are having a rough time. And, many of the 1.38 million Americans with some Greek heritage are scratching their heads, wondering if there is anything they can do to help.

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“The current situation has galvanized a lot of discussion among individuals and organizations about how Greeks can be of assistance,” says Dean Sirigos, a reporter on the National Herald, the main newspaper for the Greek-American community in the United States. “Greeks have a very entrepreneurial spirit.”

Although they may want to help, they are also not afraid to be critical of the Greek government or their friends back in Athens.

One of those who is critical is Jimmy Theodoridis, owner of Astoria Fishery. He still has a house in Greece even though he has lived in America for 35 years. As he watches over commerce at his store, he says the Greek people don’t like to pay taxes. “They have to understand, they have to pay into the system,” he says.

Mr. Theodoridis says the rioting in Athens will not deter his wife and children from traveling to Greece next week. “I’m far more worried about their driving on the roads over the weekend,” he says. “The way Greeks drive on the weekends,” he says, indicating this is not something for those not used to white knuckle experiences.

Across the street from his fish store, a group of retirees are drinking coffee at Lefkos Pyrgos, which has tables arrayed on the sidewalk outside. John Papadopoulos, a retired contractor, says he expects times to get “terrible” for his relatives living in Greece. With all the cutbacks in pensions and salaries, he wonders, “how are they going to survive?”

But, a friend of his, Haralambos Gatzonis, a retired electrician, says the cutbacks are good. “They are spoiled,” he says of the Greek people. “They thought everything was easy.”

Mr. Gatzonis says he is glad the crisis appears to be resolved for the moment. “It’s been very stressful,” he explains as he sips his coffee.

Another retiree, Dimitrios Psomostithis, who worked as a ship’s steward, says “corruption is everywhere,” a problem that must be resolved if the nation is to dig its way out of its problem. “People have big houses, they have two or three cars, and then they tell the Greek IRS they don’t make any money.”

On a table outside of Taverna Kyclades, waiter Giannis Drakopoulos, recounts how only 150 Greeks in an upscale part of Athens told the tax authorities they had a swimming pool—something that could be taxed. “Someone did a Google earth search and found there were a couple of thousand,” he recalls.

Drakopoulos says he can directly relate to how tough it is going to be since he has a relative who is an electrician in the Greek Air Force. His wage has gone from 1,300 Euros a month to 950 Euros. “You really can’t take from the normal people,” he says. “The average person in Greece is poor.”

At the same time, many Greek-Americans think the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou needs to get tough. Mr. Sirigos says that in a recent survey by the National Herald, 91 percent of respondents said the Greek government should fire redundant workers. Only 2 percent were opposed.

Apparently, one way many Greek-Americans think they can help is to book flights to Greece to enjoy one of the sunny isles. Dimitra Sarabalis Tarazonas, manager of the Astoria branch of Homeric Tours, says business has been good. “People love their country so much,” she says.

Sirigos says some Greek islands have been reporting a 10 percent increase in business this year. “The numbers have been up until the last few weeks,” he says.

While some Greek-Americans may be planning vacations, many on Wall Street are just relieved there appears to be some sort of resolution, even if it’s only temporary. On Wednesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 72.73 points.

“It looks like the financial markets have settled down,” says Fred Dickson, chief investment strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon. “Now the markets can focus on what’s going on in the US to see if we are going to emerge from this slow stretch.”

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