The idea of a good life for Irene Siderakis was being able to stay at home with her four children. She got to live that dream until her husband, Christos, died suddenly in April, leaving her to run the 24-hour Williamsburg diner they owned together. Life has a way of throwing things at you, she told me one November afternoon, standing behind the counter. Clad in black, she wore no adornments, save a pair of pearl earrings, and teared up as she recounted Chris’ burial at the Antonopoulos funeral home in Astoria, where the line of mourners snaked around the block. Irene had no time to grieve. Someone needed to take the reins at Kellogg’s, one of the oldest and busiest diners in Brooklyn.
Five years earlier, in 2013, Irene and Chris bought the business from Anthony, Frank and Fotis Fiotodimitrakis, three brothers from Crete that ran it since the 1970s — and who still own the building today. Irene described the day they took possession as the happiest of her husband’s life after the birth of their sons. Chris had co-owned two diners in Queens before Kellogg’s, but this was his first chance to run a business without outside partners. A photo she pulled from her iPhone from the day they took over shows the couple and their four blue-eyed boys standing under the diner’s fluorescent lights, all smiling at the camera.
Kellogg’s was and is a coveted spot. The diner sits at the corner of Metropolitan and Union, two Brooklyn arteries that bring together hungry partygoers, construction workers, lifelong neighbors, hipsters and cops from a nearby station. The diner’s retro blue-and-metal facade in the shadow of a 12-story luxury condo has acquired legendary status in Williamsburg, a mirage from the past amid the neighborhood’s latter day swank. In 2015, a Vogue photographer chose it as a location for a portraits series. The final breakup scene in Girls, the HBO show that is most associated with the gentrification of Williamsburg, takes place in one of its booths.
Kellogg’s is also a remnant of the disappearing all-day, all-night Greek diner. When I first met Irene on a November afternoon, she and the employees spoke to each other in “Greeklish” — the amalgam of English and Greek that is trademark in diners across the country, especially among first generation Greek Americans. Joanna, the 54-year-old manager, who is also Greek, occasionally throws in some Spanish to address one of the Mexican waiters. “I can curse in every language,” she bragged.
The story of diners is a quintessential migrant story, and a testament to the arduous process of Greek integration to the United States. Between 1890 and 1924, nearly a half million Greeks arrived, fleeing poverty and political turmoil in their homeland. While many became cheap labor in mines and railroads, they soon put their kafeneío tradition to work: wherever they ended up, they started cooking meals and selling them to their co-workers. When a factory opened up or a mine was dug, there was a Greek wagon with cheap coffee and affordable food — the seed of the American diner.
Dan Georgakas, a professor at CUNY who researches labor and ethnicity, told me that by 1910 there were thousands of Greek-owned diners across the country. Greeks were not the only migrant group to follow such a pattern: the Chinese also established cheap joints in blue-collar areas. Georgakas explained that the Greeks—unlike the Chinese and other immigrant small time entrepreneurs—were more likely to adapt what they offered to local tastes. Their priority, Georgakas said, was to build a wide clientele. Not only that, he added, but it came naturally to them to do so. “The Greeks had a multicultural history that involved Sicily, Egypt, North Africa, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and the Black Sea,” Georgakas said. “So they had no problem adjusting their menus to other national tastes.” That might explain why today’s diners are as fast to serve a quesadilla as they would a moussaka.
Greek-American success in the restaurant industry, however, did not stem the heavy discrimination they often experienced in the streets and at the institutional level. At first, Georgakas explained, some Southern states classified Greek immigrants as “Oriental,” not European, putting them in the radar of their racial segregation laws. The Ku Klux Klan — which obtained its name from the Greek word for circle, kuklos — often targeted Greek neighborhoods, torching houses and harassing their inhabitants. It was common to see the phrase “No Greeks need apply” at the end of newspapers job ads.
“The only group that was considered worst were the Jews,” Georgakas said.
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Greeks did not establish Kellogg’s, but the diner’s golden years began with the Fiotodimitrakis brothers, who bought it in 1973. Like Irene’s father, they had come to the United States in the 1960s. When they bought it, Kellogg’s was merely a Quonset-like hut, less than a third of its current size. It had been closed for several months; its previous owner, Henry Benter, had shut it down after the New York Daily News included it among 42 New York eateries that had committed health code violations.
However poor was the condition the Fiotodimitrakis found the diner in, the neighborhood wasn’t much better. Williamsburg at the time was riddled with crime, racial tensions and gang violence. “There were a lot of drugs and a lot of prostitution,” Frank, the youngest of the brothers, told me. “It was scary to go to work.”
The brothers remodelled the restaurant several times, eventually acquiring the adjacent tobacco shop, which had belonged to a Sicilian migrant. The last big makeover happened in 2008, when Kellogg’s tripled its capacity and became the more upscale version of itself that exists today. As a neighbor told the New York Times, it went from being a legit “old-school, greasy-spoon” to “a picture of a greasy-spoon diner.”
But when the Fiotodimitrakis brothers reopened it in 1976, old-timers still recalled the days when Kellogg’s was a shack that served workers from nearby factories and a barn across the street. No one knew for sure when the diner first opened, and the official records get murky, but the oldest known photo of the diner dates from 1940, the year the Department of Taxes took a picture of every block in New York for real estate appraisal. Next to the hut is the now-gone cigar shop, which had been owned by an Italian immigrant named Nunzio de Feo, who had been dead for 13 years when the photo was taken.
The de Feo shop, now a part of Kellogg’s, tells yet another story of successful Mediterranean assimilation in New York. The de Feos were a Southern Italian family who settled in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, when the need for cheap labor loosened American immigration laws and four million Italians came fleeing misery in Southern Italy and Sicily. Nunzio was a tobacco trader from Nola, a small village at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius. He and his wife Maria left Naples aboard the SS Palatia on May 1, 1904 and arrived to New York 16 days later. (Fun fact: a year after the de Feos completed their journey, the Russians bought the Palatia, which eventually became a flagship warship for the Soviet navy).
Nunzio’s passport application describes him as a short man with a “high forehead, chestnut eyes, Grecian nose, oval face, chestnut and grey hair, and a dark complexion.” He became a citizen in June 1919, and three months later he purchased the Williamsburg establishment that he would turn into a tobacco shop. In 1924, when he was 57, he applied for a passport renewal to visit his homeland for a year-long trip.
That same year, President Coolidge would impose his migrant quota, which would prohibit millions of Southern Europeans from joining their families in the new land. The Italians who arrived before the restrictions, like the de Nunzios, also suffered their share of discrimination; they were often stereotyped as anarchists, troublemakers and terrorists, and just like their Greek counterparts they were often harassed and targeted by hate groups. In 1891, a mob lynched eleven Italians in New Orleans after they had been accused of killing a policeman. It remains the largest mass lynching in the history of the United States.
Respected scholars such as Edward Alsworth Ross, a Stanford professor who is considered the founder of sociology in the United States, endorsed and legitimized the anti-immigrant sentiment. A classic eugenicist, Ross defended that migrants coming from rural and working-class Europe were genetically inferior to America-born whites. In his book The Old World in the New, he proposed a classification of the intellectual capability of newcomers based on their place of origin. Mediterranean migrants were among the lowest on the scale.
“Steerage passengers from a Naples boat show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skewed faces, small or knobby crania, and backless heads,” Ross wrote in 1914, ten years after Nunzio and Maria descended from the SS Palatia. “Such people lack the power to take rational care of themselves.”
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The image of the bearded hipster invading Brooklyn to shop at Whole Foods and squat cozy overpriced coffee shops has become the punchline for every New York gentrification joke. But long before the word gentrification came into use, the phenomenon was already the force behind the creation of Williamsburg in 1792. That year, a speculator named Richard M. Woodhull bought a patch of land around what is now the block where Kellogg’s stands. He laid out the terrain in city lots and began to sell them. Until then the area had been an amalgam of farms, many of which retained the names of the Dutch settlers who owned them since the 1600s.
Then as now, the changes did not please the earlier residents—the farmers who had cultivated the land for generations. Henry R. Stiles, a physician who studied the history of Brooklyn, described their shock upon realizing that life as they knew it was about to end. “Suddenly, upon the shores of the beautiful river, appeared the nucleus of a village; and, even while they rubbed their astonished eyes, it expanded to the fair proportions of a city,” Stiles wrote in 1854. “The surveyor’s chain ran ruthlessly through their cabbage gardens, with a reckless indifference to time-honored farm lines; and they found that the ancient homesteads, which had sheltered their infancy, and their maturer years, were standing directly in the route of newly plotted streets and avenues, with which the crafty speculator had surrounded them, as with a spider’s web.”
Woodhull named the township Williamsburgh in honor of his friend Colonel Jonathan Williams, who had surveyed the land—and who happened to be Benjamin Franklin’s grandnephew. Williamsburgh was incorporated as a village in 1827, and became part of Brooklyn in 1855, the same year the final ‘h’ was dropped from its name. By then the town had already become home to numerous German, Austrian and Irish immigrants, including many capitalists that established their businesses there and turned it into a fashionable resort.
The plot now occupied by Kellogg’s was probably empty in 1835, when its owner John Skillman sold it to a man named Samuel Benden for $200. During the second half of the 19th century, the block was one of the four corners of an Irish settlement known as “The Green.” Between 1861 and 1890, an Irishman named Thomas Gallagher ran a grocery store in what would become the de Nunzio house. The location however wasn’t very valuable: before the land was leveled in 1892, that stretch of Metropolitan Avenue was a low ground that often flooded. As the German-born historian Eugene Ambruster wrote in 1942, “passengers in the horse cars had to stand upon the seats while crossing this pond, the water often going almost to the horses’ neck.”
The area experienced a demographic shift at the turn of the 20th century. Thousands of migrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe, while many Jewish families switched the overpopulated Lower East Side for Williamsburg after the construction of the bridge in 1903. Among the newcomers were the de Nunzios, who would take a first step into turning the block into a Mediterranean haven.
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Irene’s father, Vassilis, was sitting at the counter at Kellogg’s on a late November afternoon. He had arrived in New York in 1966, only a few months before the coup that would establish a military junta in Greece. The dictatorship made him forget the idea of returning to his hometown in Thessaloniki; soon after, he got caught up in the migrant hustle, working multiple jobs and eventually creating a family. Now that he’s retired, he comes to Kellogg’s every afternoon to help his daughter supervise the diner. “After what happened,” he said, pointing at Irene with a mild head movement, “I don’t even think of going back home.”
Vassilis drew a map of the Thessaloniki of his childhood on a white paper napkin. He recalled now-gone schools and kafeneíos, many of which belonged to Greeks that fled to the Americas — perhaps now the owners of diners along the East Coast. As her father looked at the past, Irene made herself busy with the day-to-day grind, which can get overwhelming but is always better than the void. “I’m probably the only woman who owns a diner in New York,” she said, her eyes wide open, as if puzzled by the randomness of life. “But I can do nothing except going forward.”