My parents moved from bustling, multi-cultural Brooklyn to the all-American Norman Rockwell-ish town of Hillsdale, New Jersey, when I was almost five. I grew up there with my Mom’s side of the family (Pappas/Papagiannakos) who lived nearby, but we didn’t get back to Brooklyn very often to see my Dad’s side (Kostakos).
My Dad (Andrew) had four sisters; only two are living: Aunt Georgia Kostakos Doukas, and Aunt Alice Kostakos. Last Sunday, these two aunts and three of my cousins gathered at Aunt Georgia’s where we shared a lot of memories.
My cousin, John Stakis, and Aunt Alice share a two-family home that my grandfather, John Andrew Kostakos, built in Brooklyn. Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy flooded the basement of that house and everything was lost — including many family photos. John mentioned seeing one with my grandmother and my father when he was 2 years old, standing in front of a kiosk that my grandfather had just opened in Coney Island. The year was 1919.
I was stunned, as I have not one photo of my father (Andrew John) as a child. John took a picture of this photo when he returned home, and sent it to me. What a treasure!
The story behind this photo is a huge surprise to me — something I had never heard previously. Aunt Georgia related that my grandfather had initially gone to Lowell, Massachusetts after he “got off the boat” at Ellis Island. His older brother, Vaselios (William or Bill), who was the first to emigrate to America, was living there and John went to join him. Aunt Georgia referred to Lowell as “the hub” of the Greeks in the U.S. in the early 1900’s. But this hub did not appeal to John and Bill. The brothers left Lowell and went to Brooklyn. There is a contradiction to this part of the story: my father had told me “when my father first came over in 1899 through Ellis Island, he had a hard time finding work but he got a job at General Electric in Pittsburgh. After a short time, he left because the work wasn’t steady. In the morning, men would line up for work and the foreman would pick out the ones who would be able to work that day, and the rest were sent home. My father then made his way to Brooklyn and began working as a fruit peddler. He and his future brother-in-law, Peter Stavracos, peddled during the day, and at night they shared a furnished room with other men.”
John sold fruit from a push cart and after some time, he opened a stand, like a kiosk, in Coney Island in 1919. Unfortunately, that was the summer of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit system (B.R.T.) train strike that paralyzed mass transit in Brooklyn and its surrounding areas — including Coney Island.
I found an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 19, 1919, about the ending of this strike. August 19 is the end of summer, and the end of tourist season. For three months, there were no trains, no tourists, and no income for the vendors. In a stroke of bad luck, John went out of business, bankrupt.
This devastating incident convinced my grandfather that he would never work in a business where conditions beyond his control would determine whether he would succeed or fail. He eventually opened his own seafood restaurant in Brooklyn which was a successful venture.
This story has my head spinning for a couple of reasons. First — this was the first time I ever heard that my grandfather was in Lowell, Massachusetts. He and his brother, Bill, eventually went into the restaurant business. I’m thinking that the factories and mills in Lowell were not to their liking, which is why they headed south to Brooklyn.
Second, I know that my grandfather was a brilliant businessman. He owned a thriving restaurant in Brooklyn and invested in several real estate properties, both in Brooklyn and on Long Island. He made enough money to provide for himself, his invalid wife, and his daughter for the rest of her life. Hearing of this difficult and rocky start in his new homeland has given me even more respect for his determination to achieve the “American dream” and make it a reality for himself and his family.
What a tremendous legacy of perseverance and fortitude. Thank you, Papou.