Melbourne embraces multi-culturalism like few other cities on earth. When you find yourself wandering the streets of an area settled and loved by southern Europeans, the tell-tale signs are always there. The trees and shrubs do more than look pretty; they give something back, whether it be lemons, oranges, lavender, or rosemary. The houses recall the mansions of the old world, yet in a respectful, understated way. And the locals meet at the local shopping strip, share a moment, then shuffle off on their way.
These scenes present a sense of subtle exoticness and adventure that you can more than just see – you can almost smell it. Olympia Kariss’ COVID interrupted project to capture the stories of Yarraville’s past has been simmering for a while, and we now finally get to enjoy the fruits of her labour of love with the release of her book Yiasou Yarraville – from Heartache to Heroes. Derek Green spoke with her recently.
What inspired you to collect this history?
There are several reasons behind my motivation to document the history of our Greek community. I grew up in Yarraville and feel that this place will always be a part of me. Whenever I walk around or travel though Yarraville or the Footscray area, I feel that I’m truly at home. The demographic of Yarraville has changed significantly since I left in the late 90s. Now there are young people and their families enjoying the cafes, eateries, trendy new stores, the cinema, and parklands. One thing that has remained the same regardless of these changes is an ongoing strong community spirit.
What are your own memories growing up in Yarraville?
I often see residents stop in the main shopping strip, along Anderson or Ballarat Streets, for a relaxed and friendly exchange with other locals. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and my family would stop to chat with people that they recognised. And while the people in the ‘70s worked in blue collar jobs and spoke a different language, the interactions and their sense of community are undeniably the same.
When I meet Yarraville newcomers or catch up with friends for a movie and a bite, many people are surprised by the detail of my memories of the Sun Theatre and the shopping precinct. For instance, some are surprised to know that the Sun Theatre was owned and operated by Cosmopolitan Motion Pictures during the ‘60s up until the early ‘80s. Back then it was a single screen cinema and just about every weekend the 1,000 plus seats were filled by members of the Greek community. People were drawn to Yarraville from places as far as Albert Park, Sunshine and Port Melbourne. The cinema screened two movies every weekend; the first to be screened was the latest Greek film featuring a popular actor or singer. Films made in other languages such as Indian, English or French always included Greek subtitles for the audience. The Greek community loved the drama, dancing and intensity of the Indian movies, and many people recall leaving the cinema with tears in their eyes.
When did this collection of stories start to feel like a book?
It was during these conversations and hearing the memories of others that I decided to investigate this part of our local history. I soon discovered that there was very little information publicly available. During one of my conversations with Carmel Taig from the Footscray Historical Society it was suggested that I approach Maribyrnong City Council to find a way to rectify this gap. Gaining a community grant certainly gave me the confidence to proceed with my vision.
How did you come into contact with the storytellers?
During the months of January and February of 2020, I distributed flyers and questionnaires to the three main Greek clubs and organisations within the municipality which included two church communities as well as the elderly Greek citizens club on Fehon Street. I also set out to engage with older residents, my target audience, by attending a few of their weekly community gatherings. At these forums, I introduced myself along with my plan to record and document their history and to emphasise why it was so important. Armed with handouts and my contact details, these residents were encouraged to speak to their family, friends, or neighbours about the ways they may become involved. The Greek Australian newspaper, Neos Kosmos, placed a few stories about this project in their newspaper and online platform which gave the project much more momentum within the community. The messages appear to have gained the interest of the Greek community all around Australia. One person, now living in Adelaide, contacted me to share their fondest memories of growing up in the Yarraville centre during the ‘60s as well as some shocking aspects of our history.
Fortunately, several residents approached me and said that they wanted to be involved before the first COVID-19 lockdown. I later visited several people in their homes, acquiring permission to use family photographs, and images of memorabilia as they conveyed their stories. Many conversations were conducted over the phone or via email, with the support of tech-savvy family members.
What topics did their stories encompass?
The book contains twenty previously unpublished stories of Greek residents: their work, lives, and pastimes across a seventy-year period, beginning in the ‘50s and reaching up to the present day. Contributors shared stories of their hardships, successes, griefs, and joys of how they made a new home, enriching our cultural heritage and changing their local community.
You limited the number at 20 pieces – how did you choose?
My editor and publisher, Lyndel Caffrey, has extensive experience in researching and documenting local histories. During one of our earliest conversations, she suggested that I aim for around eight to twelve stories. Once I began talking with the locals, I found so many varied and colourful stories that it was difficult to stick to only twelve. There were several other stories that I would have loved to have followed up with and included in the book. Some families said that they didn’t want to tell their story, others said that they would have liked to, but their family member(s) had passed or were unable to contribute due to serious illness.
I’m sure you can’t name a favourite, but pick one for us that stood out
Each story is unique and holds local historical significance. Some stories discuss how several local institutions were established: St Nicholas Church, the Greek Schools, ‘Greek’ cinema, and Glory Football Club. ‘Mimi’ Charisiades also shared her story of how she became the first Yarraville Branch librarian within our municipality including images of the programs she implemented for Yarraville Primary School students as well as the immigrants working in several local factories.
Some stories delve into the history of several well-known local traders such as Manoli Vourvahakis and how the next generation of his family put Yarraville on the map with Andrew’s award-winning smallgoods. Rosie Didolis, importer and an entrepreneurial businesswoman, owned and operated several businesses and attracted shoppers to our precinct from all parts of Melbourne.
I feel privileged to have met so many wonderful and amazing people. Each story is different and heartfelt. Through this community project I’ve learnt so much about this part of our history. It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite—one story can’t be compared to another.
And some of the stories actually come from well-known local families?
At the top end of Anderson Street, the well-respected Malamas cake shop catered to the sweet tooth of not only locals, but to Melbourne’s hospitality industry. The second generation of the Xanthis family have brought us the Alfa Bakehouse, in Yarraville and Seddon. The fourth generation of the Amanatidis family continue their family’s legacy with Eleni’s Kitchen and Bar. Thomas Papadopoulos, musician, and part owner of the Old Athens Greek Tavern, shares his experiences of Melbourne’s Greek entertainment industry. The much-loved Fred Maddern, and previous mayor of Footscray, recalls his fondest memories of the Doxa soccer club (now Yarraville Glory FC), and participating in Greek cultural celebrations and visiting the coffee houses, or Kafenia, in Ballarat Street.
There are stories from several talented and notable people including Ana Kokkinos, internationally acclaimed film director, who grew up in Yarraville and shares how she has drawn inspiration from the ‘70s landscape of the area. Poet and writer, George Athanasiou, shares his impressions of the same era through his work. Several images accompany the story of an international heavyweight wrestling champion, Alex Iakovides, who operated a large coffee house and upstairs reception hall in Ballarat Street. Peter Yiannoudes, part owner of Cosmopolitan Motion Pictures and the Sun Theatre, describes how the cinema was acquired and has shared his collection of fascinating memorabilia. Calliope Kwas talks about her experience of growing up Greek in Australia and how she challenged social expectations and broke down cultural barriers to become Victoria Police’s first Greek woman police officer.
Do you still see plenty of Greece’s heritage in the area now?
That’s a very good question, in fact, on the cover of my book you will notice there are four Corinthian columns. Some people think that this picture was taken at the Parthenon or another historic Greek site but it’s actually a photo of the Footscray Town Hall portico, built in 1936!
When I was deciding on a name for my book, I asked my readers and several members of the community for their suggestions. Although I had several ideas of my own, none of them seemed to capture the essence of my book. One day I received a call from Deb Force from the Sun Bookshop and when she said, ‘Yiasou Yarraville’ I knew that was it. Ellen, who works at the Sun hears ‘Yiasou’ throughout the day from the patrons greeting one another at the café next door. Yiasou means both hello and goodbye—coming and going, just as the Greek migrants came into the area and are now slowly departing. After reading my manuscript, Michael Clarke suggested ‘From Heartache to Heroes’ which I felt conveyed the personal growth and the lifelong journey of the contributors. I feel that there is a Greek presence that lives on in the municipality, such as the ongoing legacy of the Glory Football Club, the Greek inspired food, cafes and eateries and through the events, rituals and educational activities of the St Nicholas Church as well as the Holy Trinity in Footscray.
This year, Dean Kotsianis and the Greek Youth Generator are exploring our municipality’s hidden Hellenism. I’m really looking forward to seeing the outcomes of this project as are many others.
What are your favourite things about Yarraville and the west today?
Although I feel a sense of nostalgia and I miss seeing the familiar faces and store owners that I grew up with, I love the energy and the new personality of the Yarraville shopping precinct. I love the cafes and restaurants and I’m blown away with the transformation of the Sun Theatre! This suburb may be relatively small, but it has so much charisma. Yarraville was recently voted as one of the world’s trendiest suburbs, but I’ve often described it as a boutique suburb. My favourite homes are the period styles, especially Edwardian. It pleases me immensely to see street landscaping and period homes beautifully maintained and renovated in keeping with the area.
Where can our readers find a copy?
Well there is a book launch which has been moved to the Yarraville Branch Library for the end of August. As that gets closer your readers can check the Maribyrnong City Library website upcoming events page. In the meantime you can find the book at:
- The Sun Bookshop
- Footscray Historical Society
- Royal Historical Society of Victoria
- St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
- Rafti (Millers Road, North Altona)
- State Library of Victoria
And it will be available soon at:
- Caras Greek Shop on Lonsdale Street
- National Library of Australia
- Maribyrnong City Libraries