Sophocles Arrives In Athens Square Park
A History Of Athens Square Park In Astoria
March 30, 2015 / Astoria Neighborhood / Ethnic & Religious Culture In Queens / Queens Buzz. A new statue of Sophocles arrived in Athens Square Park on Saturday. The statue was erected as part of the Greek Independence celebration festivities in Astoria last weekend.
But for some it was a day to bear witness to the completion of a thirty-one year community effort to complete the vision of the park as first set forth by former Athens Square Park Dennis Syntilas over three decades ago.
And it was a bittersweet day, as Dennis Syntilas passed away only three prior to this event, in January of 2015.
Standing in the photo at right [from left to right] is Captain Dennis Mullany of the 114 Precinct, George Alexiou former President of the Greek Homeowners Association, George Delis current President of Athens Square Park, Sophocles [statue], George Stamatiades a longtime supporter and Community Board Member, and the woman standing at street level with the wavy auburn hair is Rita Syntilas who is the widow of Dennis Syntilias the former President of Athens Square Park.
Click here to read our full report regarding the history of Athens Square Park in Astoria, and the erection of the Sophocles statue during the Greek Independence celebrations in NYC in March of 2015.
Sophocles Arrives In Athens
A History Of Athens Square Park In Astoria
It was a cool crisp clear March day as I arrived a few minutes before the unveiling of the statue of Sophocles in Athens Square Park in Astoria. Standing in front of the Columns of Delphi stood the Greek Presidential Guard which had come to New York City to march in the Greek Independence Day Parade along 5th Avenue in Manhattan on Sunday.
There were a couple of speeches which was soon followed by the uncovering of the full length bronze statue of Sophocles. Sophocles was a very early Greek playwright who was born around 500 B.C. and lived to about 90 years old. During his life he evolved playwriting from simple two man plays into the forerunner of modern theater today. He introduced the 'third man' which enabled further plot and character development and the addition of background scenery to a performance is also attributed to him.
Local government officials were each given a rope with which they were to pull the canvas off the statue. The former and current government officials included former NYCC Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., former CCM Peter Vallone Jr., City Councilmember Costas Constantinides, NYS Senator Mike Gianaris and Queens Park Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski. The photo above right, was taken at Athens Square Park in Astoria in the Fall of 2007.
Two Greek Immigration Waves Into America & Astoria - Early 20th Century & Mid / Late 20th Century
I had an opportunity to learn a bit more about the history of Athens Square Park through conversations with former Community Board Manager George Delis as well as current Community Board Member George Stamatiades. What follows is a brief history of Athens Square Park, primarly provided by George Delis.
We return to a simpler time. It was the early 1980's when Peter Vallone Sr. was the City Councilmember representing Astoria, and a rising star in New York City politics and the Democratic party. There had been a second wave of immigration from Greece into the United States, and particularly in Astoria during the 1960's and 1970's. Greek shops, diners and culture blossomed anew. The first wave of Greek immigrants had come around the turn of the 20th century.
Birth Of An Idea: Plans For Greek Themed Park In Astoria
In 1984 the Greek community made plans to create a Greek themed park in Astoria. George mentioned that the inclusion of a statue of Sophocles had been planned from the beginning as George Delis was the Community Board Manager and hence responsible for including it in the capital budget.
The wheels of government moved slowly, but in 1991 Athens Square Park went into construction. As George recalled, the park was finished a year later in 1992 . Dennis Syntilas became the Athens Square Park President.
Athens Square Park Statues: Athena Is The First Statue
The statue of Athena is a gift from from the people of Athens and Greece to their friends in Astoria and America. The conversation regarding the gift started with the Mayor of Athens in late 1980's. At the time the Athens Mayor was George Drittis. Dennis Syntilas, the Athens Square Park President approached Drittis who agreed to create and provide the park with a statue of Athena. Drittis passed away and was succeeded by Mayor Dmitri Avramopoulos who today is the cultural minister of Greece.
Mayor Dmitri picked up where George Drittis left off. They decided to provide an exact copy of the statue of Athena that was found during a construction project on a pier in Greece. The statue depicts Athena consoling the troops. George Delis made sure to tell me that Athena didn't make war, but she had a role in consoling the warriors. As the statue was broken, they didn't know what she was holding in her hand ... whether it was a spear or flowers. On Athena's lapel there are little snakes. In Greek culture snakes represented wisdom.
In ancient Greece Athena was not only the patron goddess of Athens, but also of heroes and heroic efforts. One might see some happy coincidence here, as the founding of Athens Square Park as originally envisioned, was by some accounts, an heroic endeavor. And it wouldn't be much of a stretch to add that the late Dennis Syntilas was easily one of the heroes who made it happen.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Dmitri Avramopoulos the then Mayor of Athens both showed for the unveiling of the statue Athena. Mayor Guiliani ran 40 minutes late, so Community Board Manager George Delis opened the mike to local government officials who had no trouble filling the time. Henry Stern was Parks Commissioner, and he reportedly wanted to emcee the ceremony, but the master of cermonies duties were handled locally by Dennis Syntilas and George Delis.
Socrates Statue In Athens Square Park Astoria
In 1993 the second statue for the park was unveiled. The second statue was in honor of Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher. The statue of Socrates was created by Michael Frudakis, who was an art teacher at University of Michigan. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. was one of the honored guests at the unveiling.
Socrates lived in the 5th century B.C. which was a prolific period of Greek civilization, during which many of the philosophical foundations for western society were laid. The Oracle at Delphi had said the Socrates was the wisest man in Athens at the time, while Socrates himself said that he knew very little. In time he realized that the oracle was correct, as there were many others in Athens who claimed to know a great deal and knew nothing, while Socrates claimed to know little, while he knew a lot.
Socrates thoughts and beliefs were recorded for posterity by his students, most notably Plato. And he is responsible for the Socratic method, which is to probe an issue by a series of thoughtful questions down a variety of paths before reaching any conclusion. It is believed that this method of inquiry was the forerunner to the modern scientific method, which begins with an hypothesis which is then tested.
Athens Square Park History: Columns Of Delphi
Ever since I had started visiting the park, I had felt that the Columns of Delphi had been there for thousands of years. But in fact it wasn't until 1995 that the Columns of Delphi were installed. Originally the Athens Square Park group wanted to cut short the fundraising time to erect the columns, so they chose to use cement for columns, but commission said they must be made of granite.
George told me that the columns had been designed by Stamatios Lykos who is a local architect. Stamatios created the columns to fill the space in the original park planning documents which had laid out where the monuments would go.
The idea for the columns was in part that of Athens Park President Dennis Syntilas, who passed away January 2015. Dennis worked with Stamatios Lykos to develop the layout for the park. Dennis Syntilias' family was present on the Saturday of the Sophocles unveiling and they shed a few tears in Dennis honor.
The Columns of Delphi were carved out of white granite Dorian style. Greece temples were made of marble, while granite is a far harder stone. George Delis told me that the granite came from state of Georgia and was carved and ground into the beautiful columns in Rhode Island. Granite is a parks department requirement because marble doesn't hold up well in our climate.
Delphi was a real place that had mythological importance as the home of the Greek god Apollo, who could see the future. The ancient Greeks would consult the Oracle of Delphi before any important decision was made. This was done in a sanctuary which was considered to be the naval of the earth and therefore provided special powers. Delphi was at its height of power between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago. Today it is an ancient historical site.
Athens Square Park History: Aristotle Statue
In 2008 Athens Square Park witnessed the arrival of the statue of Aristotle, another great Greek philosopher. George recalls having dinner with the then governor of Halkidiki in northen Greece where Alexander the Great came from [Macedonia]. He historically recalls that ancient Macedonia was huge.
Vasilis Vasilakis, was the Governor of the northern Greek state. Vasilis was full of energy that evening, so George decided to take him for a stroll into Athens Square Park after dinner. He told Vasilis of the Athens Square Park plans and Vasilis volunteered to help. George told him that they needed the bust of Aristotle, which was part of original plan. George told me, "Look, it could have been a full statue or a bust, but I didn't want to get greedy, so I went for the bust."
So when Vasilis returned to Greece he went to the University of Thessaloniki [Saloniki is the nickname]. They initiated a competition and the winner would create the bust of Aristotle that would be placed in Athens Square Park in the Astoria neighborhood of New York City. According to New York City Park statue guidelines, all metal statues must be made of bronze for to provide for something along the lines of safety and maintenance.
Greek Governor Vasilikis had ordered the monument, but it wasn't completed until after he left office. The new Governor didn't want to send it to him, but George couldn't figure out why. George contacted a friend of his who was a friend of the Governor. George's friend found that there was a large box with the George Delis name on it. George Delis asked why they hadn't sent it. The new Governor said that they had heard that the Athens Square Park group didn't have the permits required to install the bust. George told him that the New York City Parks Department will not issue permits until after a statue is inspected. For example in the case of Athena they had to provide heavier bracing for the mount under Athena. So shortly after this conversational exchange, the Governor of Thessalonika sent the statue and it was unveiled in 2008.
The Last Planned Statue: Sophocles Erected In March 2015
Sophocles completes the design. Chris Vilardi was the sculptor from LIC. Made at the Modern Art Foundry in Astoria. Sophocles started about five years ago around 2010. Went over the designs with Chris Vlardi.
Sophocles wrote 123 plays of which only seven survived. He was Playwright. He made Sophocles who was also commander of Athenian Army. Gave him the ancient classical look. Only two visual depictions of Sophocles from antiquity that survived.
Athens Square Park History: Fundraising Done Primarily Within Greek Community
Money raised in community. Dennis Syntilas did most of fundraising. A steel baron from Greece gave $100,000 and someone in the Astoria community gave $40,000. But there were many times when they were challenged to find enough money to continue the work to complete Athens Square Park as planned.
In trying to complete the fundraising to install the statue of Sophocles in his new home, they contacted George Alexiou, the former President, and George Kitsios, the current president, of the Greek American Homeowners Association to help them raise the funding they needed to complete and install the Sophocles statue in Athens Square Park. Over the past two years the Greek Homeowners Association raised the remaining funds, which was about half of what was needed. The fundraising money went into a bank account overseen by the Parks Department, the Federation of Hellenic Societies and the Federation of Italian Americans.
Mission Accomplished & Bittersweet Celebration
Peter Vallone Sr. was given a bust of Sophocles at Athens Square Park at the event on Saturday for his important contributions to helping make Athens Square Park a reality. Many of the Astorians who worked on this effort breathed a sigh of relief having completed an effort they set out to accomplish some 31 years ago. But, as noted, it was a bittersweet celebration as one of the key players in the entire project, former Athens Square Park President Dennis Syntilas, died only months prior to the celebration.
Athens Square Park Seasonal Activities & Leonidas Of Sparta?
After the unveiling event, I lingered a bit, chatting with folks about the park. I heard Leonidis of Sparta and the Peloponneus discussed in more than one conversation. One of the Astoria elders told me that unfortunately Leonidas was not a part of the original park plan, but that they were open to the idea. But they hastened to add that installing such a statue would require a fair amount of effort such as working with the parks department to find a spot for it, finding someone to create it, overseeing the design selection and implementation process and lastly, but not least, finding funding for it.
What About Homer, Zeus, Apollo, Thucydides & Alexander The Great?
I heard Homer's name came up in conversation too. One old timer asked, "How many Greek Greats can be accommodated by Athens Square Park before there's no room for people to sit?" and, they went on, "Would the NYC Parks Department allow it?"
Most of the folks who saw this project through from beginning to end said they had completed their work and that the next Herculean effort would have to be undertaken by the next generation. "What about Hercules?" I asked.
Athens Square Park Seasonal Events
It's worth noting that in July and August every Tuesday night is Greek night sponsored by the Federation of Hellenic Societies and every Wednesday evening is Italian Night sponsored by the Federation of Italian Americans. Queens Buzz events calendar and / or the Queens Buzz Member Calendar generally post many of the Athens Square Park summer events.
Contributions from community support these programs which supports culture and the performing arts in the community. You're welcome to contribute by contacting some of the people or organizations mentioned in the Fundraising section above.
Many thanks to Athens Park President and former Community Board Manager George Delis, and Community Board member George Stamtiades for their help with this story.
And a special post partem thanks to deceased former President of Athens Square Park, Dennis Syntilas, for all the work he did to make Athens Square Park what it is today. We will all die one day ... but Athens Square Park will live on.
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