Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mount Vernon Place Once Upon A Time

My father, George Cokinos and Billie Stathes became friends when he was six, and she was five years old. That would've been 1922. Greek immigrants had put down serious roots here in Washington,  raising families and funds for a church of their own named for St Sophia.  But that was a future dream. Billie remembers when the congregation gathered upstairs in a room rented from a synagogue on 6th and G NW.

Billie  (front and center)

As she tells it, my father loved to entertain the Sunday school class when the teacher had to step out. He would make silly faces and wag his fingers- anything to make everyone laugh. They remained good friends for life. My brothers lived with her after she moved to Florida to teach school. She became my sister's godmother, and she took it upon herself to make sure my children had books every Christmas.

George with the bow

Billie is 91 now, and she recently attended my father's funeral here in Washington. She flew in from Coral Gables where she is retired though she still found the energy to translate Greek verses and publish a book. She gave me this remarkable map of the St Sophia neighborhood - drawn specifically from her memories by her cousin, Nick Chacos.

 Billie also included this narrative:
From 1922 until 1933 I called the two blocks of Eighth Street near Mt. Vernon Square where I lived-"the village.".Mount Vernon Square with its beautiful park and library was our landmark for an every day visit after school.

On the corner of 8th and L was the Greek Orthodox Church. There was a social hall in the basement where dances for teenagers were held every Friday night. You had to be fourteen to attend. 

 Next to the church was a small two story house where the caretaker, Alec and his wife, Koula Cokinos lived. Their home was always open for cookies and a visit.

All of the houses on the right were brownstones, three or four stories high. On the left was a row of small homes where the colored folk lived. We all played together.
Dr. Fred Repetti, the village doctor lived on 8th and L, too.  Every family went to him for advice and medicine. During prohibition, he would give prescriptions for bourbon, Four Roses and rum. The drugstore at the other corner gladly filled them in medicine bottles. We made wine in our basement every year, and even the policemen would be waiting for it. Around the corner on M street was the grocery store and the Chinese laundry. 

Our pride and joy was the corner of 8th and M where there were four gas stations. We were very very proud of them. No one on our blocks owned an automobile. We would go to the corner every day to look at the marvelous cars which stopped for gas. Two blocks were torn down in the late 1930s taking our village with them.

(9th and L today)

Most of the neighborhood is gone now, although the 1905 Carnegie library is still in tact. The new convention center has obliterated blocks of Billie's history with only signage at 9th and M to remind people of the past and preserve a few pictures and anecdotes of the way things were.


St. Sophia moved uptown in 1951- just off Massachusetts's Avenue where it stands today.
Click on the maps above to see details of the gone away village.