While it's nothing like her parents' intercontinental journey to the United States in 1965 from the Greek island of Rhodes, Despina Roros has been on an odyssey of her own.
Born and raised in Greektown, Roros, 33, left the east Highlandtown neighborhood in 1989 for Baltimore County. She married Nick Roros of Dundalk, bought a home in Rosedale and gave birth to a daughter.
Three years ago, though, she did something that's still relatively uncommon for someone who grew up in, and then left, Greektown: She moved back. With her husband, Despina bought a corner rowhouse on Ponca Street two doors from where she grew up and where her mother still lives. Her younger brother lives a few doors down.
"I like it here. I'd never go anyplace else again," Despina said. "Everything is within walking distance, the church, the stores, the cafeneia [coffee shops]. And it's very important to me that my daughter grows up around Greek people."
A destination for European immigrants since the early 20th century, Greektown was a section of Highlandtown where families settled and worked in nearby factories or in the shipyards. They filled the rowhouses on both sides of Eastern Avenue, sent their children to public and parochial schools, and shopped in Eastern Avenue's retail district.
"We called it 'The Hill' years ago," said Eugene DiCarlo, 75, while reminiscing with his wife, Lola, in the alley behind their rowhouse on Memorial Day.
On Macon Street, the DiCarlos raised seven children, three of whom live in Highlandtown with their own children. "I'm so used to this area, I'd never move. I have too many grandchildren here," DiCarlo said.
The neighborhood is mostly populated today by young working-class families and a dwindling number of retirees, many of whom have lived there for decades.
It's just as likely to draw people from other parts of the city or a nearby county as from another country. And because of its proximity to downtown and Interstates 95 and 895, Greektown is gaining notice among younger renters and first-time homebuyers as a convenient and affordable option for city living.
"It's an ideal place for people who are just starting out with their first house," said Mary Clark, 40, a marketing manager in Canton. She and her husband, James, bought their first home on South Oldham Street.
"You can be isolated from the hustle and bustle in the city and yet still be close enough to partake in it," Clark said.
For Clark, who was born to Greek parents in Queens, N.Y., and whose maiden name is Frangakis, living in Greektown has allowed her to get involved in the community through St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.
Founded in the 1950s, the church on Ponca Street remains a nucleus for the region's Greek community. Many Greek families have moved to the suburbs, but many still make the commute each Sunday to attend services.
The parish draws roughly 40 percent of its 800 families from outside the city, the Rev. Manuel J. Burdusi said.
"There are no other [Greek Orthodox] parishes out in the county, except for Cub Hill [in Baltimore County], so they have their roots here," Burdusi said.
The church is a potent organizing force in the neighborhood. It sponsors an annual Greek independence day parade, and every second weekend in June for the past three decades it has held a Greek folk festival featuring food, music and dancing. Both events draw thousands from across the mid-Atlantic region.
This year's three-day festival will begin Friday.
The parish is also nearing completion of a $2.3 million cultural center and banquet hall known as the Greektown Plateia, or plaza, south of the church on Ponca Street. It will have a capacity of 450. Also on Ponca Street, the parish's Ladies Philoptochos Society bought and renovated a building where patients being treated at nearby Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center can stay with their families.
Greektown's retail centerpiece is the commercial strip on Eastern Avenue, between the hospital and the monolithic Crown Industrial Park building by Lehigh Street.
Greek specialty shops, which offer everything from feta cheese and baklava to Greek music and newspapers, offer an Old World experience akin to what can be found on the streets of Athens. And the coffee shops -- open 24 hours a day -- are havens for Greek men who pass time over card games and tiny cups of strong Greek coffee.
The Greek restaurants draw diners from all over the region.
Nestled among the many Greek-owned businesses are a Chinese food takeout shop, a tattoo parlor, an Italian pizza-and-sub joint, and an Irish pub.
From this shopping area along Eastern Avenue, Greektown's residents live in rowhouses of various kinds to the north and south. Most rowhouses between Lehigh and Oldham streets have Formstone facades and white marble steps at their entrances.
On Oldham Street and farther east, some rowhouses - with brick and Formstone fronts - are fronted with swatches of grass that lead up to porches, many adorned with potted plants, climbing flowers and bushes.
Housing market statistics reflect increased activity. Thirty-four properties have been sold in Greektown over the past 12 months, according to Cindy Holman, a real estate agent in the Dundalk office of O'Conor, Piper and Flynn ERA. That compares with 14 properties over a 12-month period ending in June 1996, as reported by The Sun that year.
Properties sold in the past 12 months have ranged in price from $15,000 to $62,900, said Holman. There are nine active listings that have been on the market an average 123 days.
"These homes are in the price range where you're attracting many first-time homebuyers and/or investors," Holman said.
As Greektown residents witness the housing market frenzy gripping nearby neighborhoods, such as Canton and Fells Point, many say it is only a matter of time before the demand spills over into Greektown.
"In light of all the redevelopment that's basically circling this community, we're getting ready for it," said state Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Democrat who was born and raised in Greektown and lives on Umbra Street.
Other residents say the neighborhood still has to deal with some urban issues typical of other Baltimore neighborhoods.
Many Greektown residents have moved out of the neighborhood but rent out their properties, said Walter Hudson, a lifelong resident and past president of the now disbanded 15th Street Community Association.
"They rent their properties out to whomever, and as you know, renters are different than homeowners," Hudson said.
"Greektown would be a much better place," said Despina Roros, "if property owners that moved out took much better care and consideration of their properties."
To better manage redevelopment, residents and business owners formed Greektown Community Development Corp. in 1997. The organization focuses on housing, security and sanitation in the area and is planning to conduct what it refers to as an "intervention-buying program," in which it will acquire houses from absentee landlords and sell them to homeowners, Sfikas said.
"This is a vibrant, strong community that is really an asset to the city because it is a tourist attraction with our restaurants and our ethnic grocery stores," said Helen Johns, president of the group.
Commute to downtown: 15 minutes
Public schools: John Ruhrah Elementary, Southeast Middle, Patterson High
Shopping: Eastern Avenue retail district, Eastpoint Mall
ZIP code: 21224Copyright © 2015, CT Now