Tracking Armenians in New York

This originally appears in AGBU News magazine (April 2002)

In New York, they say there are eight million stories in the naked city. We can be sure thousands of those are Armenians who have and continue to feed, enrich, and define the city that is known as the greatest in the world. The engine of the world economy and the epicenter of international discourse, New York’s history is as eventful and chaotic as the city itself.

The Armenian chapters of New York history are a collection of flamboyant personalities, shocking events and colorful stories, whose description explodes with the bravado one comes to expect from the city that never sleeps. This is only a small fraction of the Armenians of New York and their impact—the beginnings of a greater story still waiting to be told.

The First Armenian American

Armenian-Syrian Relief volunteers, New York, 1916

In 1834, New York University was entering its third year since its founding and a young Protestant missionary-educated Armenian, Khachadur Osganian, arrived into a city that had yet to claim its place among the cities of the world. It was the period of Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville, the city lacked the infrastructure of a modern city, the great flood of Irish laborers of the 1840?s had not begun, Central Park was still a dream and less than a quarter million citizens called New York home. It was a city still seeking an identity in a young Republic that celebrated its democratic origins.

A native of the Ottoman Empire, Osganian arrived with a Protestant missionary education to attend the newly established New York University. After graduating, he began writing for The New York Herald-Tribune newspaper and later became President of the prestigious New York Press Club.

A pioneer in many aspects, he was the first naturalized Armenian American and the first to publish a book in America, The Sultan and His People (1857). The novel introduced the plight of Armenian self-determination to the American psyche.

The 19th century periodical Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, similar to today’s Reader’s Digest, noted the volume as, “a most admirable and graphic account of the life and habits of the Turks, as seen and described by an insider, and not by one of the outer barbarians, as are all the other tourists and authors upon that country…. On the whole, there are few better accounts of the detail of Turkish life than this of Oscanyans [sic], and he describes with a constant and natural tendency to sympathy with his own people. He, therefore, suggests many sensible explanations of points which are peculiar and amusing to other nations, and shows himself to be an intelligent and vivacious observer.” Osganian characterized Armenians as the “Yankees of the Near East” and he penned articles for many of Constantinople’s newspapers on matters concerning America.

Adapted from Helen F. Clark’s ethnic map of Lower Manhattan in 1901. The map illustrates the concentration of Armenians at the southern tip of the island in an area known today as the city’s Financial District.

By 1841, the first Armenian settler arrived in Brooklyn and the flow of new arrivals trickled in until the late nineteenth century when individuals fleeing Ottoman political and cultural persecution signaled the beginnings of a sustainable Armenian American community in the city.

Close to 70,000 Armenians arrived in the U.S. in the last years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the 20th century with approximately a quarter settling in New York City. It was a period of migration that shaped the city into an amalgam of the world, and in the case of the Armenians allowed tens of thousands to flee massacres and a Genocide that consumed the Ottoman Empire.

Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million immigrants flowed through Ellis Island and today over 40% of Americans can trace their heritage to one of those arrivals. The Armenian legacy on Ellis Island is preserved today in the museum. The story of one Armenian family along with their world of objects and memories is carefully preserved beside those of other cultural groups. Other surprising items litter the exhibits, including carefully preserved fragments of graffiti left by new arrivals that cover pillars and some of the unseen walls, much like the spray paint graffiti in today’s cities. The fact that many Armenian letters exist among the graffiti may allude to the fact that Armenians had one of the highest literacy rates of any of the ethnic groups that arrived.

Ever Expanding Metropolis

By the beginning of the twentieth century New York attracted the bulk of immigrants and only Massachusetts competed with New York as the destination of choice for newly-arrived Armenians.

Where these Armenians settled remains allusive but certainly most landed in the low-rent tenements that encircled Manhattan.

The first piece of evidence for an Armenian neighborhood is a map drawn in 1901 by Helen F. Clark, a New York missionary, who tracked the city’s ethnic groups for the purpose of evangelization. While Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, African-Americans and others dotted the landscape repeatedly, Armenians and other Eastern Mediterranean peoples clustered at the southern tip of the city.

In this area, a neighborhood known as the Syrian Quarter emerged in the late nineteenth century. Dominated by Syrian and Lebanese Christians, their restaurants, bakeries and shops blanketed Washington Street from Battery Place to Rector Street. The neighborhood survived until the 1960?s, when residents moved to other neighborhoods, particularly Brooklyn. An Armenian sculptor, Mardig Kachian, was the last to abandon the neighborhood after an extended battle with the city over his eviction. The city prevailed and the street was razed to become part of the Battery Tunnel ramp and a larger plan for a revitalized financial district.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, Armenians converged at another region of the city, the East 20?s in an area bracketed by Lexington and Third Avenues.

Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, one of the few native New Yorkers left in the city, was born in the Armenian enclave, “Growing up in New York was great. First of all, it was just the right size. We lived in the Gramercy Park area and I loved Gramercy Park. It had some posh people around it, like the actress Jane Wyatt. When I was five years old, she had a birthday party and I attended. They had a movie theater in the basement and I wouldn’t forget it. It was the first movie I ever saw—Peter Rabbit.”

For Dobkin, the neighborhood was filled with the sights and sounds of restaurants rich with Near Eastern aromas and characters larger than life that would serve as the material for her 1954 New York Times best-selling novel, A Houseful of Love—it was summarily reprinted in Reader’s Digest’s hugely popular Condensed Books series.

The story of an Armenian American childhood in the heart of Manhattan, Dobkin explains about the lack of stigma she felt surrounding ethnicity, “Everyone around us was an immigrant in New York, so I never felt any of the problems people tell me about elsewhere. Coincidently, at the time there were no Chinese restaurants, no Italian, no French, nothing. It was the Armenian restaurants on Lexington Avenue that were noted as the best places to have a foreign meal.”

For generations, Armenian restaurants were the heartbeat of the community. Nobel prize-winning writer Sinclair Lewis sketches one such establishment from an outsider’s perspective in his 1914 novel, Our Mr. Wren: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, “The Armenian restaurant is peculiar, for it has foreign food at low prices, and is below Thirtieth Street, yet it has not become Bohemian. Consequently it has no bad music and no crowd of persons from Missouri whose women risk salvation for an evening by smoking cigarettes. Here prosperous Oriental merchants, of mild natures and bandit faces, drink semi-liquid Turkish coffee and discuss rugs and revolutions.”

While Lewis refers to the early restaurants of Manhattan, later restaurants played a role in refining the international taste buds of New Yorkers. Arakel’s restaurant may have been among the first. Located on Lexington Avenue between 27th & 28th Streets, it was patronized by colorful personalities including collector Hagop Kevorkian who ordered food for his soirées and a certain Sourabian who dressed up like a Cossack when performing at various community Barahanteses (dinner dances).

Near Times Square, the Golden Horn was the most elegant of the city’s Armenian eateries. Located on Broadway, it was a magnet for sports and theatre personalities of every strip.

When the Balkan restaurant popped up in the heart of the Gramercy Park Armenian community, it developed a loyal following from the neighborhood, while close by the renowned midtown luncheon spot, Ararat, lasted until the 1970?s.

Downtown, Dardanelles on University Place was the only spot to get your fill of Armenian cuisine. These and other more short-lived establishments in the East Village, near Queensborough Bridge and other locales cultivated the city’s taste for Armenian food. Unfortunately, the family-run restaurants all closed when their children were uninterested in perpetuating the tradition. It is sad to say that today Manhattanites must look elsewhere to find the pleasures of Armenian cuisine.

Dobkin remembers the city life that invigorated her, “In the twenties, I knew summer was here when my father changed his fedora to a straw hat. He would take me to the trolleys on Third Avenue, which were like those in San Francisco. When it passed, it shook the windows and the china would rattle on the shelves. We would travel on the double-decker buses that were open on the top and we went everywhere. I loved walking down Fifth Avenue with one of my uncles—we didn’t miss the country one bit. For the beach, we would go to the Rockaways in Queens.

“When I was very little, the tallest building in my eyes was the Flatiron building, which was not far from where we lived,” she says.

Soon the family moved uptown, like others fleeing the congestion and pollution of the city, to the newly developed regions of Washington Heights and Inwood at the north tip of Manhattan which were dominated by numerous hills, and lacked the claustrophobic ambience of downtown.

It was a treasured time for Dobkin, “By the time I was nine, I was allowed to go on the subway and take my little brother by the hand. It was so safe. My parents taught me that if I had any problems to go to a policeman, who were all Irish and loved kids.”

The Washington Heights community was as accepting as her downtown stomping grounds, “When friends came to my house and they heard me speaking Armenian to my grandmother, who lived with us, they would insist I speak it some more. They were fascinated, for them it was glamorous and unlike anything they had ever heard. ”

Another early uptown resident, Jack Torosian, arrived in America from Smyrna (Izmir) at a young age during the early 1920?s and after brief stints in Midtown and the Bronx he moved with his family in 1930 to Inwood in an apartment he continues to call home.

Overlooking Manhattan’s only natural green space, Inwood Park, Torosian’s life among Irish, German, Jewish and Italian neighbors always embraced the park and it continues to be a focal point for the predominantly Dominican residents of today’s northern Manhattan.

Torosian remembers, “When we first arrived, there were American Indians living in the Park. There was a little museum in there with Revolutionary War uniforms, cannonballs and a library. That was my old haunt. There was a Cherokee princess named Naomi and her son, Bill Kinnedy, who lived there. They had a cold stove and in the winter time I would put my feet up on the stove and read their early American library. My mother would also say, ‘You’re going to visit your relatives?’ That’s how I became part Cherokee Indian.”

He continues, “There was also an Armenian who lived in the park with six cats and beehives and used to collect grape leaves and sell them. Often some Armenians from the neighborhood would visit him and build a fire and have a cook-out.”

Another resident of Washington Heights, George Avakian, points out that some of the reasons for moving to the neighborhood were more practical, “A new Armenian church had been established on West 187th Street, attracting many Armenians from around the city. New stores such as Zarifian’s butcher shop had opened on St. Nicholas Avenue. It was the highest point of Manhattan with clean air and without the crowding of the downtown part of the city. My father felt it would be more healthful for his children.”

Avakian was an unlikely jazz aficionado. An immigrant boy who had acquired his taste for the thoroughly American art form through radio and records, at Yale University he met a number of key personalities who initiated him into the history of the music. While still at school, he began writing a well-read column in Tempo—one of only three magazines that covered the genre. A member of the loose brotherhood of record collectors called the United Hot Clubs of America, he never realized that his hobby would develop into a career. It all began when he was asked by a reader of his jazz column in Tempo, Edward Wallerstein (President of Columbia Records in 1940), to research, select, and annotate the first series of reissues of classic out-of-print jazz recordings. A few months earlier, Avakian had already produced for Decca Records the first album ever recorded of jazz music, complete with a 12-page booklet of the kind that was common only for operatic or classical recordings.

In the course of the dream job of digging through Columbia’s vast archives in search of hard-to-find gems, he produced the first of a long string of singles and albums under the Hot Jazz Classics title and discovered a large number of unreleased gems of previous decades by legendary artists, including his great favorites, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Little did he realize that he would one day become a close friend as well as the producer of some of their greatest recordings in the years to come.

After serving in World War II, he returned to Columbia Records full-time, where he was appointed Director of Popular Records and Director of the International Department, both of which became the company’s largest profit divisions soon after the company invented the 33-rpm long-playing record which revolutionized the industry in 1948. What is unique about Avakian is not only his accomplishments but also his devotion to New York.

Why did he choose to stay in New York? “That’s where it’s at and so are my personal and family roots,” Avakian replies. In fact, he twice turned down the presidency of a record company with a California base (MGM and Warner Brothers) in order to stay in the city he loves so much. He and his wife, the famed concert violinist Anahid Ajemian, eventually moved from Central Park West to the countrified Riverdale section of the Bronx where he remains a unique character with a lifetime of devotion to researching and disseminating American music.

What makes the essence of a New Yorker? Avakian suggests without hesitation, “cosmopolitanism and universality,” two of the attributes that he has maintained throughout his entire career.

While life in the Armenian neighborhoods uptown seemed idyllic, on Christmas Eve of 1933 the political assassination of Archbishop Leon Elisee Tourian in Holy Cross Armenian Church on West 187th Street scandalized the Armenian community.

Jack Torosian remembers the shock, “A man who had been in church at the time of the stabbing came that day to tell us about it.”

Dobkin’s family lived a few blocks away and her father, who was a doctor, rushed to the church to find the Archbishop, a friend of his, already dead. When her horror subsided, the reality of what happened set in, “The incident split the community into two distinct political factions.”

New York’s Daily News ran “Murder in a Holy Place” as a headline and reported, “…two men leaped from the pews as the Archbishop passed them both with knives, very large knives as were used to skin cattle, knives suitable for a man as big as Tourian. Disemboweled on the spot, he fell wordlessly to his knees and gasped for just an instant…enraged parishioners flung themselves upon the pair and beat them senseless with canes and umbrellas, eight other men fled to the street. There had been a whole squad of slayers come this day with blood hatreds festering in their hearts.”

The New York Times allotted the story front page coverage and followed its developments closely. On December 26, 1933 they published what they saw as the murder’s motivations, “The Archbishop’s clashes with anti-Soviet sympathizers in this country, at Chicago, in this city and near Worcester, Mass., had been largely over the question whether the Soviet banner, bearing the hammer and sickle, should be displayed at Armenian functions.”

The ideological conflict between pro and anti-Soviet camps gave cause to seven extremists that were eventually convicted in the city’s courts after a year-long investigation. The two primary culprits, Matios Leylegian and Nishan Sarkisian, were given life in prison when Governor Lehman of New York intervened to save them from the electric chair for what he said were “the most unusual circumstances of this case.”

The Tourian assassination was not the first the New York community had experienced. On July 22, 1907 a wealthy Armenian American, Bedros Hampartzumian, was killed in Union Square by an Armenian political party henchman, Hovhannes Tavshanjian, after refusing to donate $10,000 to their coffers.

The Gramercy and northern Manhattan colonies constituted the majority of New York City’s Armenian presence until after the Second World War. Dobkin says, “I think I’m one of the few people left in the city and not from the outer boroughs. When I tell cab drivers they are amazed. No one wanted to go anywhere outside New York until after the war.”

After the war, the deluge of immigration created a cultural clash and pushed out long time residents, Dobkin explains, “When I returned from Washington D.C. in 1954, it became a different city. It was crowded, people were pushy and the streets were filthy. It was very comfortable before.”

Torosian suggests another factor in the dispersion of Armenians elsewhere, “Most of the residents died, moved to California, New Jersey, Westchester or Long Island. Armenians wanted private homes and not apartments.”

A Salon of Their Own

While the bulk of Armenians lived elsewhere in Manhattan, there formed a small community of intellectual Armenian Americans that centered around Columbia University, which developed one of the leading programs in Armenian Studies.

A small circle of intellectuals concentrated around the Balakian sisters, Nona, a long-time editor of The New York Times Book Review, and Anna, a professor of French Literature at Columbia University. Some of the inner circle were Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, jazz aficionado George Avakian, violinist Anahid Ajemian, her sister pianist Maro Ajemian, and others who partook in the first flowering of an Armenian American cultural consciousness in America.

No one seems to know how it happened, but the circle’s network of friends included the Who’s Who of Armenian American letters looking for a unique venue. Some of the extended group included writer Jack Antreassian, occasional New Yorker William Saroyan and Leo Hamalian, long-time editor of the group’s unofficial journal, Ararat.

Established in 1959 and sponsored by AGBU, Ararat offered a springboard for new literary talent, and has since published a wide array of material from such diverse personalities as Rouben Mamoulian, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, James Baloian, Ben Bagdikian, Peter Balakian and a slew of others.

Ajemians, both Maro and Anahid, were seminal in establishing the Friends of Armenian Music in the late 1940?s. While it lasted less than a decade, the organization, funded by a number of wealthy Armenian businessmen, did much to propel the career of a still unknown composer Alan Hovhannes.

All in all, this small loosely assembled community was the harbinger of Armenian American cultural awareness and it set the stage for some of the up and coming talent today.

Branching Out to Queens & Brooklyn

The post-war generation moved from their traditional neighborhoods in Manhattan towards Queens and the suburbs of New York, New Jersey and Southern Connecticut. Today, Manhattan’s community has shrunk to 10,000 of the 150,000 Armenians in the Greater New York area. Together their centrality and affluence continues to make them a driving force in the Armenian American community.

Before the twentieth century, Queens County was a sparse network of towns buffered by open fields and farmlands. As the most culturally diverse county in the nation, Queens was and perhaps still is home to the bulk of Tri-State Armenians with today’s population hovering around 50,000.

Margaret Tellalian-Kyrkostas is a Queens native. Born in Long Island City, she was raised in the Astoria section of the borough. “I think my parents chose Astoria because they wanted the country. My mother was a very forward thinking person and she saw advantages of living in an outer borough,” she says.

The neighborhood at the time was a cross-section of Italians, Greeks, Jews, Slavs and Armenians. Tellalian-Kyrkostas lived a slice of Americana, “My father would always come home with either a Hershey bar or Goobers candies. I’d see him coming down the block and I would run to him. I think people in Queens had an attitude that they were better than the people in the city because we lived in the country and we felt more American. In those days, when someone lived in Manhattan we assumed they were poor. When I traveled I would never say I was from New York City, I would say I’m from Queens.”

But Tellalian-Kyrkostas still enjoyed the riches of the city and her father made sure that they would go to the Museum of Natural History at least once a month. This interest led her to rekindle her academic aspirations at age 41 and go on to complete a graduate degree in anthropology. She has since founded the Anthropology Museum of the People of New York at Queens College with the help of the late Margaret Mead, an internationally renowned anthropologist.

Her proudest academic achievement was the creation of the Armenia: Memories From My Home exhibit at the Ellis Island Museum which for a time was embroiled in controversy because the display mentioned the Genocide and used what the Parks Department described as “gory” pictures. The project was curiously initiated by Tellalian-Kyrkostas’ non-Armenian class at Queens College, where she teaches. Their interest was peaked at exploring the events of the little-known Genocide.

“The censorship of the exhibit backfired on the Parks Department because we received a lot of publicity and even CBS, CNN and Radio Free Europe interviewed me while the Armenian American community was outraged and mobilized,” she says.

The display educated thousands of visitors during the six months it was displayed. Tellalian-Kyrkostas says she has learned from her heritage and tries to explain what it means for her, “Because I was a New York Armenian I felt different, so I decided I was going to stay different.”

With each successive wave of immigration to New York, each Armenian community whether from Russia, Romania or Iran have formed their own pocket settlements. The Iranian Armenians have joined fellow Iranians in Forest Hills, Baku refugees settled in Ridgewood, Lebanese Armenians in Bayside and newer waves of Eastern European Armenians in Sunnyside, Woodside, and the Russian sections of Brooklyn.

The pockets of Armenians in Brooklyn have always been small at best. Michael Kehyaian (also known as Cane) grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood where his family moved in 1932 after he was born in the Bronx. While thousands of Armenians lived in the borough, most lived in the Flatbush section further south from the Kehyaians.

His father owned a dry cleaning shop a few neighborhoods over but his family like other Brooklyn Armenians ventured into the city to participate in community functions. He says, “I ran with the Armenians and had a great time. My father was the only one to have a car and picked up all the cousins and drove to Van Cortland Park. In the summer, we traveled to the Catskill Mountains where there were roughly 15 hotels that were owned by or catered to Armenians, including the Washington Irving, Pera Palace, O’Hara House, Shady Hill and Hotel Armenia. We would spend the summer there and you heard Armenian spoken on the streets.”

Kehyaian, now living in Queens, knows that things have changed over the years, “In the older days Armenians were clannish, they stayed together, now my children outsmart me. They go away for weekends, do as they please. If I looked at my father I shook in my boots, now if I look at my children they say, ‘What are you looking at?’”

Today’s New York community remains strong and is served by six churches and various institutions, including Armenia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, AGBU’s international headquarters, Armenia Fund’s East Coast headquarters, the Diocese and Prelacy of the Armenian Church, the Armenian Center of Columbia University, an Iranian-Armenian center, two Armenian day schools, the Armenian Center and a cluster of young professional societies that include the Armenian Students Association, the Armenian Network, the Armenian Youth Federation, and the AGBU Young Professionals of Greater New York.

Lawyer and politico, Edward N. Costikyan, has lived in Manhattan since he was seven years old. He’s spent four decades at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, he’s penned must-read books on the city’s politics and he’s developed a reputation as an astute political voice with an eye on the future of city government.

Costikyan admits that Armenians were never concentrated enough to make a dent in general city politics, “The Armenian community was always dispersed, and during the thirties they spread out even more, though they did build churches at the epicenter of the old neighborhood and they still come back.”

“When I was a kid, I became interested in politics after watching the 1940 Presidential debates. It was the time of the New Deal and the government was looking at ways to restructure,” he says.

Costikyan recognized early that centralized governments were cumbersome, remote and inefficient and with New York Governor Rockefeller’s approval he helped along the slow process of shifting the power from a strong central city administration to districts—a process that continues today.

He’s served as Democratic County Leader for New York but in the last decade Costikyan has endorsed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as the best choice for the city, “I supported Giuliani even though he was a Republican, I just prayed I wouldn’t be embarrassed.”

He was active on many committees during the Giuliani years and is optimistic that Bloomberg will continue the wave of reforms.

Even with his early reservations, Costikyan admits that Giuliani has done a great job and he cites the Mayor as one of the greatest civic leaders he’s known, though he chides, “This is despite the fact that he is a little bit of a nut.”

“I think he’s also the luckiest man alive,” Costikyan says about a Mayor that was unpopular only a year ago in many circles, “Many people in this city hated him but after September 11th, people were so shaken by the tragedy and they respected the fact that the Mayor didn’t capitalize on the event and he did what was genuinely good for the city.”

A long-time friend of the city’s Armenians, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani recognized the community’s contributions when in 2001 he hosted Catholicos Karekin II at Gracie Mansion, the official mayoral residence, and announced, “The Armenians are a blessing for New York, and are special for their values of family, faith, and business acumen. The reason that New York is the capital of the world is because of immigrants who brought with them their language, culture, faith and special humanity. The Armenian community is a great example of how wonderfully immigration works.”

Armenians can be proud to be an integral part of the energy that makes New York a cultural, media, business and political mecca, a backdrop for their ambitions, dreams, realities and future.

A Golden Age for Armenian Cuisine

In 1928, Aram Salisian moved to New York from California. Six years later, with the help of family and his friend Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers fame), he opened the Golden Horn restaurant in Midtown that served lunch for a quarter and dinner for 95 cents.

The founder’s son, Raphael, remembers the restaurant as ground-breaking. It helped to shape the city’s taste buds, “We made shish kebab and pilaf famous. No one knew it before we did it. We were voted one of the 100 best restaurants by Gourmet magazine. I remember seeing people like actress Lana Turner and her husband Artie Shaw, the King of Swing, at our restaurant.”

Restaurant critics agreed about the Golden Horn’s importance. One New York Sun reporter, Malcolm Johnson, took issue with NBC studio’s decision in 1941 to import San Francisco caterer George Mardikian protesting, “As for Armenian cooking—well, there is a restaurant within a stone’s throw of the NBC studios which, from our experience, is unsurpassed…. Countless celebrities and gourmets dine there regularly and swear by its food, proclaiming it to be the finest of its kind within their experience. Personally, we would stack Aram Salisian’s cooking against that of George Mardikian or of any other Armenian chef.”

The restaurant’s menu, a unique invention all its own, famously evoked the Orient with spicy language that egged the novice to try something new. “This is it!” begins the menu’s description of Kouzou Dolma, “Roast lamb stuffed with specially prepared rice, pine nuts and currants. A dish for epicures, whether Olympian or mere mortals.”

A pioneer in more ways than one, the Golden Horn displayed walls of Kodachrome candids of their famous clientele which became a regular feature of many Manhattan hot spots. The eatery developed a national reputation, attracting patrons from every industry. It was a special place still remembered today decades after closing its doors.

Armenians on Eighth

From the 1920?s until the 1960?s, an indigenous American musical form emerged on Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue. It was a cabaret scene as diverse and hybrid as New York itself.

Harold Hagopian of Traditional Crossroads records, has worked hard to preserve the music that filled the predominantly Greek-owned venues that lined Eighth Avenue between 23rd and 40th Street. The scene hosted the likes of master ud player Marko Melkon, Kanun player Kanuni Garbis, and the ever colorful Sugar Mary Vartanian–who played the wooden spoons and sang with her own rambunctious style.

Not confined to the city, most of the performers would summer in the so-called “Yogurt Belt” of the Catskills, which centered around Tannersville, NY, and perform for the predominantly Armenian-owned and patronized resort hotels.

“When the scene consisted of the first generation, they would go week after week to performances, their children went more as a novelty and the scene died,” Hagopian explains, “Eighth Avenue was a place where people would go to dance, eat and drink. They preserved a piece of what life was like in the big cities of the old country like Istanbul or Izmir.”

The repertoire of the musicians was predominantly Turkish, with Greek, Armenian, Jewish and other music fused in. The musicians themselves were culturally diverse and the music’s cosmopolitan sounds attracted an equally diverse audience.

The music of this small group was admired by other New York musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Lenny Tristano, Tony Scott, Herbie Mann and Leonard Bernstein all of whom were frequent visitors and admirers of the Eighth Avenue musicians.

Hagopian’s work has been successful in discovering priceless recordings in the archives of now defunct record labels. He has reissued most of them and they have proved popular with pop groups who have sampled the music in recent songs. They have also found a place in the libraries of world music fans.

Today, Los Angeles may reign as the center of Armenian music, but the Eighth Avenue Armenians evoke a by-gone age when newly arrived Eastern Mediterranean immigrants melded their music with the sounds of New York.

One response to “Tracking Armenians in New York”

  1. Cyrus Avatar

    Interesting! Do you know where most of these Armenians came from originally? Am I wrong to assume most NYC Armenians in the late 1800s/early 1900s were from Constantinople, Smyrna and the Balkans? Were there economic differences between the different Armenian communities?

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