When Very Reverend John Bakas first came to Los Angeles’ Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 1995, he found the surrounding neighborhood full of crime and neglect. Problems ranged from badly maintained sidewalks and an abundance of trash to the presence of drug dealers and gangs.
But Father Bakas believed the church belonged in that area. “The church should be built on the rocky shores of a community… Jesus went to where people were hurting. Jesus went where people had real needs, spiritually, physically, emotionally,” he said. He was the driving force behind a renewal of the area into the inclusive, multicultural community that the Byzantine Latino Quarter is today.
In the 1950s, the area was known as “Greek Town” because of the large number of Greek immigrants that settled there. From 1970-1990 immigrants from El Salvador Guatemala, and Nicaragua moved into the area, making it much more diverse. But in the 1990s when Father Bakas took his position as Dean of Saint Sophia, crime had become so pervasive that people were afraid for their mothers to attend evening service.
Father Bakas partnered with church leaders, community members, and UCLA to form a plan called “Genesis PLUS,” which means “the birth and more.” It was a plan to renew the area, make it more inclusive, and develop community pride, which they believed would beautify the area and reduce crime. In 1997 it was christened the Byzantine Latino Quarter, a name that reflects the diverse population that calls it home. “Historically, you have the Latin Church and you have the Byzantine Church. But you cannot exist in this multilingual, multiethnic, multireligious society by being an isolated little castle,” Father Bakas told the Getty Iris.
Today, the Byzantine Latino Quarter is located along Pico Boulevard between South Hobart Boulevard and South Alvarado Boulevard. The famous mural across the street from Saint Sophia Cathedral reads, “We are each of us angels with one wing. We can only fly embracing each other,” reflecting the area’s rough past and bright future.