Rooted in History: Finding Family History in the 1940 census


The story goes a little something like this. Sometime in the late 1800’s a young Greek merchant, named Demetrius Vavourakis, from the small village of Kria Vrisi (Κρύα Βρύση), Crete met Alouisa Kopp, an accomplished violinist in a traveling orchestra in Athens. The two fell in love and became married. However, all was not well. The mixed Greeco-Austrian, Orthodox-Catholic marriage saw both Demetrius and Alouisa become estranged from both their cultures and they sought to start somewhere new. Demetrius sold his ships and along with Alousia moved to the U.S. in 1904, before relocating to the foggy shores of San Francisco. Demetrius Vavourakis changed his name to James Nicholas Vavuris, and he and Alouisa raised their family of 10, the youngest being my grandfather, Paul. (To my aunties who may see this post, my apologies if I have misrepresented family history!)

Village of Kria Vrisi (credit to me and my very very good early 2000s point and shoot digital camera)

As soon as I started looking at the HOLC maps and 1940s census data, I was interested in investigating family history. I knew that my grandfather and his siblings lived in San Francisco in 1940. Just a few years after the census, he and two of his siblings would ship out to fight in World War II and my great grandfather would pass away just months before the end of the war. I assumed that my family would have resided in San Francisco’s Greektown neighborhood, which according to the San Francisco Chronicle, was located in the working-class South of Market Street area, around Third and Folsom street. Greektown is actually not identified on the HOLC Mapping Inequality map, however, I imagine it would be classified similarly to D11, nicknamed “Little Europe.” According to the HOLC files, this district is composed of approximately 130 blocks and inhabited by second-generation immigrants from Italy and parts of Europe, who worked as laborers, factory workers, and service employees. A standard 6 room home in this region cost $3750 in 1940, and would have rented for $37.50 a month.

A very rough outline of Greektown, centered around St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Like many immigrant communities, The Greek enclave in San Francisco was formed by the necessity of recent Greek immigrants to rely on each other, particularly after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which resulted in a large number of jobs for rebuilding the city. The San Francisco Chronicle article notes that around 1930, roughly 5,922 Greeks lived in the city, however, by around 1945, many of the Greek residents of San Francisco had begun to move into the middle class and relocate away from Greektown.

Vavuris Family in San Francisco

After talking to my dad, I learned that my family actually lived on 47th Ave in San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park, Sutro Heights Park, and a former boardwalk amusement park, known as Playland, where my great grandfather ran a concessions stand.

Playland in San Francisco: Source – Wikimedia Commons

The 47th ave house is located in San Francisco’s B1 neighborhood. I found it interesting to see how the majority of San Francisco’s declining and redline neighborhoods lay in the city’s interior, near ports and dockyards, where many may have worked. By contrast, the B1 neighborhood is as far from the city center as one could be on the peninsula. The HOLC description for the neighborhood notes that it is a residential neighborhood inhabited by medium income group professionals and “white collar” workers, with “no threat of undesirable racial influences.” Homes in this area cost $4,000-$7,000 or rented for $65 a month. The HOLC designation notes that some parts of the neighborhood could be classified as “high yellow” in areas that are showing signs of decline or “low green” in areas neighboring Golden Gate Park.

47th Ave, B1 Neighborhood, Mapping Inequality

The red x on the above map shows the approximate location of my grandfather’s home in San Francisco in 1940. I decided to see if I could find my family listed in the 1940 census, and after a long series of clicking through pages, I finally saw a familiar name.

At the time of the 1940 census, my great grandfather had retired from his concessions stand. My great grandparents lived in the house with my grandfather, and four of my great aunts and uncles. My great aunts both worked as stenographers, and earned $1,080 and $960 a year, respectively. My grandfather was 17 at the time, and in high school.

My great grandparents owned their home as one of the few immigrant families on the block. Looking at the census records, I see that one of their neighbors was originally from Germany, and I wonder if my great grandmother visited her to speak her native tongue. It was in the front yard of this house that my grandfather and his siblings made candied apples to sell at my great grandfather’s concessions stand. Their house was appraised at $6,500, falling with in the higher end of the median housing cost according the redlining map. Today, that same house is worth $2,390,794, according to Zillow!

The Vavurises

The San Francisco house, my great grandparents, and even my grandparents are now gone, however, the family legacy remains deeply rooted in the Bay Area. Of my great grandparents’ children, I was named after my grandfather’s older brother, Nicholas, who died in a tragic car accident on his 12th birthday. Due to superstitions around what many felt like was my uncanny resemblance to my namesake, I was forbidden to cross the street on my 12th birthday.

Just a few short years after the 1940 census, my grandfather and 2 of his brothers would ship out to fight in World War II, where all three would thankfully survive. My grandfather and my grandmother would proceed to have nine kids of their own, who they would raise south of the bustling city in the (then) quiet orchard town of Palo Alto. To this day, the extended family remains close – booking an entire venue for massive family reunions that typically number in the hundreds.

I am left to wonder how things may have been different if my great grandparents had chosen to settle in the Greek neighborhood. Would they have had the same access to public services, such as school, in the presumably worse off neighborhood? Did my grandparents’ Greek identity prevent them from obtaining a mortgage in the better-off B1 neighborhood due to mortgage regulations of the time related to ‘subversive immigrants,’ and if so, did they buy with cash?

Ultimately, unless one of my aunties reaches out to request corrections, I am unlikely to find the answers to these questions. But seeing my family in a historic document, in the context of the mortgage practices of the time, has certainly given me much to think on.

Where were your family in 1940, and how did the census and housing policies of the time impact them?

The original Nicholas Vavuris pictured on the right
James and Alouisa Vavuris and two of their children
My great grandfather from Crete
My Grandfather during WWII
Part of the Vavuris family, including my grandfather (bottom left), and my dad (front and center) pictured in 1965

Cover photo: Image of my Great Aunt and Great Uncle outside the 47th Ave house & the Big Dipper at Playland

In The Slums of Italian Town

My Family’s Story:

From left to right: My grandmother, Margherita. My great-grandmother, Maria. And my great-aunt, Antonina. Taken circa 1960.

While my grandparents did not move from Italy to the United States until the 1950s, the area in San Jose, CA that they moved to was already red-lined and marked as “hazardous” by 1940.

From anecdotal stories passed down from my grandparents, this area was run down and overcrowded. The people there struggled to make end’s meet, often working long hours for little pay. My own grandmother worked as a laborer in a cannery nearby, which according to the site, was a popular employer of this community.

Mapping Inequality Representation of San Jose, CA. Area D11 is highlighted in red. Source

Area D11: An Italian Slum

According to the Mapping Inequality website, area D11 (represented in red by the map above) was a “Zoned multi-family residential, industrial and business. This is one ‘Italian Town’ and contains the slum section of San Jose.” 75% of the residents of this area were foreign-born Italians, like my family.

Close up of area D11. The Coronato residence at the intersection of Grant and Locust Streets is marked with a star.

The Coronato Family’s Example

Below is the 1940 census data representing the intersection of Grant and Locust streets, located in area D11 (see star on map above.)

Because I do not have the exact address that my family lived at in this area, I chose a family from the 1940 census that resembled my family’s background: the Coronato family.

Section of 1940 census data above, cropped to depict the Coronato family’s information

The Coronato family lived at the intersection between Grant and Locust street, marked with a star in the map above. All four family members were born in Italy, just like my grandmother’s family. The father, Joe, was a laborer who worked hard to provide for his family, without taking a single week off the entire year. The mother, Catherane, took care of the household. Both parents were 42 years old. Their 21-year-old son, Peter, worked as a cook in a restaurant. The 19-year-old daughter, Rosa, was a worker at the cannery, the same place my own grandmother worked.

The family made a combine annual income of $1700, on par with the average income of families living in this area.

The example of the Coronato family gives valuable insight into the realities of people living in this “slum,” which are similar to the experiences of my own family. While my grandparents were able to eventually move out of this “hazardous” area, they have told me of their difficulty in receiving a home mortgage because of the immigrant status and current residence in a red-lined area. It took them until the 1970s to be able to leave area D11. This demonstrates the lasting impacts of red-lining policies on the people who lived there in the past, and its continued effects in the modern day.

Featured Image Source: Festa in Little Italy. New York, 1908. Photograph. Note: This photograph is not of San Jose, but it does represent what a “Little Italy” slum looked like in a different part of the country.

Where in Portland was I allowed to live in the 1940s?

Featured Image Source

Oregon, a beautiful state and a wonderful home, is plagued with a racist past that seems to be rarely acknowledged. Originally founded as a free state was only free because it did not allow any Black people to live there at all. Other ethnic groups such as Asian people were not all that welcome either. In 1926, the state repealed its Exclusion Law which then allowed Blacks to live in Oregon. However, White Oregonians did not want to live in mixed neighborhoods. Then, came in redlining. On the map, it shows that blue and green areas are the best places to live while the yellow and red are not.

So, let’s go back in time to 1940 where, an Asian American woman, I was allowed to somehow work on the railroads. Of course, with 2 kids, I would like to live in a good area. Giving the kids a good home with a good school was the whole point of me immigrating to the U.S. It is interesting that the green areas on the map are far from my workplace. I guess the next best thing could be this Irvington neighborhood.


Let’s see what the security map says about pros and cons:


  1. Schools
  2. Churches
  3. Recreational Areas
  4. Shopping centers
  5. Near city center


  1. Proximity to Lower Albina and the Alberta Districts. I think that’s where other Asians and Black Americans live. Why is this listed as a con?

I found a house for sale on N.E. 22nd Ave… The previous owners were tailors and stock-keepers. The neighborhood seems consistent with businessmen, white-collar workers. I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford this.

I think I found another home in the lower Albina (outlined in bolded lines).


Here are some Pros and Cons about Lower Albina from 1940:


  1. Convenience to the city center
  2. Schools
  3. Churches
  4. Recreational areas
  5. Trading centers


  1. Extremely heterogeneous population
  2. Dilapidated improvements
  3. Encroachment of business

I wonder why these cons seem so deterring for me. I guess the home is within my price range and my ability to get a loan. The previous owners held jobs such as housekeeper and cook. Though I wish I could live in the Irvington area, I guess I’ll settle for the Lower Albina area.

Back in the present-day: Based on the data from the security maps, it is easy to understand that the areas in the blue area in nicer areas, dominantly White communities. In the communities where there are people of color, the communities would progressively be less as valuable. Using the pros and cons of information from the security maps can show a better comparison of how the HOLC viewed the different parts of Portland. In the end, as an Asian-American. I would have a hard time finding a home in a good area where I would want, though I would likely want to be close to my ethnic community.

A Bohemian Rhapsody: The Life of a Good Man

Source for Feature Image Map

This is how it starts.

Staring out at a crowd of people in black suits, black dresses, brown suits, grey hair, and grey eyes. Before me is a podium, and on it is a piece of paper. My only job is to read this piece of paper. I take a breath, and begin.

“Thank you all again for being here. I’m going to try and get through this as best as I can. We’ll see how well that happens.”

I smirk and look down, letting the black suits know it’s okay to laugh. My hands are cold, and clammy. I like public speaking. I’ve been singing, playing the piano, teaching, and talking my whole life, but this is different.

“When Kay was pregnant with our daughter Claire, we had a baby shower for our whole family. Papa came, and he wrote a poem, of course.”

Another chuckle from the suits. They know his poetic hobby and his sometimes acerbic whit.

“This is what he wrote. It’s called In the Beginning….
Joseph and Mary begat…Kelvin
Kelvin and Meg begat…Tyler
Now Tyler and Kaylin are ‘begat-ing’
I asked God to


Crying. Of course. I wouldn’t make it. And I didn’t. I had one job at my grandfather’s funeral service. I would read the poem he wrote for my daughter. And I couldn’t get through it in any kind of intelligible way. You would have needed closed captioning.

We think about the dead differently here.

By “here” I mean America, and specifically WASP America. Of course Americans tend to honor our deceased, but at a reasonable distance. We seem to be unnerved by the fragile thoughts of our own mortality, by the fleeting moments we have here on Earth before we drift away. I think of this compared to other cultures where our ancestors are not pushed to dusty photo albums and family names. My grandpa Joe was Czech; stern but caring, a physicist by trade and an engineer by personality. But my grandpa Gil is Mexican. Through and through. He is emotional and kindhearted, creative and musical, and a teacher. I take after both, I’m happy to say.

When it comes to honoring our deceased family, however, I consider myself more of a Gil than a Joe. We built an ofrenda this year with our kids, painted papeles and escueletos, ate tamales and pan de muerto. And we told stories, and read poems about our family that came and left before us. And then I realized, I just didn’t know much about the family that came before me. That the only real family history-making was done when someone died, and you read where they grew up in an obituary.

So here we go. An opportunity to relive history, find out about my own roots, and remember my papa Joe in my own way, and hopefully in a way that means I’ll have more stories to tell my children, and theirs. Stories that I will start remembering about my own dad, mom, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Stories to tell while we’re still around.

My Grandpa Joe moved to Eastern Washington in 1948

He begin work with General Electric mapping and performing analysis on radiation dosing of plants, animals, and people living and working on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Before that, he lived in Denver, Colorado where he earned his degree in Chemical Engineering. But before that, he lived in Chicago. I know this because my dad told me, and a I still remember some short stories papa Joe would tell me, but they have faded.

Chicago was a Red-Lining town, with districts mapped out by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HOLC spread out in every direction but Lake Michigan. Joe was just 13 when the 1940 census was conducted, and lived with his dad Joseph, mom Anna, and sister Evelyn. His dad – my great-grandpa – was also born in Chicago, just north, and made an astonishing $4,200 a year as an insurance superintendent.

Image Source

But that’s not all I found. While researching the 1930 census, I found myself completely stymied looking for my relatives. There were certainly more Soldats than I anticipated, but none in Chicago. I did, however, find two WWII draft cards for my grandpa and his dad, living at the same address as was listed on the 1940 census.

I’m not great at math

But I was able to figure this one out. Papa was 18 when he filled out his draft card, and with a birthday of May 4, 1926 that meant it was…cary the one…1944. Just before he left for college. Neither my grandpa or great-grandpa Joe(s) were called into service, thankfully. And now I had more evidence of where they both lived, and when. So what was 3717 Raymond Ave in Brookfield like in 1940, and 1944? The maps from the HOLC provide some insight.

Images from Google Maps and Mapping Inequality.

My grandpa grew up smack-dab in the middle of what the HOLC referred to as C180, also known as “Portia Manor”. The population arrived primarily from the inner city of Chicago looking to escape the increasingly cramped housing of downtown for newer houses and easy access to transportation. The population was primarily comprised of 2nd and 3rd generation Continental Europeans, with “Bohemian” still considered a nationality. Most of these people, like my great-grandfather, worked white-collar jobs. Seeing now where my grandpa Joe grew up, I wanted to dig deeper, and look into where his father spent his youth.

Welcome to Little Ukraine

The twelfth United States Census was conducted in 1900. My grandpa Joe was not yet born, but his father, Joseph John Soldat, would have been about 3 years old. I knew my family from my grandpa’s side was…Eastern European? Czech, is usually what we said. “Doesn’t your name mean ‘soldier’ in German?” someone would ask. “Yes, and in literally every other language in Europe,” was the reply. But when I looked at the actual census data from 1900, I found something really fascinating.

1900 Census showing Joseph John Soldat

My great-grandfather was born in Illinois, right near a place now called “Ukrainian Village” on Google maps. A closer look at the census shows that his father Charles, my great-great-grandpa, lists “Bohemia” as his place of birth. Bohemia. A country that hasn’t existed since WWI, once the seat of the Habsburgs, and gateway into the West from Hungary. This is where they were from. And not just them. Nearly every single person on that page of the census listed “Bohemia” as either their place of birth or the place of birth of their parents. Once again I looked to the HOLC website for information on this area as of about 1935.

HOLC C155 is described as “a mediocre district of semi-congested character, steadily declining in general desirability.”. While the appearance of a Polish church is somewhat comforting to the HOLC, they conclude thusly. “The section is graded third class because of its age, obsolescence, and general appearance, and rated minus because of its mixed character and doubtful future.” Ouch. The area is predominantly Italian at this point, and it would possibly make sense that the Soldat family picked up shop and headed for the suburbs when new immigrants came into Chicago in the 1920s and 30s.

Let’s try this again

I’m feeling emotional, that’s the Mexican side of me coming out. I miss my papa Joe, and his bad jokes and good poems. I’m glad I know more about him now, about where he grew up, and where he came from. I’m glad I know about his dad, Joseph, and his dad, Charles. I’m glad I know about Bohemia. So let’s try this again, shall we?

In the Beginning
Joseph and Mary begat…Kelvin
Kelvin and Meg begat…Tyler
Now Tyler and Kaylin are ‘begat-ing’
I asked God to bless their home
He told me to write a poem
And so I did.
When I heard you were anticipating
I began eagerly awaiting
My very first great-grand child.
Now my emotions have gone wild
So here at this sitting
I feel it is fitting
That I say it right out loud,
I am very, very proud.

Joseph K Soldat, born May 4, 1926, died September 12, 2017

There. That’s much better. Thanks for the help, papa.