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Transform or move to Poland

jsocha_photoGreenpoint

For the many people from Poland who have lived in the old Greenpoint in Brooklyn, the neighborhood was a place where their culture flourished and where their businesses grew. Now, that is changing. On weekend nights the intersection of Greenpoint Avenue and Franklin Street transforms into a hipster party place. Girls in their 20s wearing baggy clothes and boys with tight jeans, thick-rimmed glasses, beanie hats, and eco bags smoke cigarettes in front of the Pencil Factory bar. Plenty go to the Ramona bar, too.

Not long ago the same area would have seemed quite different.  For years, the Greenpoint neighborhood was a mecca for Polish immigrants leaving their home country for economic or political reasons. “Even ten years ago most of the pubs, restaurants, and shops served the Polish community,” said Stanislawa Prenkiewicz, an owner of the Le Fond, a French restaurant on Norman Avenue.

The old Greenpoint did not attract young Americans. U.S. census estimated that in 2000 Greenpoint was a home for 15,115 Poles, many of whom  did not need to speak English in order to survive. By 2007-2011, the average number of Poles in Greenpoint was only 8,598, nearly half of the number from 2000.

In the past, the clubs in Greenpoint played disco music, popular among small town groups in Poland at this time. “It looked exactly like in the movie “Happy New York,” said Marcin Sczodrak, once a resident of Greenpoint. He was referring to a Polish comedy from 1997, in which Polish immigrants in New York City were presented as backward and unsophisticated, and who wanted to quickly make their “American dreams” come true.

“This used to be a district of Polish all-purpose agencies (handling tax, immigration, travel and legal issues,) beauty salons and hairdressers. Now, most of it is gone,” said Pawel Gasior, an owner of the Forum Agency at Manhattan Avenue, now one of the major travel and shipping agencies in Greenpoint.

But for the many Poles who lived there, the old Greenpoint was a place where Polish culture flourished, where one could taste Polish bread, where real Polish folk music was played, and where blue-collar Polish immigrants worked hard to support their families. Some were building small businesses, helping to grow the Greenpoint economy.  It was one of the biggest “Little Polands” in the U.S., which enriched New York’s multicultural flavor. Other Polish communities have established themselves in Chicago and Philadelphia.

According to Danuta Mostwin, a Polish sociologist, Polish people in neighborhoods such as Greenpoint created communities that were self-sufficient, and where they dominated trade and commerce. They were also very active on the political level.  “Interested in American politics, they (Poles) want to influence the legislature to improve the conditions of their neighborhood,” wrote Mostwin in one of her articles.

New York’s Little Poland is steadily and slowly diminishing. Many Poles and the Polish businesses are moving out to other neighborhoods, or even returning to Poland. But as the Polish small businesses move out, some transform themselves. As children of Polish immigrants assimilate into the American environment, some are creating new businesses, often original and innovative.

Diminishing Polish businesses

In front of the Gasior’s Forum Agency on Manhattan Avenue there is the American “Luksus” restaurant, the first restaurant in Greenpoint to receive a Michelin star in September 2014. The restaurant offers tasting menus only, $95 per person. It does not offer Polish food.

Another restaurant, also on Manhattan Avenue, “Polonia” still has a huge signboard with its name and Poland’s symbolic white eagle. But it closed in December 2014, because the rent was reportedly too high for the owners. The closed premises look odd in this now trendy and lively neighborhood full of young hipsters and yuppies. And it symbolizes the transformation that is happening right now.

In 2014, Greenpoint was named number one on the list of “25 best cities and neighborhoods in the U.S. for Millenials” in the Niche website’s ranking and review. The review states that it “ranks the best places for young people to live in the United States, using more than a dozen factors” including “surveys of nearly 500,000 college students and recent grads.”

The trendy changes in “Little Poland” have, however, negatively impacted the Polish businesses, which must adapt to the changes, move out to other New York neighborhoods, or even return to Poland.

In 2003 there were over 5,700 businesses in the neighborhood (zip codes 11211, 11222) according to ReferenceUSA’s Historical Businesses database. Many of them served Polish immigrants.  “In 2000, you could see a Polish deli everywhere, there were around 20 such groceries just in Greenpoint. Now, there are four, maybe five,” said Gasior, who has lived in the neighborhood for over 25 years and observed the changes. In 2014 there were approximately 5,200 businesses in Greenpoint, but most of them do not target the specifically Polish population.

The new residents do not need “Polish bread” anymore. Maybe this is why some of the Polish food businesses set up in the recent years in Greenpoint use international names to sound more inclusive. An example is “Charlotte Patisserie” pastry shop at Manhattan Avenue, a bakery run by Polish immigrants.

Monika Malinowska, an owner of the “Irys” flower shop on Nassau Avenue, agreed that the problem is a change in the demographics of Greenpoint, including the influx of young, higher-income Americans. The older, usually Polish population is leaving or passing away.

“Before we had five or six funerals a week and now we have one or two. Sometimes three weeks pass by and we got nothing.” Malinowska wants to do business with larger funeral homes in other parts of New York, because operating only in Greenpoint is not profitable. She is no longer even living in the neighborhood. The single mother with her 15-year old son has moved to Queens, because the rent in Greenpoint has become too high.

Maspeth and Ridgewood in Queens are now becoming new Polish neighborhoods in New York. “A lot of Polish people I know moved to Queens,” said Tadeusz Chabrowski, a Polish-born author and poet.

Little Poland loses its tastes, but finds a new one

The Polish businesses are slowly disappearing now. Gentrification, as well as the overall aging of the Polish population in Greenpoint, contribute to the failure, moving, or transformation of Polish businesses. An example might be “Antek,” a Polish restaurant that opened in 1990 and closed in 2014. Its owner, Stanislawa Prenkiewicz said, “Polish workers after a long day would come and eat pierogis.” But it had not done well in the recent few years. The place was transformed into Le Fond, a French restaurant last fall.

“Antek was more like a cheap eatery, it was always full of people. Even five years ago it was difficult to find a free seat at Antek. As the rents went up and Polish people started to move out, to Ridgewood, or even back to Poland, my business started to fall,” recalled Prenkiewicz.

Prenkiewicz sold 45 percent of Antek to an American friend, Jake Eberle, and they transformed it into a trendier French restaurant to adapt to the neighborhood’s changing demographic.

The new business is an opposite of Antek. “The most expensive meal at Antek was $13. Now, the cheapest course at Le Fond is $14, the most expensive is $50,” Prenkiewicz smiled. Le Fond serves such dishes as Creekstone rib eye, scallops, veal tenderloin, barbequed squash, chanterelles. Antek was known for its pierogis, beef goulash, and cabbage soup.

“Sentimentally, it is bad that Poles are leaving the neighborhood. We would have had our own famous area in New York. On the other hand, I think the changes are positive for this neighborhood. I think that we must observe what is happening and what is changing and we must adapt to it, if we want to continue to grow,” said Prenkiewicz.

Poland, a land of opportunities

Unlike many other countries Poland did not suffer much during the global financial crisis and now is perceived as a country of stability within EU borders. Because of the very good economic situation in Poland, the old Greenpoint residents are now more willing to buy a one-way ticket back to their home country.

The number of applications for Polish passports at the Polish consulate in New York has risen significantly over the past several years.

In 2008 there were approximately 8300 applications for a Polish passport at the Polish Consulate in New York. In 2014 the number increased to around 11,000. “There is an increase in interest in Polish passports since Poland’s admission to the EU and a very good economic situation compared to other EU countries,” commented Alicja Tunk, vice-consul from the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York.

More and more Polish Americans want to also confirm their Polish citizenship. There were 340 such cases at the Consulate of Poland in New York in 2014 compared to only 28 in 2004.

According to the data of the New York Department of City Planning, the population of Polish-born people in New York declined from 65,246 in 2000 to 60,153 in 2006.

“People move back to Poland, because Poland is doing really well nowadays. Polish economy is really growing, salaries are growing, lifestyle is very high nowadays, and during the 26 years of changes we made huge progress,” said Sabina Klimek, who heads the Trade and Investment section at Poland’s Consulate General in New York. “Poland is really the country that can compete with other countries with quality of life and you can also do very successful business in Poland,” she added.

Matthew Kaminski, an editor of Politico’s European version praised the Polish economy in an article titled “The Land of Opportunity – an Investor Perspective.” “Warsaw is a booming, and in some ways even attractive, city now, and a financial center for the region. That’s not what people would have assumed 20 years ago thinking first about Prague or Budapest.”

Pawel Gasior from the Forum Agency said that there are also more and more older people choosing Poland as their final destination for retirement and asking his agency to ship their property there.

“There are several reasons for that. First, consider that they worked here for many years and receive pensions. In Poland they are going to have a pretty good life with that money. Second, if they sell their property in Greenpoint for a couple of millions of dollars, again they are going to have a pretty good life. Third, they usually still have their relatives in Poland, they do not have to worry about English, about the church masses in Polish, about working, and they often still have a place to come back to.”

According to the data of National Institute on Retirement Security on New York State from 2014, the average annual retirement pension income in New York is $19,151, which amounts to approximately 70,000 zloty. In Poland, the average retirement pension is approximately 24,000 zloty a year.

A lot has changed compared to 2000. In the past Polish immigrants did not need to speak English in order to survive. Now, although you may often hear Polish conversations walking down Greenpoint Avenue, it’s not a first language there. There still are businesses in Greenpoint where elderly Polish people communicate in their native language, but they are not as many as before.

Greenpoint, a land of opportunities

Many properties in Greenpoint are currently worth millions of dollars. Tadeusz Chabrowski, a Polish poet and a resident of Greenpoint, who ran an optician business in Greenpoint at Norman Avenue for 15 years until 2000, said that he bought the building in 1973 for $15,000. Now, he says, he is being offered $3.5 million for this building. “Of course I had to renovate it and it took me several years to make it look as it looks right now,” admitted Chabrowski, “but the prices indeed went up.” He is not going to sell the property.

Chabrowski worked in several places in Manhattan, before taking up a course in optical science and opening his own business in Greenpoint.

“The business was great,” said Chabrowski. “My wife was not content when I decided to shut it down, but she understood me,” he recalled. He said, he closed his business because he wanted to focus on writing poems, not because of the changes in the neighborhood.

When asked why he did not want to sell the building when he closed the business, Chabrowski glows, “This is my whole life, I do not need those millions, but I am an individual, not a part of the movement. Most of the Polish people here already sold their properties and moved to Ridgewood, or Maspeth.”

But the building serves more than sentimental purposes. Chabrowski is the father of Tomasz Chabrowski. The son used the building that his father did not want to sell to create his own restaurant, Forest Natural (“very heavily populated with Polish people”), but he soon changed it to an American lunch spot, Lunchbox.

Second generation assimilates

43-year-old Tomasz Chabrowski is a good example of a Polish-American entrepreneur, who adapted to the changes and made the best use of the Greenpoint transformation. He does not speak Polish on a daily basis and has not inherited the Polish accent. He runs Lunchbox on Nassau, where his father used to have the optician salon. He also runs Mark Bar and Lobster Joint. The latter already has three locations and is going to be franchised by the end of a year. All of the businesses that Tomasz Chabrowski runs target American consumers.

None of the businesses run by Chabrowski offers Polish products, although the owner laughs that they do special “lobster pierogis.”

The junior Chabrowski is also working on a  new business, the comics shop “The Comic Book Underground.” He admits that it is not simply an idea for a prosperous business, it is rather his passion. And he can afford it. “Once you have a few [places,] and you start experimenting, you use the profit, you balance the loss,” said Chabrowski.

The report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Poland from 2014 on immigration to the U.S. says that there is a rapid assimilation of the younger Polish generation, both born in the U.S. and coming here as children, into the American environment. Chabrowski says he is not the only example of a child of immigrants in Greenpoint, who made the best use of the changes.

Some came back to Poland

Marcin Poznan, a former spokesman for the Warsaw School of Economics, had worked as a sports journalist for Nowy Dziennik from 2004 to 2008, a major Polish newspaper published in New York. Nowy Dziennik used to have offices in both Manhattan and Greenpoint. “After the financial crisis, the company was sold and only the Greenpoint office remained. But as the Polish population is decreasing, there are fewer and fewer of those who need to read Polish newspapers in New York,” said Poznan.

He eventually decided to return to Poland. Poland’s admission to the European Union in 2004 opened new opportunities for the Polish people and made its economy one of the fastest in Europe. Poznan is happy with the decision that he made.

“I think there are maybe 50 percent of those, who I worked with in New York, who are still there,” said Poznan. “The rest came back to Poland,” he added.

Pawel Gasior from the Forum Agency said that the numbers of shipments of properties he handles each month, depends on the dollar’s exchange rate. “I remember when several years ago the dollar was worth 2 zloty, Poles were sending everything like crazy,” said Gasior. “Now, when the dollar is getting stronger, Polish people are sending less things to Poland. But they are more often willing to move out completely. So there is fewer and fewer of those who sends huge packs with clothes to their relatives, but more and more of those, who decide to leave.”

Forum Agency handles a couple of resettlements a month, Gasior said. They usually ship equipment and clothes. When asked, how many business resettlements the agency handles, he hesitated. “It is difficult to say, but last year I had couple of restaurant equipment large shipments to Poland. I think the equipment here is much better, than in Poland.”

Proud and sentimental Poles

Rev. Tadeusz Maciejewski, a pastor at the Cyril and Methodius Parish in Greenpoint said that he sees fewer Polish people coming to the church masses, although the number of the masses in Polish has been the same in the last couple of years. But as the rents have gone up, he said, the Polish people are leaving for Maspeth, or Ridgewood and chose to attend the masses there.

He said, however, that some Poles are coming back to Greenpoint for “sentimental reasons” during important holidays for Poland, such as Easter or Christmas.

The number of parishioners in Greenpoint declined significantly, said another priest, Tadeusz Lizinczyk from the Saint Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan, who has observed the Polish community in New York for the past three years. “I know a priest from the St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Greenpoint and we talked about the changes. He once told me that over the past several years the number of the church parishioners declined from around 9000 to around 2600,” Father Lizinczyk said. He also said that although the number of Poles has declined across all of New York City, Greenpoint churches suffer most significantly. “Manhattan is doing better than Brooklyn. You often prefer to come to Polish mass in Manhattan as a temporary visitor from Poland, as a Polish student, or as a traveler. On the other hand, the people from Greenpoint, Maspeth or Queens occasionally come to church in Manhattan, too.”

Father Lizinczyk says that because of the changes New York churches also suffer economically: “Churches often rely on the church donations. Our church relies 50 percent on the donations. Imagine that there are fewer and fewer people coming, you have a problem.”

Marta Pawlaczek, a coordinator of the “Greenpoint Transition” cultural project, which finished in January 2015, says that Polish residents of Greenpoint are very enthusiastic about any Polish events that come to the neighborhood, because they have become rare. The “Greenpoint.Transition” project consisted of the series of meetings with Polish photographers and authors, and of discussions about the Polish identity.  Pawlaczek said that “there was a huge interest in the events organized with the Greenpoint Transition” because Poles who stayed in Greenpoint want to preserve the Polish culture there.

Pawlaczek said, that although Poles move out from Greenpoint, they still want to participate in the cultural events there. The Greenpoint Polish activities might encourage them to visit their old neighborhood, even if they do not live there anymore.

It seems that although Ridgewood and Maspeth may now become new Polish spots in New York, Greenpoint still remains a fuller version of Poland. More Polish restaurants and more Polish cultural events seem to still attract Polish American visitors from all over the U.S. and those, who moved out of Greenpoint.  Despite the fact that the new Polish businesses set up in Queens and some go back to Poland, some Brooklynites hope, Polish people will still prefer coming back to Greenpoint for a mass in Polish or to try Polish food at a favorite restaurant, whenever they can.

“I am still happy seeing that there are still so many shops and restaurants, I mean, it still exists, but exists a little bit different,” glowed Sabina Klimek from the Polish Consulate. “Greenpoint is still a part of Poland and we are lucky that Greenpoint is popular, that people come there to do shopping, because the people who come there, who move there, they actually find out something about Poland, they start visiting Polish restaurants, they start buying Polish food, so it’s not that bad that this place has become international.”

Words by Joanna Socha

Author’s note: Joanna was reporting on the story during her studies at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014 and 2015 and although every effort has been made, some new changes in the neighborhood might not be reflected in the article.

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