Vanishing Polish Greenpoint
Green Farms Supermarket (918 Manhattan Ave.) was one of the local stores my Polish-born wife and I regularly shopped to get authentic Polish food, but the store’s last evening of business was just two weeks ago. Though it had an American name, we never called it Green Farms. For us the market was “U Chlopakow” and it was a vibrant piece of Polish Greenpoint.
The shelves were almost empty because the prices had been slashed and sadly only a few cans of Polish food, some mineral water and Polish beer remained. The owners, though, had not liquidated the store for lack of business, but because as owners of the building, the temptation to sell out and retire comfortably proved too great to resist.
In a January 2007 article called “Farewell, America,” the Polish newspaper, Nowy Dziennik, gave anecdotal evidence that many Polish-born residents of Greenpoint were leaving. The article mentioned the closing of savings accounts at the Polish-Slavic Credit Union, the transfer of large amounts of money to accounts in Poland, the shipping of large packages to Poland, the purchase of one-way tickets from New York to Poland, and the growth in advertisements for transatlantic moving companies as signs Poles were leaving Greenpoint for good.
In interviews with those planning their departure Poles cited immigration restrictions, the falling value of the dollar, and most significantly, new opportunities beckoning from Western Europe and even Poland, as reasons for returning to Europe. Many local Polish property owners also decided to cash out for a comfortable retirement in Poland.
Nowy Dziennik itself is a symbol of vanishing Polish Greenpoint. The Polish daily once was a ubiquitous presence in Polish shops, but declining circulation has now forced it to become just a weekly paper and it has left its former offices on the corner of Franklin Street and Greenpoint Avenue. The beautiful building that once housed the paper is also up for sale for $6.5 million dollars.
Manhattan Avenue, which once boasted many Polish-owned businesses, has seen many thriving Polish stores close including Wedel, the Polish chocolate shop and the Polish restaurants Happy End and Lomzynianka, amongst many others.
Although the remaining Polish businesses continue to thrive and Polish is still often heard on the street, approximately 10,000 Polish-Americans live in Greenpoint today, around half of the Polish population a decade earlier.
Perhaps the strongest sign of the vanishing culture is Greenpoint’s Polish churches. Not long ago, local Polish churches were so crowded that many of the parishioners could not squeeze into the church and heard the service standing outside.
The congregations of the Polish churches are still large, but they are noticeably smaller than they were a decade previously and many of the congregants are noticeably older with fewer children in attendance.
What has caused the drop in the Polish size of the Polish community? First, like many other ethnic groups, Poles have been driven out of Greenpoint by the sharp rise in rents. Many Polish renters, especially families, cannot afford Greenpoint rents and they have relocated to Maspeth, Ridgewood and other areas where rents are lower.
In the past, when paying tenants were hard to find some Polish landlords happily rented to Polish tenants, but with gentrification landlords today easily find non-Polish tenants who are willing to pay top dollar.
Perhaps, the biggest factor in the shrinking Polish community is Poland’s improved economic health. Greenpoint has housed a Polish community since the 1880s and Polish poverty had always been one of the factors that pushed immigrants to Greenpoint. Today, however, Poland is now a thriving economy and fewer Poles come to America for economic reasons.
An even greater magnet directing the flow of Polish immigration – not just from Greenpoint, but also from Poland itself – has been the opening of the Western European labor markets to Polish workers. Poland’s admission into the European Union in 2004 significantly eased restrictions on Polish workers migrating to Western European.
After 2004, the small stream of Polish immigrants to the United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden – the three EU Member States that immediately opened their labor markets to Poles– grew into mighty rivers of migrants.
In just the first two years after joining the European Union, some 800,000 Poles left their homeland, most bound for Western Europe. Some people claim that there are now a million Polish residents of the United Kingdom alone.
Poles who once emigrated to America can get jobs far closer to home and even return home for the weekend. In addition, their work in European Union lands is not only on a par with American pay scales, but Polish workers receive health and pension benefits that American employers cannot often match.