Anna Plucinski came to Greenpoint, Brooklyn as a young married woman three decades ago to escape the political regime in Poland. Today, she runs Aggie Agency on Nassau Avenue, one of many offices in the neighborhood that specialize in helping newly arrived immigrants to get settled in the city. But for the last three years, she says, far fewer emigres are seeking her services.
“On a good day we used to have 50 or 60 people opening the door. Now we are lucky to get 20 or 30. The phone is not ringing, it’s really dead,” Plucinski said last month.
Community leaders, residents and other businesspeople share her observation that fewer Poles populate traditionally, solidly Polish Greenpoint these days – a trend that dovetails with the area’s gentrification generally. But on a walk down Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint’s main shopping street, you still see plenty of signs in Polish and a smattering of Polish specialty shops with kielbasas draped in the window and colorfully wrapped boxes of imported chocolates on display. Polish bakeries still churn out loaves of fresh bread piled in wicker baskets, and Polish restaurants, usually christened with the ubiquitous Polish flag (one solid white bar above one red bar) still serve pierogies and Polish beer.
Signs of Polish culture in the borough may drift away in years to come if the current decline continues, however. U.S. Census data shows that 35,382 people born in Poland lived in Brooklyn in 2000, 13,660 of whom lived in Greenpoint. The American Community Survey in 2006, a follow-up to the Census, yields no Greenpoint-specific number, but the Brooklyn-wide number had fallen to 21,605 – a six-year decrease of 39 percent.
“This is definitely a new chapter of the Polish immigrant story,” says Krzysztof W. Kasprzyk, the Polish consul general in New York. Fewer Poles are coming to America for several reasons, Kasprzyk says. The declining value of the U.S. dollar is one contributor. Also, as members of the European Union since 2004, Poles are now moving to England and Ireland for jobs. Working in Europe not only makes better economic sense, but it’s also desirable because of fewer bureaucratic hassles. “Jobs in Europe are fully legal, workers get social security and medical insurance, and they don’t need a visa,” he said. Plus, “they can also go back to Poland on the weekends.”
As Greenpoint attorney Romuald Magda puts it, referring to the Polish diaspora: “When Poland thrives, Polonia suffers.” Magda, who is president of the local Pulaski Association of Business and Professional Men, came from Poland in the 1980s and says, “Twenty years ago everyone wanted to be an American, but this is no longer the case.”
Greenpoint’s Polish character began in the late 1800s when immigrants began arriving there to work in the factories and docks along the East River. With its close proximity to Manhattan, Greenpoint quickly became a popular and affordable working-class neighborhood. In the 2000 Census, more than 213,447 residents in New York City claimed Polish ancestry (which is different than being Poland-born), making New York the second-largest Polonia in the U.S. outside of Chicago.
But according to the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, in 2007 immigrant visas for Polish to the U.S. hit a nine-year low – 3,278 were issued, down 57 percent from 7,613 in 2004.
In addition to an apparent decline in the number of Polish residents, Greenpoint also has been experiencing an influx of wealthier young urban professionals. The median sale price of an apartment in the neighborhood jumped by 65 percent – the largest margin in the city – between 2006 and 2007, according to the Real Estate Board of New York. In one high-profile deal, Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds – the real estate investment group of former basketball star Magic Johnson – last year sunk $12.4 million into a six-story building on Green Street.
Many longtime Greenpoint residents can’t afford the rising rents, and have already moved to newer Polish enclaves including Maspeth and Ridgewood in Queens, as well as Garfield, New Jersey. The Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union took notice, opening branches in each of these neighborhoods.
The credit union’s vice president of marketing, Marian Ponanta, enjoys seeing the neighborhood’s evolution. When he came to Greenpoint in 1982, the area was stigmatized as a backwater. “People used to think only losers stayed here,” Ponanta said. But financial institutions like his “took chances and served a population no one else would loan money to,” and immigrants invested in construction and real estate.
“Everyone said one day this is going to be a big neighborhood. Well, lo and behold they were right,” he says.
Bozena Kaminski, director and CEO of the Polish Slavic Center on Kent Street, came to Greenpoint a year after Polanta and also views recent changes as positive. She remembers when “people wouldn’t walk the streets at night, nobody cared about the appearance of things, there was drinking and drug abuse.” From the 1980s through mid-90s, the area was at its lowest point, Kaminski says.
Her job is to keep the Polish community vital, and she likes the attention Greenpoint is getting now. She thinks new businesses have helped improve the area.
“Before it was just a place where people worked, but didn’t want to spend time. After work you went other places. Now people actually want to come here,” she said. When Starbucks purchased the old Chopin movie theatre on Manhattan Avenue, local bodega owners bristled, but Kaminski saw it as a sign of progress. Her only objection is the proliferation of 99-cent stores on Manhattan Avenue.
One mild Saturday afternoon recently, two Greenpoint natives with Puerto Rican roots, 28-year-old Julio Teran and his friend Jerry Casldue, 29, were talking in front of Teran’s apartment on Franklin Street. They miss the neighborhood of their youth. The Latino-owned bodegas on Franklin now compete for space with trendy bars and clothing boutiques, converted factory spaces, and even a record store that carries vinyl LPs, all catering to a new class of professionals and artists who have flooded the area.
“People used to spend time outdoors until late at night, listening to music, and barbequing on the street. Now the police come and tell us to turn it down and go inside,” Teran says. “That kind of thing never happened before. The new people are complaining a lot and this is how they’re trying to get rid of us.”
Developers in the area are eager to renovate apartment buildings, particularly ones near the waterfront like Teran’s. He is now raising his own family here, and is worried about their future in Greenpoint. Although the area is cleaner and safer now, he says, that comes at a price – literally. “People are coming from Manhattan and paying Manhattan prices, but this isn’t Manhattan,” he says.
As rents rise and traditional businesses – like manufacturing – disappear, it’s harder for the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center to afford its industrial support functions. “I can only imagine that in 10 years people will not recognize Greenpoint. It’s not the working-class neighborhood it used to be,” says native Brooklynite Brian T. Coleman, the center’s CEO. “It’s losing its ethnic flavor.”
But Vincent Abate, the Italian-American chairman of local Community Board 1 for as long as anyone can remember, isn’t nostalgic about days past. “They were a great asset to us and it’s a shame the numbers are dwindling,” Abate says of his Polish neighbors. But “these are good people coming in.”
“Greenpoint now has more services than ever before. People used to have to go into Manhattan to get an MRI or a CAT scan, but these can all be done in Greenpoint now,” he says. And he is enthusiastic about the variety of restaurants now in the area. “Everything I could want is within walking distance from my home: Japanese, Korean, Chinese food, so many restaurants that would never come here before. I even sold my car, because I don’t need to drive anymore… It’s progress.”