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Search for Polonia

Kari Levinson and Sally Valentin

Introduction

     There are two predominantly Polish communities residing in New York City. One of these communities is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the other is located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In order to obtain a more in depth understanding of the Polish community, Kari and I decided to split up our investigation. She investigated the Lower East Side and I researched the Greenpoint area. The communities we visited were distinctly different from each other. In order to explain the differences and conclusions that were drawn, we have grouped our findings into three categories: Commerce, Newspaper and other available resources and Governmental and Private Services. Under each of these headings, there will be two paragraphs: the paragraph in regular print is the information collected by Kari about the Lower East Side community and the one in italics is the information I collected about the Greenpoint community.

Commerce

     Initially I decided to tackle restaurants that offered Polish foods first. Since I am unfamiliar with Polish culture, my first question was what type of foods do the Polish eat? The first restaurant I visited was called Neptun. The sign outside the restaurant read "Polish-American Home Cooking". To get an idea of what polish cooking entailed, I asked for a menu. Surprisingly, this menu was very similar to that of an American diner. All the diner staples were listed: pancakes, omelets, soups, sandwiches, and burgers. The menu of the second restaurant, "Little Poland Restaurant", also favored that of an American diner. Both menus were strangely similar. I could only find small traces of Polish influence. Pork dishes called Kielbasa and Kishka. Pierogies seemed to be the main staple. Red Borcht was listed under soups. In my opinion, both of these restaurants are quite Americanized. If the diner had not been identified as being "Polish", I would have assumed that it was an ordinary American diner. This may be explained by the fact that the Polish diet is rich in meats, which is not very popular within the United States. Therefore, perhaps the restaurant owners felt obligated to make their menu choices more mainstream in order to keep business growing and cater to the general public's taste.

     Turning onto Nassau Avenue, I encountered a completely different part of Brooklyn. Having lived in Brooklyn before (in the Williamsburg area), I thought I had experienced a bilingual ethnic community in Brooklyn. This Polish community shattered the image I had previously held. The typical bilingual community is represented by the translations under the English signs of its delis, restaurants, etc. The Polish communtiy in Brooklyn was the complete opposite. Every sign I saw, every poster I read, every word I heard was in Polish. The first place I stepped into was a Polish-American Pharmacy. The sign outside was the phrase 'Polish-American Pharmacy' written in huge Polish letters and, in small English letters, the phrases 'Health Aids, Beauty Supplies, Prescriptions' were written. As I stepped into the pharmacy, Polish rang in my ears. The only person they're speaking in English was I. I asked the man behind the prescription counter what it was like living in that community. He responded, "Forty percent of the people in Greenpoint are Polish. I've been living here for about ten years and everyone speaks Polish first and English second. It's like a little Poland." I began to agree with him as I continued into a restaurant/bakery that was right up the block. Again, everything was in Polish. The restaurant hours were posted first in Polish and then in English. At the bakery portion of the establishment, all the names of the dishes were written in big Polish words and small English words. The person behind the counter was surprised to hear English when I asked for a chocolate croissant.

Newspapers and Other Available Resources

     There are many newspapers dedicated to the "promotion, preservation, and continuance of Polish American Culture", one of which is the Polish American Journal. After researching the newspaper, I gathered that the top stories discussed the Pope, scholarships available to Polish students, and various regional Polish organizations and the activities they engage in to promote the Polish community. There is an organization in New York City called the Kosciuszko Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Poland. The organization's main purpose is to increase the American understanding of Polish culture and history.

     While in the same pharmacy mentioned in the above section, I browsed through some of the literature that was on sale. Every magazine, newspaper and crossword book I flipped through was written in Polish. Regular newspapers, soap opera digest type books, crossword puzzles, TV guide type books and magazines (sports, etc) were all available to the public. There was even a medical newspaper (Encyklopedia Medycyny). Out of the three areas we researched within the Polish community, this was the section in which our investigations gathered the same results.

Governmental and Private Services

     In order for a person who is monolingual, in this case Polish being their main language, to be well represented, the scourts are required to provide interpreters. An example of this would be The United States Court of Appeals vs. Witold Pluta. In this case, Mr. Pluta was found guilty of producing false documents and smuggling illegal aliens into the United States. One of the reasons Pluta contends is that he should have a new trial because the district court failed to administer oaths or affirmations, as required by the Federal Rules of Evidence, to the persons who were to serve as interpreters at his trial. Rule 604 of the Federal Rules of Evidence provides that "an interpreter is subject to the provisions of these rules relating to . . . the administration of an oath or affirmation to make a true translation." As to oaths and affirmations, the Rules provide that before testifying, every witness shall be required to declare that the witness will testify truthfully, by oath or affirmation administered in a form calculated to awaken the witness' conscience and impress the witness' mind with the duty to do so. However, Mr. Pluta did not successfully make his case and the appeal was dismissed.

     Within the community in Greenpoint, there were many private law practices, medical offices and other offices that provide the Polish people with various services that they may need. The majority of the legal offices that I encountered were realty offices. There were a couple of medical offices. Both the legal and medical offices appeared no different than those I have seen on the Upper East Side and Midtown. The only and main difference I observed was that the name of the doctor or lawyer was the only thing I could read and understand; everything else was written in Polish. There was one office that stood out among the rest. A small immigration office sat in the middle of the block looking homely. I walked in to find an older woman sitting alone at the only desk in the room. Krystyna Chacinska, as her card would later tell me, was very welcoming. I asked her questions similar to those I asked of the man in the pharmacy. Her answers were the same. Then I asked her if it was hard being bilingual. She did not understand me. I explained that both my parents and I are bilingual. We sometimes feel it becomes burdensome when speaking to monolingual Spanish speakers because we cannot always find the Spanish word for what we want to say. She stated that she oftentimes has the same problem and thinks it's because "most people have a desire to use whatever language comes the fastest. In some situations the English is the first thing that comes to my mind. When that happens I just have to stop and think for a minute (that is if I am speaking to a Polish-speaking only person)." Regarding governmental services, I found that the same amount and types of services provided to any other ethnic minority group were also provided to this Polish community. For example, the state provides translators in the court system durign a trial in which there is a person who speaks only Polish. There are ESL programs in the New York City Public Schools that provide education for Polish-only students. Although ESL programs are provided, it is hard to find a bilingual education program for Polish students. The majority of bilingual education programs are geared toward Spanish speakers. There are also many indepdent organizations that provide help to children and adults stuggling to learn English. If one searches the web for "ESL in Polish," many things would come up: websites for help with learning grammar and vocabulary, books one can buy, etc.

Conclusion

     The assignment was to investigate the Polish community within New York City. Neither Kari nor I ever thought about what constituted a Polish community. Is the community I investigated in Greenpoint any more 'Polish' that the one Kari investigated on the Lower East Side? No. The differences Kari and I encountered in our study are not actually differences in the Polish communities; rather, they are differences in the surrounding societies within which the Polish communities find themselves. Primarily, the community in Greenpoint is larger than that of the Lower East Side and, for that reason, there may be a larger variety of literature and restaurants found that not only say they are Polish but have the language or dinner menu to prove it. Another reason for the discrepancies found in our conclusions is that the Lower East Side is more of a melting pot than Greenpoint. There is more of a need for 'Americanization'on the Lower East Side because of the variety of different people (culturally) that pass through the area on any given day. English is as necessary as money is in order to travel through the Lower East Side. Brooklyn has several different established groups living in designated sections. There is a large section of Williamsburg where one can find a large group of Hispanics (a good mixture of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans) residing. Greenpoint is the established Polish section of Brooklyn. For that reason, there is no need to 'Americanize,'no need to divert to a language and culture that does not suit everyone. There is more of a need to feel tied to one's roots. I think the signs in Greenpoint say it all 'Polonia' - 'Little Poland.'

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