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Greenpoint. The transition

Greenpoint is a special place that comes to mind when one thinks of Poles living in emigration. In 20th century this part of New York attracted Polish immigrants coming to the US. The district was so infused with Polishness that New Yorkers used to call it Little Poland. Back in 2010, Poles constituted almost 50% of all Greenpoint residents. The traces of Polish history and presence in the district are omnipresent yet the number of Poles in Greenpoint has been decreasing year by year.

In recent years the district has underwent major changes. The Polish character of Greenpoint is not as distinctive as it used to be 10 or 20 years ago. The political transformations in Poland, changes to the visa lottery rules or progressive gentrification are the main reasons why Poles are moving out of the district. The “Greenpoint. The Transition” project prepared by the Culture Shock Foundation that begun in 2014 aims at documenting the changes occurring in Greenpoint and presenting it as a venue with significant cultural potential, disseminating the stories of its Polish residents.

In 2015, the team of the Oral History Archives of the Emigration Museum in Gdynia joined the project. The scholars from both institutions have been exchanging their knowledge and experiences regarding oral history and working on creating new audio and video interviews with the residents of Greenpoint. The excerpts presented on the website constitute an attempt at showing that Polish immigrants have been a significant part of Greenpoint for many decades and telling their stories in their own voice. The collection features the stories of Poles who left their country due to various reasons in different time periods with Greenpoint being a central place to all of them.

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At the time of the New York Exchange in Manhattan, the zoo and the Yankee Stadium in Bronx, Greenpoint was full of blacksmith shops and refineries. There was a shipyard and factories of numerous everyday items that satisfied the demand of the entire US. The district was an industrial supply base of thriving New York City. Year by year, the demand for workers in the factories and industrial plants was increasing and it was met by the emigrants from Germany, Ireland and mostly from Poland. Thus, the end of the 19th century was a time when the seed of the Polish diaspora began to evolve in Greenpoint.

Along with Poles in Greenpoint Polish shops, entertainment venues and, what is most important, the Church of Stanislaus Kostka operating until today, were being established. The Poles had a venue where they could regularly meet during Polish masses. The Stanislaus Kostka parish has become an important element integrating the local Polish community. The second important institution was the Polish National Home located at 261 Driggs Avenue; since 1914 it has been the seat of various Polish organizations, a place to organize meetings and exchange ideas. In following years it housed Polish artists who came to Greenpoint to give concerts and visit their countrymen.

Before the Second World War the Polish community in Greenpoint was strong enough for the Poles to organize general strikes in factories to protest against low wages and unequal treatment. The presence of Poles was noticeable enough for the local residents so it began to raise certain dislike among some of them. A group called “Native Borns” was established, gathering Americans born and raised in Greenpoint who opposed the inflow of Poles and Russians to Greenpoint claiming that the Poles deprived them of their jobs.

Despite such opposition Poles were becoming a constant element of the social landscape. They came to Greenpoint in phases. The first phase, after the end of the Second World War, comprised displaced persons who emigrated to the US. In the next decades they were followed by their natives and later on Polish political refugees decided to leave Poland and come to the US. At the same time, due to progressive industrialization of the district and the fact that it was inhabited by workers, Americans started moving out of Greenpoint, settling in more peaceful suburbs of New York. Due to their outflow from the district, together with constant inflow of Poles in the 1960s, Polish emigrants and their descendants constituted as many as 80% of the Greenpoint population.

Polish emigration to Greenpoint was also peculiar because entire families and villages from Poland moved to the district. Fathers came to the US then convinced their son to do the same and later the sons encouraged their friends to emigrate. They all lived in Greenpoint, rebuilding Polish community and fostering Polish traditions. After many years, as a result of the overlying emigration phases, the Polish community has built a coherent environment with a network of contacts, emigration practices and traditions, and even local vocabulary.

Being such a major and thriving part of the community, Poles shaped Greenpoint and left their stamp on it. There were Polish shops and restaurants. Polish language was spoken freely in the streets and in shops packed with goods imported from Poland. Polis emigrants set up their businesses and bought flats to rent to their countrymen.

In the course of establishing the Polish community, various institutions, whose task was to help Poles in emigration, were being set up in Greenpoint. In 1972, the Polish and Slavic Centre, a venue for meetings and cooperation among Poles, was opened. Four years later, the founders of the Centre created the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union who helped Polish emigrants to purchase real estate. The district also had its Polish newspaper called “Nowy Dziennik – Polish Daily News”.

This heyday of the Polonia in Greenpoint lasted until the 1980s. It was a period of slowdown in industrial sector with the factories and plants being relocated to the south of the US. Poles followed the factories and started to look for jobs in different parts of the city or country. After 1989 some of them decided to go back to their homeland. In the 1990s the Polish community was ousted by growing rents and the district welcomed artists and young Americans. As a consequence of the changes today’s Greenpoint is not as Polish as it used to be. However, Poles are still its inherent element.

Emigrant's Archive cooperated with a group of researchers from Culture Shock Foundation from New York who regularly interviewed Polish emigrants living in the Greenpoint district. Through those interviews we found out how difference between stereotypical image of an "American Dream" and reality turned out to be a huge challenge for Polish emigrants. Many of them experienced trauma after their arrival and sometimes it took many years of effort to build a new life in New York. We were also interested in the aspect of separation from relatives who stayed in Poland or were unable to accept difficult living conditions and returned to their homeland. The research team of the Emigrant's Archive decided to take a closer look into the lives of Poles of Greenpoint. We wanted to tell a story about building our new world in another country and also about constant attachment to our homeland.

In 2016 the film crew along with Culture Shock Foundation started to look for characters, representatives of different generations whose biographies would show different reasons for emigration, and then strategies for coping with the challenges. The main topic of the film is a social project led by the main character - Martynka Wawrzyniak, whose aim was to get closer to Polish people and engage them in the construction of a monument - a ceramic sphere that was to be burnt out of the soil from the place of birth of emigrants. Emigrant's Archive managed to create a short documentary movie, Past States, that tries to capture the glimpse of Polish history on Greenpoint.

The collection gallery features archival photos of the district at the courtesy of Wojciech Kubiak, a photographer who has been living and working in Greenpoint for more than thirty years.

The “Greenpoint. The Transition 2015” Project created by the Culture Shock Foundation was co-financed from the funds received from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The “Greenpoint. The Transition 2016” Project created by the Culture Shock Foundation is co-financed in the competition for the public task “Cooperation with Polish Diaspora and Poles Abroad” by the Senate of the Republic of Poland.

More information about the activities of the Culture Shock Foundation at: http://www.cultureshock.pl/pl/