Port Richmond: A Taste of Poland

The Polish American String Band plays in Campbell Square.

Preserving a culture can be a challenge in a nation that was built on a melting pot philosophy. Throughout the country’s history, families have immigrated to the United States, slowly losing their cultural identity throughout the generations. But the Polish community always finds a way to keep kielbasa, babki, folk dances and an appreciation for Frédéric Chopin close to its heart. The Polish community in Port Richmond is one of the greatest places to witness this cultural preservation firsthand.

Port Richmond is a neighborhood that was built on Polish immigration. Many residents are of third-generation, second-generation and even first-generation Polish decent and they are proud to be so. “It’s really an immigrant city here,” says Regina Gorzkowska-Rossi, founder and president of Pro Arte Associates. “It is very precious and we would like to preserve it,” she says.

Starting in the early 20th century, Polish families immigrated to Port Richmond and surrounding neighborhoods for the shipbuilding industry and work opportunities. The next major waves of immigration came after World War II and then the early 1980s after the Solidarity movement in Poland was crushed. Since then, the families have settled down and let their culture flourish in Port Richmond.

The P.K.M. Dancers wear traditional costumes from Poland.

Walking down Allegheny Avenue, Port Richmond feels like “Little Poland.” The street is lined with small businesses, religious institutions and clubhouses all owned and operated by Polish residents. The major landmark of the Polish community in Port Richmond is St. Adalbert’s Church. “That’s why people come,” says J World Travel, Inc. agent Eve Walski. “It’s the center of the whole community.”

According to Gorzkowska-Rossi, the Catholic church was built by Polish workers. St. Adalbert’s then became a magnet for Polish immigrants, who settled in Port Richmond because it had a prominent Polish speaking church. Stained glass windows designed and hand-built by Bavarian craftsman line the walls of the sanctuary, depicting stories of Polish saints and kings. The sanctuary is open to the public all week long, so that residents can feel free to visit and worship whenever they like. St. Adalbert’s maintains a very close relationship with residents and fellow local organizations as well.

“We have a close relationship to St. Adablert’s,” says Walter Wojcik, publicity director of the Polish American String Band. Wojcik says that the band is closely tied into the neighborhood, as it is associated with Polish-American culture in Philadelphia. Wojcik says that the band was originally 100 percent Polish and members had to be Polish to join. “Now it’s open to anybody, but it’s still heavily Polish,” says Wojcik.

The Polish American String Band often holds concerts in Campbell Square, where they are greeted by large crowds of Polish residents and descendents of all ages. Members of Friends of Campbell Square sell Polish water ice and flags to guests to display Polish pride. The P.K.M. Dancers, a traditional folk dance group, then join in on the fun by performing and interacting with residents.

Right down the street from the park sit dozens of Polish businesses that also contributed to Port Richmond’s popularity among immigrants. While many business owners have since moved out of Port Richmond, they still commute in every day to serve the Polish community. Grażyna Buczny owns the Polish Bookstore, a shop that focuses on providing music, stationery, movies and books to the community, all in the Polish language. Residents visit the shop to pick up magazines like Polish Glamour and European Tradition calling cards to keep in touch with their families overseas.

The Polish American String Band plays in Campbell Square.

A few doors down is Marian’s Bakery, one of the most popular places to purchase baked goods in the area. The shop opened in 1959 and specializes in babki, which are sticky-bun-like rolls filled with raisins and cheese.

When it comes to traveling and shipping packages, J World Travel, Inc. is the go-to place. “I think that the number one priority of Polish people here is to keep in touch with their homeland,” says Walski. Walski’s job allows her to observe Port Richmond’s Polish community and witness how closely knit each family is.

The back of the shop is lined with packages waiting to be sent to Poland. Walski says that most of the packages are filled with food, clothing and other provisions to help families that were affected by severe flooding in Poland. “I think that Polish people in general are very close to each other,” says Walski. “Maybe not physically because their relatives are on the other side, but they do a lot to help.”

Another example of residents keeping close ties with and supporting their home country was in April when President Lech Kaczyński was killed in a jet crash in Russia. St. Adalbert’s held a special mass in honor of Kaczyński where residents crowded the large sanctuary. Attendance was so high that residents had to stand in the aisles around the pews and fill in the back of the church. “I think that really united us together,” says Walski. Resident Maryann Trombetta says that Friends of Campbell Square hung the Polish flag at half staff in mourning. The flag remained there until Memorial Day.

Mary Ongirski displays her Polish pride.

But the greatest symbol of Polish nationality and culture in Port Richmond is the language. Residents usually communicate with each other in the Polish language and even second-generation Polish residents speak fluently. Walski enjoys how much of the Polish youth speak the language to each other. She says that many young people from other countries assimilate quickly and switch to English, even when speaking to friends and family. “It’s cool that they do speak Polish,” says Walski. “They keep the language and the nationality going.”

Barbara Ilnicka, program director for the Polish American Radio Program, relates the language preservation to Polish history. “We didn’t have the country for 150 years and against all odds, the culture survived. The language survived,” she says. Ilnicka says that preserving the language and culture is a matter of survival, which residents of Port Richmond are proud to take part in. “It’s so Polish,” says Walski. “You kind of feel like you’re home at times.”

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