Greenpoint is to the Polish what Woodlawn is to the Irish. It's a curious but quaint neighborhood, and I'm glad I chose it, but I am wary of upheavals afoot. Resting on the East River, with breathtaking Manhattan skyline views, Greenpoint is a Polish-American neighborhood at the edge of change.
Along the long and narrow Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint the signs on the stores read 'Poland Farm Fruit and Vegetables', 'Polonia Ksiegarna' (bookshop), 'Stokrotka Perfumes' and 'Polski Meat Market'. They are nestled in among shops with more American sounding names, 'Beverly Hills Hair Salon' or 'Russ' Pizza.
Awnings adorned with Slavic words - words for which I'd need expert guidance to try to pronounce - punctuate the regular small American chain stores. Above the humdrum Radio Shack, Sofia, the resident 'wrozka' ('fairy'), a psychic and tarot reader, advertises in neon.
Greenpoint in North Brooklyn is, above all else, a Polish neighborhood.
For the new wave of Irish arriving in New York City, a contingent of which I am a member, certain recommendations are heard. Woodlawn in the Bronx is one of the most prevalently Irish neighborhoods in New York and is often cited as a primary place of pilgrimage for emigrants. Many flock there, and for good reason. Trouble and homesickness can be easily allayed thanks to the networks of support for the Irish, but a properly-poured pint of Guinness and a bag of Tayto Cheese and Onion also do a few favors (the first flavoured crisp on the planet, lest we forget).
Shamrocks and apostrophes after the O are in plentiful supply. It's a home away from home - a gateway to the US manned by experienced guides, or a basecamp.
I am a major proponent of the Irish pub all over the world. The Irish pub is a blessing, albeit often coated in paddywhackery. Not many nationalities can be stuck in central China, without the language, and find a glowing black and white sign in the darkness; a mini-consulate existing to serve home comforts and to give understandable directions. I cherish these products of the diaspora.
To those who criticise the prevalence of the Irish pub all over the world I say don't go in, but it's undeniably wonderful to have the option to.
I did not go to Woodlawn upon arrival, due to the fact that friends of mine had emigrated and established themselves over the East River in Brooklyn. I felt I could find my own local mini-consulate nearby, and I was hardly going to say no to a pre-made circle of friends to slip into. They had chosen Greenpoint, and when I arrived a month ago, I followed.
Averil Blakely, a twenty-five year old NCAD graduate, came here in November 2011 and, after much searching, eventually found work as a fashion designer in Manhattan. She still lives in Greenpoint and has no plans yet to move into 'the city': “Greenpoint is the kind of place where you would be recognised as a regular customer in bars, cafes and shops, or your local launderette.
“I didn't anticipate loving New York as much as I did. It sucks you in. This neighborhood is one of the reasons for that I suppose. Being close to a big park is great and I love being able to see the city lights from here. I feel safe; everyone is friendly. It's all I really need.”
Nearby, just a ten minute walk down through McCarren Park, lies Williamsburg, inhabited by Brooklyn's ultra-hip and art-centric young people. Due to the proximity, more and more artists, photographers, designers and other creative types are overspilling into Greenpoint, attracted by its charms, lack of crime, and location, creating an interesting mix in the old Polish ghetto.
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Cafés are filled with aspiring writers typing on high-end laptops. Local bars are selling cheap beers for the student population. As you might expect, the rent prices are rising.
I moved over from Dublin only a month ago. I'm 'fresh off the boat', as the saying goes over here, or one of the 'lost generation' as we are called back home (though I do intend on being 'found' again before the wrinkles fully descend on my lingering youth). I recently spoke to a Polish woman who expressed great optimism with the change afoot. Greenpoint is 'up-and-coming', she said.
Admittedly, I am sceptical on hearing the phrase 'up-and-coming'. Perhaps I'm being more cynical than sceptical, but I am now most certainly a product of the recession rather than the boom. My brain has become hard-wired to translate 'up-and-coming', 'regenerated' and 'gentrified' into the words 'property bubble'. Aside from the cost of the rent though, there are other possible outcomes from such changes.
Smithfield in Dublin's inner-city is an often-cited failure in terms of regeneration - the lame little brother of the larger and more successful Docklands project. The aims were to change the central market area into a grand public venue, utilising it for concerts and festivals of all-sorts, moving the traditional horse fair elsewhere. Then regeneration of Smithfield was a failure before the crash, for the project was never really for the benefit of the residents as they were then.
Boom-time regeneration projects in Dublin usually meant offices and new apartments, usually at high prices, and amenities, such as the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield, catering for everyone except the people who were already living there.
Last year, Smithfield’s regeneration was all but declared a failure, with the cinema forced to close for several months before being taken over by Element Pictures. We were assured it would undergo a ‘reinvigoration’.
Greenpoint, similar to pre-boom inner-city Dublin, is littered with old factories, warehouse buildings and loft-spaces primed to be re-envisioned by architects and city-planners – I just hope such visions include the community as it stands now, and that the right balance is reached. Moreover, I hope the Polish community remains in Greenpoint.
In 2011, the Polish in Ireland superseded the British as the largest non-national community in the state. They are now part of the genetic landscape back home. Many, of course, are returning to Poland from Ireland, their hand forced by the recession or attracted by Poland's emerging industries, but there are many who will stay, having carved out a life in Ireland. Whatever the case, the Irish are more familiar with the Poles than most other nationalities.
I met Grace Steite, a 24 year old Irish emigrant of French and Lebanese descent, in a warm coffee shop on a damp Sunday. The light is dimming for the evening and we sit peering out the window across at a Polish restaurant, a unisex hairdressers, an army surplus store and 'fine jewellery’ store which looks far from fine itself. “I love the tackiness of it: tarot readers and 'God Bless Deli', alongside Citibank and Chase.”
“Down in Williamsburg there's a feeling like you're expected to dress well, people avoid eye-contact, as they do in Manhattan. It's a big city thing – there's less of a village-feel there, largely due to the tourists in the area.
“There are no tourists in Greenpoint, so the locals are less cynical perhaps. People are friendlier to one another. And I just find the area so entertaining. And I like that we can get-on well with the Poles, purely because we're European really”.
Indeed, hearing the Polish accents provides a certain home-comfort, despite not knowing the language. There is an understanding because we're all European. We don't know what a 'half-a-cup' means and neither do they. We're not quite sure what to call a duvet here and neither are they.
I can hear the Angelus sounding from the local church, and I picture awkward actors pausing for silent reflection before the Six One news, looking out a bleak office window, down at a bag of hammers, or perhaps at a crisp packet tumbling slowly with the breeze.
I can take comfort in these things, as well as get decent pint down the local mini-consulate two blocks away. It wasn't too hard to find. I think I'll be staying in Greenpoint for a while yet.
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