Fading Polish-American Identity

The Blondes of Wisconsin
By Anthony Bukoski
University of Wisconsin Press, 2021, 152 pp.

5 Stars

Like many industrial cities in the Rust Belt, Rochester had its Polish Town neighborhood, which was centered along Hudson Avenue, north of Clifford Avenue. The Polish immigrants of the late-19th and early-20th centuries settled along Hudson Avenue and established churches, businesses, and social clubs where Polish was spoken and the shared ethnicity was the binding currency of the “Polonia” neighborhood. My paternal grandparents lived on Avenue D, just a few houses down from Hudson. Vets returning from World War II, like my Dad, chose to buy houses in new developments in the bordering suburb of Irondequoit rather than live in Polish Town. Second-generation Polish immigrants had a strong desire to assimilate and downplay their ethnicity.

As first-generation Poles died off, their small, cottage-style houses were bought by African Americans who had moved up to Rochester from Sanford, Florida and elsewhere in the South to take advantage of the city’s then-economic opportunities (Kodak, Xerox, etc). Polish businesses and institutions in the Hudson Avenue neighborhood shuttered one after another. Manufacturing has since moved out of Rochester and most of the city’s neighborhoods, including the old Polish Town, became steeped in poverty. There’s still a few hold-out Poles and Polish-owned businesses and institutions remaining in the crumbling and crime-ridden Hudson Avenue neighborhood. I occasionally frequent a Polish deli on the fringes of the old neighborhood.

Anthony Bukoski has written several books of short stories about life in the declining Polonia of Superior, Wisconsin. “The Blondes of Wisconsin” is his latest offering. These are sad and melancholy tales describing characters living amidst the last gasps of fading Polish ethnic identity, just like the few Polish-Americans still living on Hudson Avenue. This is a reminder that all things of this world are fading and are built on foundations of sinking sand. Polish ethnic identity was strongly intertwined with membership in the Roman Catholic church. St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic church is one of the few Polish ethnic landmarks remaining on Hudson Avenue and inside they still preach a false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.

Above: Boarded up cottage-style houses in nearby Buffalo’s vast former Polonia neighborhood. This style house was also typical in Rochester’s Polonia neighborhood.
Above: A vintage photograph of the former Christ Polish Baptist Church on the corner of Hudson Ave. and Roycroft Drive in Rochester, N.Y., a Gospel light in a thoroughly Polish Catholic neighborhood. The church was built in 1911, however, the small congregation disbanded in 1945 and the building was subsequently demolished.

18 thoughts on “Fading Polish-American Identity

  1. This is very interesting. In a changing world things are now moving very swiftly with regard to immigrants and indeed refugees torn from their ethnic roots because of failing economies and war… We have many Polish people living in Ireland but they very much retain their identity and have set up their own grocery stores. We also have many people from the Ukraine and Russia, neither of whom have any taste for war, as is evidenced by the protest demonstrations we’ve seen. Many East Europeans here have their own Evangelical Christian fellowships. We long for that Day when peace shall reign but it will never happen as long as this old earth remains.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. Rochester used to have many ethnic enclaves, but the offspring of European immigrants have abandoned the city for the suburbs and have largely assimilated. Interesting about the Poles in Ireland and the U.K. I know many Poles sought economic opportunities in the West after Poland joined the EU, but many Brits were not happy about the influx of immigrants, helping to spark Brexit.

      RE: We long for that Day when peace shall reign but it will never happen as long as this old earth remains.

      Amen! People get much of their personal identity/self-image from their ethnicity, race, or national citizenship, but the Gospel supersedes them all.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very true… as regards the Polish people here in Ireland… the Poles and the Irish get along really well. Polish people here are generally seen as very industrious, honest and hard working, while some other East Europeans are seen as heavy drinkers who are always up in court for driving offences and sometimes (not so) petty crime. However, we can’t judge entire nations by the behaviour of a few… The Lord is the answer to it all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, David! I became very interested in my Polish heritage about twenty years ago and got involved with a Rochester Polonia group, but the old organizations are on their last legs because the younger generations are generally fully assimilated and just don’t care.
      Yup, ethnic heritage is interesting but it can lead to pride (and even warfare as we’re currently witnessing). It won’t amount to anything in eternity.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Answering your question: Wow you listened pretty far into the series! You waking up at 2:30 AM is crazy. That’s a crazy time to wake up (staying up is another story!). Was everything ok? My day consist of talking to a pastor I’m discipling and talking to my sister in germany as her church is going to help with the Ukraine refugee crisis

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I skipped ahead to video #6 because of the topic.

      RE: 2:30AM
      Yup, I was fine, thanks. Just OMS – Old Man Syndrome.

      RE: Germany
      We Facetimed our grandson in Germany today because my wife was worried he and his family were somehow being impacted by the Russian invasion. I told her there’s a distance of 1000 miles. But Europe is so small compared to the US, I can understand the concern. That’s great that your sister’s church is helping the refugees. It’s going to be a huge crisis with so many fleeing Ukraine.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I always love your book reviews TOm. Wow that this book is 5 starrs rating caught my interests that this must be super good. Reading about the Polish community leaving this area made me think about the large ethnic group in my part of the country…and how the young are leaving for jobs but I’m seeing the place I grow up has more elderly people

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jimmy! I really enjoy your book reviews as well! I definitely didn’t go into any details regarding the 16 interconnected short stories in this book, but I felt I really didn’t need to. They’re expressions of regret and despair over the fading/decline of the once-robust Polish American community in Superior, Wisconsin that match the circumstances in ROC. Immigrant dynamics are so interesting – acculturation/assimilation vs. cultural preservation. The preservation side loses ground with each new generation.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Crissy! Your comment in turn prompted to look up the Wiki article for Polish immigration to Australia. Rochester also received some Polish immigrants following WWII and the Solidarity protests. Many of the latter had leadership positions in the Polish organizations I was involved in because earlier immigrants or their descendants were no longer interested.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I often had Polish dishes while growing up, but I understand why it doesn’t have great commercial appeal. Cabbage, potatoes, pierogi (stuffed dumplings), gołąbki (stuffed cabbage), and sausage are the staples. In the Greater Rochester region with a million people there’s not a single Polish restaurant.

        Liked by 1 person

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