A city's Polish heart
Renewed business district tightens a community’s ties
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — Even this city’s Facebook page acknowledges that it is sometimes called “New Britski’’ as a playful nod to its substantial Polish population.
Lured by manufacturing jobs, Poles began immigrating to the “Hardware City’’ at the end of the 19th century. And they have kept coming over the years, with the latest surge after the opening of Poland to the West in 1989. According to the US Census, nearly 20 percent of the small city of roughly 71,000 claims Polish ancestry, making New Britain the largest Polish community in New England.
As visions of pierogi danced in our heads, we parked on Broad Street in front of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church (where Mass is celebrated in both Polish and English) and across from Kwiaciarnia Flower Shop. A woman and two young children passed us on the street, engrossed in a lively conversation in some Slavic language that we assumed was Polish. We were pretty sure we had found the right part of town.
Broad Street — literally on the other side of the railroad tracks from downtown New Britain — is the traditional heart of the Polish community, though longtime residents tactfully suggest that the district had become blighted at the end of the 20th century. In fact, Mark Moriarty, director of Public Works, noted that the city conceived a Broad Street infrastructure upgrade in 2006 to stimulate business.
Thanks to new investment and new immigration, the street bounced back before the city had lifted a shovel. New businesses replaced boarded-up buildings, a biker bar, and a strip club. According to Adrian Baron of the Polonia Business Association, about 80 percent of the Broad Street businesses are Polish-owned. In 2008, the New Britain City Council designated Broad Street as “Little Poland.’’
The revitalization continued unabated last year when the $5 million infrastructure project began, and the streets were dug up to lay new utilities, and install new curbs and sidewalks. “The Poles are very loyal to their businesses, and the businesses have been very accepting of the work,’’ said Moriarty. The last phase of the project starts this spring and signs remain posted in some windows: “Support Local Business During Construction.’’ They were supplied by the city. “As the business owners point out,’’ Moriarty said, “the signs aren’t in Polish.’’
They are about the only signs on Broad Street that aren’t, and we were about the only people not speaking Polish. The heart of the Polish business district is a half-mile stretch of Broad Street between Washington and Smith streets where New Britain’s 14,000 Polish residents consult their lawyers and accountants, have their income taxes prepared, and visit the credit union, video rental shop, travel agency, driving school, barber shop, hair salon, or day spa. They pause to peruse the handwritten Polish signs on bulletin boards or the posters in shop windows announcing concerts by local Polish rock bands and what we could only presume were Polish rappers, or boxing matches with Polish contenders.
With its bright red awning stretching much of a block, Polmart Delikatesy and its associated Pol-mall represent the new face of Broad Street. “We opened seven years ago,’’ said manager Magda Gontarz. “Ninety percent of our products are from Poland, but we also have some things from Germany and Russia.’’
Polmart, which bills itself as “your doorway to Europe’’ and proclaims that it is the largest seller of Polish products on the East Coast, even has a contract office of the US Postal Service identified by the sign “Poczta.’’ The shop’s most popular section is the deli laden with Polish cheeses, hams, and kielbasa. (Gontarz advised frying the kielbasa with onion or cabbage.)
The store has a dizzying array of delicacies such as bright red shredded beet salad and borscht concentrate, pickles, fruit-flavored syrups, mustards, frozen pierogi, vegetables already diced for soup, plum butter, plums in syrup, jars of sauerkraut, canned red cabbage, fresh yogurt and kefir, and even dried salt herring. Shelves are devoted to patent medicines, herbal teas, and herbal remedies for everything from nasal congestion to heart problems and “bad nerves.’’ Potentially more soothing were the dozens of bins of brightly wrapped praline candies filled with cherries, toffee, pistachio, plums, marzipan, and more. “Polish people love sweets,’’ said Gontarz.
The Pol-mall gift shop and spa on the second level were less busy than the food store. Polmart is clearly a success story, but it has not knocked out competition on the street. At Vistula Gift Shop we chatted with clerk Barbara Piwowirski. “We’ve been open 43 years,’’ she told us as we eyed the Polish crystal and wood carvings, the music CDs, lacy paper cut-out designs, and Baltic amber. “But I’ve only worked here 26 years,’’ she said as she pulled European creams and ointments from a shelf behind the counter. Piwowirski offered some tips on pronunciation— “W’s sound like V’s’’ — but declined to recommend a place for lunch. “I cook Polish food every day,’’ she laughed. “When I go out I eat Chinese.’’
But food remains the strongest link to culture. Earlier generations of Poles who have moved to the suburbs still return to Broad Street to shop. Markets, delicatessens, bakeries, cafes, and restaurants dominate the strip.
At Rarytas Polish Deli, a steady stream of customers stopped in for a few supplies and a chat with the young women at the counter. The elderly man ahead of us bought a piece of roast pork, a slab of cheesecake, a jar of pickles, a loaf of bread, and one of the three local Polish language newspapers. We were tempted by the pierogis, stuffed cabbage, and apple cake.
But the greatest temptations by far were at Kasia’s Bakery, where the baker comes in at 1 a.m. to produce an amazing array of Eastern European delicacies such as poppy seed rolls, cheesecake, a strudel-like apple pie, strawberry or plum-filled paczki (similar to raised doughnuts), and yeasted babka cakes filled with cheese or with fruit. Everything is made fresh daily — and the shelves are empty by evening. The bakery is especially swamped on Sunday after church.
It is impossible to walk Broad Street and not work up an appetite. At lunch we hit Staropolska Restaurant, where the soup of the day rotates from barley to borscht to pickle, with tripe soup available daily. We split a humongous Polish platter of stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, and mashed potato, bigos (sauerkraut cooked with bits of meat and sausage), three savory pierogis, and a plate-sized potato pancake.
We saved dessert for Cracovia Restaurant, where waitress Mariola Wolinska steered us to cheese blintzes and blueberry pierogi. It was late in the afternoon, so instead of taking a table in the dining room, we sat at stools at the Formica counter and chatted with Wolinska. Although the restaurant has been open nearly 30 years, she has only worked here the last 22, starting a year after she immigrated to join her mother in New Britain. Cracovia, she said, has a steady regular clientele and fills up with families during the holidays. She talked, we ate until we were stuffed.
Before we left, Wolinska reached into her purse and handed us each a beautifully wrapped little chocolate for the drive home.
“Polish candy is the best,’’ she said.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.