Everyone Should Be Polish

In one version of the tale, the Pulaski Days Celebration began in 1973 as a birthday party that happened to coincide with General Pulaski Memorial Day and the annual Pulaski Day Parade in New York City. In another it began as a theme party at Diamond Avenue Hall, the flagship eastside Polish Hall, which is true, to a degree. Only this wasn't just another weekend party.

“In those days, you heard a lot of jokes from the comedians on the radio about the Polish people,” says Ed Czyzyk, founder of Pulaski Days with the late Walt Ulanch. “We figured that the Polish people were just as good as any other people. A lot of the other nationalities were having their own days, so I stood up at a club meeting and suggested we do something, too.”

Neither Czyzyk, now 88, or any of the other members of Saint Isidore’s Benevolent Society, which operates Diamond Hall, ever imagined that the event would grow into one of the largest celebrations of Polish heritage outside of the mother land. They certainly didn’t know it would play such a key role in preserving the heritage of the city’s working-class neighborhoods through the era of “white flight” that followed the construction of the city’s freeways (U.S. 196 effectively destroyed the Diamond Hall area, cutting through the block that separated the hall from its sponsor church).

But the other polish halls, including the rival Westside groups, got wind of the Diamond Hall celebration, and the event quickly grew into a citywide affair designed to celebrate Polish heritage and establish goodwill between neighbors of all nationalities.

“When I was a kid, I was always getting into fights with the Dutch kids,” recalls Czyzyk. “It wasn’t that they were bad kids, we just didn’t know them. Everyone had their own end of the town — the Polish, the Dutch, then the Irish and the Germans. Once you got to know them, you find out they’re not that bad.

“And that’s how you get to know each other. You go to each other’s shindigs.”

So as the halls like to say, for one week a year, everyone in West Michigan is Polish.

Keeping clubs and community
Without Pulaski Days, at least a portion of the 14 participating clubs would no longer exist. The influx of cash from the general community has kept the halls afloat through some lean years, and continues to do so through today’s period of neighborhood redevelopment and resurgent membership.

And while outward appearances might suggest that the clubs are all roughly the same, there is a surprising degree of differences between them, enough so that virtually any West Michigan resident can find a hall to call home.

“You have to keep with the times,” says Laura Szczepanek, a trustee for Fifth Street Hall, host of the weekly Polka Community News on WYGR-AM and proprietor of That Polish Girl Catering. “It has expanded beyond the Polish community. We went through our bylaws last year, back to the 1800s, and had them redone. You used to have be Catholic, women weren’t allowed to be members. It’s important to be able to recruit new members into your society.”

Most of the clubs began as social extensions of Catholic churches and as gathering places for the city’s Polish-speaking community. Some are not explicitly Polish, such as the Knights of Columbus (a national Catholic organization), the Lithuanian clubs Vytautus and St. George’s halls, and Kosciusko Hall, which shares with the nearby Polish Falcons Hall an affiliation with Sacred Heart Church. Others are wild cards, including the American Legion Post 459 and the Lexicon Club, original home of the German-American society.

Throughout Kent County, Catholics still outnumber any other denomination or faith 2-to-1, and that margin continues to grow. But the where, who and how of Grand Rapids Catholicism has changed dramatically. On the Westside in particular, Hispanics can outnumber all other nationalities in the pews. The large Catholic families that once filled the clubs on weekend afternoons have been replaced on both sides of the river by young, childless homes.

Clubs such as Fifth Street, Diamond, Kosciusko and the Lexicon Club now have very liberal membership requirements, admitting, to various degrees, women, non-Catholics, and other nationalities. Others, such as the Polish Falcons, St. Stan's Little Hall and Vytautus are more conservative and appreciate the traditional structure.

“All the clubs are still open and many are gaining members, which I think is pretty good,” says Ed Sypniewski, a member of Fifth Street, the Falcons and Knights of Columbus. “Obviously, a lot of the Polish have moved out to the ‘burbs, so now it comes down to what you consider your community. Around Fifth Street, the neighborhood has changed dramatically, and recently it’s been for the better.”

The highly successful Union Square condo development is within a few blocks of the hall, as is the massive Bob Israels redevelopment project and Steepletown Neighborhood Center.

“It’s kind of exciting, we’re getting new members—young professionals with offices or homes within walking distance,” says Sypniewski, Grand Marshall for this year’s Pulaski Days parade. “There is a new generation taking hold.”

This is also true for the more conservative clubs, as the traditional Polish Catholic community appears to be growing as well. The Polish Falcons, for instance, is reporting a steady increase in interest from its surrounding neighborhood.

“People are buying back into the neighborhood,” says Char Czarnecki, a longtime member of the Falcons Women’s Auxiliary Club. “We’ve got Grand Valley right down the street now and we’re seeing a lot of students. It’s become a more desirable neighborhood.”

Home away from home
Although it does have a bar, a hall is not a bar, or at least not in the American sense. At their best, the clubs resemble a European village pub, a place where, as Czarnecki explains, “if a husband comes down here you don’t have to worry."

“This is an extension of your home and your family life,” she says. “It isn’t a place you go to ‘pick-up.’ It’s for families. You come here to meet other families, and maybe along the way a young man meets a young woman…”

Ted Balczak, a lifelong member of St. Stan’s Little Hall on Michigan Street, has always appreciated the privacy and the affordability — like hanging out at a friend’s house. But what he remembers most about the club is growing up there. “When I was a kid, for me to come down here was a treat,” he says. “My grandma and grandpa came over on the boat. I used to quiz them on it all the time.”

His nephew, Brian Balczak, 25, had a similar experience two decades later. “I grew up in that hall,” he says. “And now my daughter plays on the same Pac-Man game that I was playing on when I was a kid.”

E.J. Herda, 23, a recent inductee into the Falcons Women’s Auxillary and part-time bartender at the club, routinely sees her father and uncles when she’s behind the bar. Her great-grandparents were founding members. “It’s always been a part of our family,” she says.

“Everybody comes out on Pulaski Days and they get a chance to experience the Polish heritage,” says the younger Balczak. “We bring it out for everyone to enjoy on that weekend, but we do it throughout the whole year. We’re wearing red and white all year long.”

Everyone is Polish at Pulaski Days
The whole point of Pulaski Days is that everyone should get a chance to be Polish. There is no nationality requirement to enter the Pulaski Days pageant or march in next Saturday’s parade. You are just as likely to see Roy Schmidt at next Wednesday’s kielbasa-eating contest as James Jendrasiak (registration ends tomorrow). A third of the Pulaski Days halls aren’t even Polish.

“Everybody is Polish this weekend,” says Teresa Sobie, a Pulaski Days board member and co-owner of Sobie Meats, which supplies the sausage for the kielbasa-eating contest. “I ran for Pulaski Queen in ’76, and I’m not Polish.” Sobie’s parents, Don and Rosanne Jordan, were even named parade grand marshalls in 2005. Neither is Polish. Rosanne is half Dutch.

"I’m amazed by how proud Polish people are of their heritage, how proud they are to be Polish and how happy they are to share that heritage with their community," says Sobie.

It does become easy to see Pulaski Days as an answer to Holland’s Tulip Time Festival. But this celebration is as much American as it is Polish. Its namesake, Casimir Pulaski, was a hero of the American Revolution and is credited with founding the U.S. Calvary. He died in the siege of Savannah defending this country, not his homeland.

In every hall, there are stories that are wholly representative of American culture. Grandparents enduring a ride in the belly of a boat, then struggling to create a new life in the U.S., and then struggling to fit into American culture while preserving their own.

“To me, being Polish means many years of back-breaking work for the old-timers that came to America,” says Tim Staskiewicz, Pulaski Days chairman. “There is a misconception that Pulaski Days is about drinking. It's not. People drink, but this is a celebration of our heritage, in some ways a shared heritage, that’s the bottom line.”

And so next week, Szczepanek will be making 1,157 golumbki, 9,000 perogis, 2,700 orders of kapustka and 680 pounds of kielbasa in the Fifth Street Hall kitchen. Polka bands such as the Didldle Styx will be making the rounds from next week’s Thirsty Thursday on through the weekend. Polish neighborhood natives and Polka fans alike will be filling into hotels and guest rooms, including the grand marshall's niece, Lindsey Nyenhuis, who will bring several of her University of Iowa basketball teammates to next Saturday’s parade.

“We wanted to eliminate bigotry and make some lasting friendships,” says Czyzyk, the celebration’s co-founder. “You don’t have to be Polish to appreciate that.”

Pulaski Days starts at Diamond Hall this Sunday with the Pulaski Memorial flag raising at 2 p.m. Notable events include the Kielbasa Eating Contest at Kosciuszko Hall on Wednesday night, the parade through Michigan Street’s Pulaski Square on Saturday, Oct. 4 at 11 a.m., Polka Mass at John Ball Park on Sunday, Oct. 5, at 11 a.m.; and next weekend’s club open houses.

Daniel Schoonmaker is Managing Editor of Rapid Growth.


Bartender E.J. Herda and partrons at the Polish Falcons

Monument at Diamond Hall

Exterior of Polish Falcons

Shields behind the bar at Polish Falcons

Diamond Hall

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
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