Sundays used to be the busiest day of the week at Beata Delicatessen, a Polish food shop in Greenpoint, a Brooklyn neighborhood where Polish immigrants began moving more than a century ago.
People would wait in line to buy the delicacies they that reminded them of home: Polish bread, kielbasa (sausage), pierogi (dumplings), cakes and salads.
“Ten years ago the neighborhood was still filled with Poles and many used to work 6 days a week. They would shop on their only day off,” says the owner, Mieszko Kalita, 49, who escaped communist Poland in 1984, and established the deli in 1988.
He once employed four salespeople to handle the Sunday crowds. Now, he has a single employee, and the deli closes on Sundays for lack of business. Kalita says it reflects a broad change in Polish attitudes. “They don’t come to the U.S. to work like crazy anymore. In fact, they almost don’t come at all.”
U.S no longer the magnet it was
For generations Polish immigrants saw America as the ultimate goal, a promise of the kind of life they could never have in Poland. In the U.S., they could enjoy personal freedoms and make far more money than they could back home.
Now, more than 20 years after the collapse of communism and eight years after joining the European Union, Poland’s economy has grown significantly, and continues to expand. Poland was the only EU member to avoid recession in 2009 and its economy is expected to grow 2.5 percent in 2012, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even as the economies of other European nations have shrunk or are teetering on the brink of collapse.
Poland’s growth coupled with the moribund American job market has caused something unprecedented: the reverse migration of thousands of Poles who can now live more comfortable lives in their home country.
“Many people went back, especially young ones who had perspectives and chances to develop new careers,” said Adam Szewczyk, a cargo manager at Polamer, a company shipping resettlement property for people who decide to move back to Europe. He said they went to Poland and also to countries like the UK and Ireland whose job markets are open to Poles since Poland joined the European Union.
“Endless opportunities” back in Poland
Marcin Poznan, 32, returned to Poland in 2008 after working for a Polish publishing company in New York for four years. He’s now a spokesperson for the Warsaw School of Economics, and happy with his decision to move back.
“I left in the right moment,” he said. “Back then, the dollar had weakened against the Polish zloty, banks in the U.S. started to collapse and the opportunities in Poland were endless.”
Overall the population of Polish-born immigrants living in New York declined to 55,581 in 2010, down from 61,546 in 2000, according to the Census Bureau. Chicago, whose greater metropolitan area has approximately 800,000 people of Polish descent, is the largest Polish city in the world outside Poland. It too saw people leaving: the number of Polish-born residents fell from 57,944 in 2006 to 45,958 in 2010.
Bozena Kaminski of the Polish and Slavic Center, a community center based in Greenpoint, says the center has lost 20 percent of its members since 2007 and currently has around 43,000 people who depend on its services.
Kaminski noticed two main groups of Poles among those that go back these days.
“It’s either elderly people who want to retire in Poland, or those who were unable to legalize their status and gave up,” Kaminski said. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, along with tightening immigration laws, have caused people who were in the U.S. illegally to lose hope that immigration reform would help them gain American citizenship.
Genowefa Baj, 65, left the U.S. in December 2011 after living for 10 years in the New York City suburbs and working as a cleaning lady. “I could not get a green card,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I loved the U.S. but it was difficult to be there without my family and not even being able to visit them from time to time,” she said referring to the fact that people who have overstayed their visas are usually not allowed to return to the U.S. for some time. “Another problem was that I was getting older and could not count on any benefits in the U.S., while in Poland I am eligible for some modest pension.”
Kaminski and other community leaders say the trend has slowed in recent months, because of a fear that Poland will be affected by Europe’s economic troubles.
Marian Meller, the owner of Poland Employment Agency, is optimistic that at some point America may again become a sought after destination for Poles.
“Things go up and down,” says Meller.
The new migration trends combined with the economic downturn in the U.S. has nearly brought his business to a halt. When he founded the agency in 2001 he had plenty of job listings and as many as 50 Poles a day would inquire about employment. Now, only three to four immigrants a day ask for work at his agency and he has very few offers for them.
“If at some point there are more work opportunities here, maybe some Poles will decide to come. Maybe some of those who used to live here for years, or those who still have families here…”
For now Meller who also has a degree in physical therapy has decided to develop his other business –massage therapy. “It’s actually doing well in the crisis because people need it more in bad times.”
Polish Greenpoint “does not exist any more”
Meanwhile, Greenpoint has been hit by gentrification. Increasing real estate prices are forcing many Poles to look for new neighborhoods.
There may still be many signs in Polish along Greenpoint’s streets. But little by little, traditional Polish stores and restaurants have given way to trendy bars and coffee shops, tattoo parlors, and fashion boutiques as more hipsters and young professionals move in.
Mieszko Kalita says Polish businesses in Greenpoint have two choices: Adapt or go under.
“For me, adjusting to the new population would be difficult,” he said. “I would have to change everything: all the products and food distributors, the way my store looks, and I would have to hire a salesperson that speaks English rather than Polish,” says Kalita.
After 22 years in business, he is considering closing down his deli. “Polish Greenpoint as we knew it does not exist anymore.”