Dec 7, 2008

On Neighborhoods, Signs, and Cultural Change

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(Detroit, MI) I grew up in a neighborhood on the west side of Detroit formally known as Warrendale, but which was better known as "Little Warsaw" due to the high numbers of first and second generation Polish immigrants who located there. My own street featured folks of such ethnicities as Armenian, Maltese, Albanian, and African-American, but the flag of Polska proudly flew on many area houses and businesses when I lived in Warrendale from 1973-1988.

There was Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which featured more masses spoken in Polish than English each week. We even had Kosciusko Elementary School, named after the revolutionary figure Tadeusz Kościuszko, who participated in both the American Revolution and the 1794 Polish uprising against the Russian Empire.

I drive through my old neighborhood every once in a while, and I recently drove down Warren Avenue and studied the storefronts in an effort to visually understand the ethnic changes in Warrendale. One of the most obvious changes was the high number of Arabic lettering on local businesses, as well as the decline in the number of easily-identifiable Polish businesses.

In fact, the only Polish businesses that seem to still be thriving along Warren Avenue are the Jarzembowski and Sajewski funeral homes, which probably reflect the aging Polish residents who comprise the declining number of ethnic Poles in the immediate area.

Michalak's Meat Market - once the best place to buy kielbasa and pierogies - is now a fruit market catering to Arabic speakers, and many other Polish businesses are but dim memories. In their places are Mexican restaurants, Lebanese physicians, and fast food outlets, with a smattering of ethnically unidentifiable retail establishments, like liquor stores, video rental joints, and places that make personalized baby gifts.

I admit to a pang of nostalgia at the disappearance of the neighborhood I remember, and at the same time I realize that I too am no longer a fixture of Little Warsaw, even though my connections to all matters Polish are but tangential. My old neighborhood now belongs to other people from different cultures, and living in the past is a largely unproductive activity (except for historians, who manage to eke out a living by rummaging in the past).

Still, a part of me wants my old neighborhoods to remain frozen in time, like ethnic Disneylands or cultural museums, so that like a tourist I can return to my past and reconnect with dormant memories.

Sorry, pal - change happens, and all the whining in the world will not stop change from occurring.

1 comment:

mud_rake said...

I spent many years in Detroit during my college years and lived near W. Grand Blvd. and Linwood. My roommates and I helped support an Irish widow who cooked for us and shared her house with us ruffians.

She survived the '67 riots with a few bullets in her stucco, but I wonder if the house survived the degradation of the neighborhood in the ensuing years.

I've not attempted to revisit the hood, but it was an interesting mixture of Arab and black back in the early 60's when we were there.