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Polonia on Parade

Eddy Dobosiewicz embraces Polish culture. (Photo: Cheryl Gorski)

With great fanfare, Polish pride takes to the streets

While the smaller ethnic festivals like Buffalo Greekfest and the Lebanese Festival have held tightly to their cultural heritage at their events, larger ones like the Italian Festival and St. Patrick’s Day have wandered far astray from any representation of their former homelands. It seems the bigger you get the harder it is to stay on point. That’s not true for the Polish, however. Buffalo’s Polish Dyngus Day celebration gets larger every year and has quickly grown to rival any other major Buffalo event. And they really keep it Polish; Polish beer; Polish costumes; Polish dancers; Polish food; and Polish music from Chopin to Polka bands.

Yep! Buffalo is officially the Dyngus Day capitol of the world, so it’s no surprise Eddy Dobosiewicz; co-founder of Dyngus Day Buffalo is getting excited for Polonia on Parade.

Historically a Polish and Polish-American tradition, Dyngus Day celebrates the end of the observance of Lent and its dietary restrictions. This year, the celebration will be bigger than ever with the 9th Annual Dyngus Day Parade taking place on Monday (4/6) at 5pm down Broadway, Fillmore and Memorial Drive.

“We really try to stick to our ethnic authenticity with the event,” Dobosiewicz says. “It’s not just an excuse to drink. We celebrate the Polish culture and customs and the role that Polonia has had on Buffalo’s history.”

Dobosiewicz spent his childhood growing up in the historic Polonia district of Buffalo’s East Side. He wanted to spread awareness to the community when he noticed it was being demolished at a rapid rate.

“About 10 years ago, I started being more aware of the neglect happening in the area surrounding Broadway, Fillmore and The Central Terminal,” he says. “It really upset me because it was the neighborhood that I spent my childhood in. It was a very vibrant area during that time.”

Until recently, after Warsaw and Chicago, Buffalo boasted the third largest Polish community in the world. It didn’t decline until after World-War II, when large communities started moving out into the suburbs and beyond.

“When these Polish immigrants first came into Buffalo and Western New York, they lived very modest lives,” Dobosiewicz says. “They started to Americanize themselves and accumulated wealth. When this happened, families began moving out to the suburbs for bigger pieces of land and bigger houses.”

Times had changed. There was a huge demographic shift occurring through these urban neighborhoods. People had cars and they were moving out of the city at an alarming rate.

“It’s upsetting to see your childhood neighborhood disintegrating before your very eyes, but it was mostly surprising because it was such a vibrant area not too long ago,” he says. “That area was still full of life 20 years ago. It was shocking that something could turn around so fast. It was almost like watching the extinction of a civilization.”

Eddy Dobosiewicz couldn’t stand by and watch such an important piece of Buffalo’s heritage be bulldozed away.

“I couldn’t believe that no one was paying attention to this,” He said. “I felt like most people didn’t even care that this was taking place.”

That changed when he met Russell Pawlak.

“Around 2004, Russ took it upon himself to organize these clean up events to try and improve the area around the Central Terminal,” says Dobosiewicz. “Thousands of people showed up, and that started to awaken everyone involved. It showed me that people actually did care, they just didn’t know what to do or how to take the first step.

“Russell eventually started a nonprofit organization called the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. and purchased the property from the city for $1,” Dobosiewicz said. “During that time, I befriended Russ and we got together with my old friend Marty Biniasz,” he adds.

“We started talking about what else we could do for the neighborhood, if only to slow down the destruction, and how to increase awareness as well as educating people on what that area was and the potential it still had.”

He didn’t realize what an impact the three of them would have in the years to come.

“Russ wanted to do a Dyngus Day Parade,” said Dobosiewicz. “We wanted to capitalize on the old Polish tradition while raising awareness to the neighborhood.”

There was something appealing about Dyngus Day that young people in Buffalo have come to love. Maybe it’s the excuse to drink a beer on a Monday afternoon while chasing that cute girl down the street with your squirt gun in hand?

Either way, the city jumped at the opportunity.

The three of them came up with the idea of having the parade march down the streets of Broadway and Fillmore before emptying out into the Central Terminal.

“It was a great idea, since at that point, the terminal had been cleaned up,” Dobosiewics said. “It was nothing fancy, but it was a place where we could have a blank slate to work with and throw a party right in the concourse.

“We initially envisioned the parade literally emptying out right into the terminal, so at the very least we could get all the people who were participating in the parade to attend this event,” Dobosiewicz said.

“The first year we had the parade was in 2007. There were a couple thousand people showed up,” he adds. “It was a huge success. The terminal benefited and we were able to finally spread some awareness to the forgotten East Side of Buffalo.”

Over the next few years, the event rapidly grew into something none of them had anticipated.

“It grew exponentially. It was big,” said Dobosiewicz. “Every year you could see it getting bigger and bigger.

“I noticed almost right away, certainly by the second year, that younger people started coming to the events,” Dobosiewics says. “We incorporated more venues all over Western New York and eventually connected all participating sites with a shuttle service. It quickly turned into a festival over anything else.”

All of a sudden, Buffalo’s Dyngus Day went from drawing in a couple thousand people to over 50,000.

“In the process of doing all of this, we wanted to attract younger people to nurture an ongoing audience,” said Dobosiewicz. “We did this by using the right type of graphics and promotion. Dyngus Day was always viewed as something that maybe your grandparents celebrated and our goal was to make it hip.

“Believe it or not, it was actually an Irish girl by the name of Nancy McCarthy, who helped us achieve that,” He says.

“She really created the visual aspect of what this thing was. She gave it a cool, hip, youthful feel to the younger demographic of Buffalo.” Dobosiewicz says.

The Dyngus Day event was a way for people to feel proud about their heritage. Eddy, Russ and Marty noticed people started embracing their culture again. They were proud to be Polish.

“You could see within some of the t-shirts they were wearing,” Dobosiewicz said. “They were swelling with pride. Not just on Dyngus Day, but throughout the year.

“The Parade started out as a way to spread awareness to the old historic Polonial East Side of Buffalo and the Central Terminal, but it really turned into much more,” He says. “It started creating awareness not only for that area, but for an overall connection, or disconnection that some second or third generation Poles felt. They seemed to be embracing their heritage again.”

Russell Pawlak passed away in 2009. This year, Russell’s wife, Bernadette Pawlak is coordinating the event. The parade is expected to have over 200 groups, organizations and floats proudly pressing down Broadway to Fillmore to Memorial Drive. And wherever Russell is now, he’s probably smiling.

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