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Polonia on Parade
by Geoff Kelly
South Bend, Indiana has long maintained a spurious claim to the title, but the organizers of Dyngus Day Buffalo know the truth: Buffalo is the Dyngus Day capital of the world.
“It’s one of the biggest parties in Western New York,” says Marty Biniasz, “and nobody celebrates it anywhere on the planet the way we celebrate it in Western New York. We are the Dyngus Day capital of the world.”
It can’t help but be true. The day after Easter Sunday, Western New York hosts dozens of Dyngus Day celebrations—in churches, community centers, VFW posts, taverns and restaurants, private homes—that draw thousands of revelers. Biniasz, recognizing an opportunity to market both the region and his old East Buffalo neighborhood, decided last year to create a Web site to provide a warehouse of information about all the festivities. That Web site, DyngusDayBuffalo.com, proved to be immensely popular and became the catalyst for the creation of a not-for-profit group of the same name.
Dyngus Day Buffalo, partnering with a variety of public and private groups, has been promoting Dyngus Day events relentlessly in the past week: taking out advertisements; coordinating events and donations; setting up a photo opportunity on the fireboat Edward M. Cotter (dubbed “The World’s Largest Dyngus Day Squirt Gun”), complete with accordions playing polka music on deck and traditional Polish dancers.
The group, founded by Biniasz, hopes to ratchet up Buffalo’s appreciation for the holiday through publicity and parties—and, most notably, by means of a parade through Buffalo’s old Polonia neighborhood on the East Side: down Broadway and Fillmore, down Peckham and Paderewski to the towering old Central Terminal, where organizers expect to draw thousands of revelers to bid farewell to the strictures of Lent. (The parade begins at 5:30pm; see page 16 for the route.)
It is, to the best of anyone’s recollection, the first ever Dyngus Day parade in Buffalo. It is also a rare opportunity to turn the city’s attention to the neighborhood. Like so much of the East Side, the Fillmore District is scarred by abandoned houses and vacant lots, shuttered storefronts and crumbling edifices.
“If we can position ourselves and market ourselves, we can become a cultural tourism draw for the whole community,” Biniasz says.
“And at the same time we can help in the revitalization effort of this old historic Polonia neighborhood, which seems to have been abandoned over the past 20 or 30 years,” adds Eddy Dobosiewicz, chairman of the parade. “There are some many cultural and architectural treasures here that we don’t want people to forget about it.”
What is Dyngus Day?
“Dyngus Day is an old Eastern European tradition celebrating the end of Lent and the rebirth of spring,” says Dobosiewicz. “But in all actuality there’s not a lot of people who celebrate it anywhere. They don’t really celebrate it a on a wide scale in Poland or Eastern Europe anymore.”
Dyngus Day is largely an American holiday now, celebrated in Polish and Eastern European enclaves in cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, South Bend and Pittsburgh. Buffalo’s own Dyngus Day tradition—at least as it is celebrated today—reaches back no further than 1961, when the Chopin Singing Society began throwing Dyngus Day parties as fundraisers. So popular were those events that Dyngus Day parties began to spring up in every neighborhood where Poles had settled, especially in church halls, community centers and VFW posts.
Once upon a time, the Dyngus festivities lasted a week, until the post-Resurrection party was shortened to one day in the 19th century, by decree of the Catholic Church. On that one day, young men would signal their amorous intentions to young women by dousing them with water. (In one iteration of this tradition, the young man sneaks into his intended’s bedroom—most likely with the complicity of the young woman’s mother or father—and wakes her with a bucket of cold water.) Women would respond by beating young men with pussy willows. Thus it is known as Wet Monday in Poland, or smigus-dyngus. Smigus means to strike, more or less, evoking the pussy willows, while dyngus means a worthy gift or ransom, referring to the small gifts, often decorated eggs, that were exchanged as part of the holiday.
The traditions of Dyngus Day predate Christianity in Poland by hundreds of years, and are derived from pagan celebrations welcoming the spring. Like Mardi Gras—its pre-Lenten counterpart—Dyngus Day may be related to the Roman Lupercalia, with which it shares an emphasis on courtship and fertility rituals. So pussy willows signify the advent of spring and rebirth; water signifies life and fertility. The prodigious eating and drinking that attend Dyngus Day signify relief.
“Buffalonians love a party,” says Dobosiewicz, “which is why Dyngus Day has always been big here. We want to help make it bigger and bigger.”
Touring the old neighborhood
Standing in front of the Central Terminal, which hosts a gala party Monday evening after the parade, Biniasz said, “You could say beer saved this building.”
The majestic and dilapidated terminal might have fallen victim to wrecking balls and bulldozers a few years ago if not for the determined efforts of preservationists, who had the wisdom to plead their case by throwing parties in its dramatic vaulted concourse. Those parties made way for art exhibitions and dramatic productions. Today the terminal is stabilized, and its clock towers have been restored. More than 20,000 people have passed through the Central Terminal’s doors in the past few years, thanks to tours and events. The building’s future may be undetermined still, and largely unfunded, but there is hope.
Neither Biniasz nor Dobosiewicz live in the neighborhood anymore, but their memories and continuing attachments have motivated them to join with East Side groups, such as Broadway Fillmore Alive, which are trying to reverse the decay by attracting attention to the neighborhood’s treasures and traditions.
“Even growing up as a child I knew this neighborhood was unique,” Biniasz says. “I would bring friends in a from other parts of the city and they couldn’t believe what was here.”
Monday evening’s parade will pass by such Fillmore District landmarks as the Broadway Market, the site of the long-gone Sattlers Department Store and the former A. Schreiber Brewing Company—once the largest Polish-owned business in Buffalo. The marchers will pass the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle on Fillmore, and then under the shadows of Saint Stanislaus and Corpus Christi churches.
“The first wave of Polish immigrants that came to the community came in the 1870s, and those parishioners founded Saint Stanislaus in 1873,” says Biniasz. “Thirty years later, after the turn of the century, Corpus Christi was built, because the Polish population was growing at such a rapid rate.”
The churches—and these two were followed by more to the east, north and south—competed to build the highest steeples and the most impressive facades. The neighborhoods, especially the working-class dwellings, sprang up around the churches, which were the community’s gathering places. The characteristic working-class abode was the Bork cottage, named for the German developer Joseph Bork, who donated the land for Saint Stanislaus parish in the hopes that the Poles would move in around the church and buy the houses he was building in the neighborhood. Bork built thousands of these simple, wood-framed, two-storey cottages, which were cheap enough for mill, factory and brewery workers to afford. As the immigrants were joined by their family members from abroad, they would build additions telescoping backwards into the deep lots. Dozens of people might live under one roof.
By 1880 there were more than 5,000 Poles in Buffalo, and 10 years later there were four times that number. By 1940, there were more than 75,000 Poles, mostly on the East Side—by far the largest ethnic group in the city, with their own newspapers, their own political organizations, their own schools and their own taverns in which Polish was the first language and English a distant second.
Many of those taverns are still going concerns, and are on the Dyngus Day parade route: the Market Bar, Arty’s, the Three Deuces, etc. All of them throw Dyngus Day parties. The Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle throws one of the most famous and raucous Dyngus Day celebrations, according to Biniasz.
“It’s known as the wettest Dyngus Day party,” he says. “There’s so much water that you go in the basement and it’s like a waterfall coming down.
Designating a Polonia historic district
Buffalo’s African-American population increased dramatically in the years after World War Two—and so did the Polish population, as the devastation of Europe spurred a new round of immigration. Racial tensions and the postwar rise of the suburbs resulted in many Poles moving west. (To some degree, this mirrored the displacement of German and Jewish populations that had moved away when the Poles arrived, though the earlier displacement was less dramatic; much of East Buffalo was farmland at the time the Poles arrived.) African-American Buffalo built its own churches and institutions on the East Side, buoyed by plentiful jobs in the city’s steel mills and factories, which appeared robust even as they were quietly growing obsolete.
The death of Buffalo’s industrial economy is reflected in the neighborhood’s long, precipitous economic decline. Today 38 percent of the Fillmore District’s population lives below the poverty line, the highest percentage of any predominantly residential district in the city. Whole blocks have been decimated by the self-feeding cycle of abandonment, decay and demolition.
The Central Terminal provides an analog to the fragile state of the neighborhood: Though the present remains bleak, there is reason to hope. The neighborhood has attracted new waves of immigrants—Pakistani and Yemeni Muslims, Vietnamese Buddhists—and they have opened their own mosques, temples and schools. Black churches and community groups continue to fight the neighborhood’s decline. A sizeable, if diminished, Polish population remains, too; Saint Stanislaus and Corpus Christi’s congregations are, in fact, growing, and both churches—Saint Stanislaus especially—have ambitious neighborhood redevelopment plans.
The growing diversity of the neighborhood might seem to argue against a new effort, spearheaded by Common Council President Dave Franczyk and a number of East Side community groups, to designate an old Polonia historic district. Why label the neighborhood with a moniker that speaks largely to its past?
Because, Dobosiewicz, points out, Buffalonians love their city’s history as much as they love a good party. Standing at the corner of Fillmore and Paderewski, he enumerated the possibilities in the blocks leading to the Central Terminal, looming to the southeast, with the spires of Corpus Christi and Saint Stanislaus rising above the roofs. A restaurant here, a tavern there, a couple young homeowners willing to buy a house on the cheap and fix it up—these are the little things that could catalyze the neighborhood’s rebirth.
“If parade or a historic designation draws attention and investment to this neighborhood, that’s what matters,” he says. “There’s so much potential here.”
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