The Empire State Building’s refusal to light up for Pulaski Day symbolizes what Polish leaders fear is their community’s weak position in the city’s civic life.
A sea of red-and-white balloons, scarves, umbrellas and flags festooned Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue last month for New York City’s 75th annual Pulaski Day Parade, the largest celebration of Polish heritage in the United States. But the lack of red and white in a very high-profile place distressed some leaders of the Polish diaspora, known as “Polonia,” who are concerned about the visibility and influence of their community.
The Empire State Building declined to light its famous crown in the red-and-white colors of the Polish flag on October 7 to celebrate Pulaski Day — something that was done annually as a matter of course until about five years ago, Polish leaders said, when the building’s management rejected the community’s request with no explanation. Since then, Pulaski Day has been ignored by the Empire State Building every year, despite the pleas of parade organizers. The building’s owners declined to comment and are typically reluctant to explain their decisions, which have angered other ethnic communities, as well — including two years ago when the building refused to recognize what would have been the late Mother Teresa’s 100th birthday.
The tower has recently been lighted in honor of other ethnic events, including, St. Patrick’s Day, the Israel Parade, Caribbean Week, India Day, Steuben Day, Mexican Independence Day and Eid Al Fitr, according to its website. “Why the Polish community is being chastised, discriminated against, we don’t know,” said Peter Eagler, a spokesman for the Pulaski parade organizers.
Although it’s strictly a symbolic gesture, Polish leaders are concerned that the lighting snub is a signal that their community lacks political power and influence in the city’s civic life. Chris Olechowski, a recently elected Polish-American politician who represents Greenpoint-Williamsburg, said issues like the Empire State Building lights “become significant when a group is trying to establish a foothold and gain recognition.”
Nowy Dziennik, a major New York- and New Jersey-based source of Polish-language news, also pointed to Olechowski’s narrow win as a sign of the community’s diminishing political clout; he ran for Democratic district leader in a historically Polish part of Brooklyn and won by only 19 votes. The paper also expressed concern that Poland’s president failed to convince President Obama to include Poland in the U.S. visa waiver program while in New York City this September for the United Nations General Assembly. The program is meant to make travel and tourism to and from the U.S. easier; Poland is one of only four members of the European Union left out of the initiative.
“We feel kind of unwanted,” said Mieszko Kalita, an active member of the Polish community, who has owned a business in Greenpoint for 24 years and sits on the public safety committee for Greenpoint’s community board.
But John Micgiel, executive director of the East Central European Center at Columbia University, said concerns that Poland was left out of the visa program for status reasons are “phony baloney.” Poles have a history of staying overstaying their visas to work illegally in the U.S., he said, which likely drove the State Department’s decision.
At Holy Cross Parish, a Polish Catholic church in Maspeth, Queens, the Rev. Msgr. Peter Zendzian said that most Polish-Americans historically haven’t gotten involved in U.S. politics, which hurts their clout in the city’s civic life. He said Poles think, “Politics is not going to help us survive, not going to help us put bread on the table. … They’re not going to be bothered by American politics, because American politics isn’t concerned with them.”
Poles in New York City may never have had exerted much political power, but Polonia leaders once felt their community was strong. Demographic trends, however, are threatening that sense. U.S. Census data shows that in the last two years, New York City’s Polish population has dropped by nearly 10 percent; in Brooklyn, about 6,000 people of Polish ancestry left. The number of Poles that immigrated to the U.S. in 2011 was the lowest it’s been since the 1970s. Now many Poles and Polish-Americans say that the community is losing its coherence and identity. And Polonia leaders are anxious to enliven what’s left.
Olechowski said Polish-Americans of his generation were very strongly influenced by Poland’s history of communism, repressive government, and fear that taking a political stance could destroy a person, and that continued to affect how they behaved politically in the U.S., robbing the community of influence. But now there’s a new generation that he thinks could be more primed and open to civic involvement.
“I want to build a political voice in the Polish community… register them to vote and help them understand why they need to be a political bloc,” Olechowski said. “If we can begin to see some success on the local level … then we can begin to plant those seeds in Ridgewood, Maspeth, New Jersey… once you start developing a network, you can start developing political influence.”