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A neighborhood stirs again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dressed all in red from straw hat to slacks, 85-year-old Catherine Benicewicz walked down Filbert Street one hot day recently to visit the old Polish Home Hall. The brick building on a hill in Curtis Bay is empty now, but for more than 50 years it was the heart of a thriving immigrant community.

Benicewicz climbed the wide red staircase to the ballroom. Its 30 tall windows were dusty, blurring a gritty cityscape: the Key Bridge, the industrial wharves of Curtis Creek and the coal pier with its railroad cars, barges, coal escalators and conveyor belts.

"This is a good place to dance," she said. At night, "it's like a fairyland. The bridge is lit up, and the escalator is lit up and you don't see" - she lowered her voice - "I don't want to say the ugliness. It's just so wonderful when the windows are clean."

When the Polish Home Hall opened its doors in 1925, the ugly, busy Curtis Bay waterfront looked like a dream of prosperity to the immigrants who landed there, and stayed.

Back then, the hall was a place where newcomers could learn English, find jobs, hold union meetings, dance all night at weddings and hold funeral breakfasts at dawn. In Curtis Bay, the former peasants of Eastern Europe lived a modest version of the American dream. They opened businesses, bought rowhouses and raised children, who grew up and moved to the suburbs.

Eventually, nobody wanted the old hall, and in 1996, the gates were locked. In the ballroom, white paint peeled away from the vaulted tin ceiling. A banner in the Polish national colors, red and white, rotted amid empty paint cans and fast-food wrappers. Weeds overtook the roses in the garden.

But a handful of hopeful residents are trying to bring the building back to life and make it the centerpiece of a neighborhood renaissance.

The Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition took title to the building in June. It was the first major project for the 2-year-old coalition, made up of community groups, churches and businesses.

The coalition plans a job training center, after-school programs for kids, and senior citizens' dances in a refurbished ballroom - though its leaders are not sure how they'll pay for a $500,000 renovation on a budget of $150,000 a year.

"We envision it as a rallying point for the community and a symbol of revitalization," said Carol Eshelman, executive director of the coalition. "There are lots of ideas. It's all up in the air. But people are really starting to get excited about it. It would mean a lot to this community to have it open again."

Catherine Benicewicz plans to dance again in the ballroom, above the waterfront lights. She was born in a rowhouse down the block and still lives there. Her life spans the history of the Polish Hall and of Curtis Bay's Polish community from their glory days to their current fate: diminished, faded and almost forgotten, but still hanging on.

The Little Poland of Fells Point and Canton is bigger and better known. But between the 1880s and the 1920s, plenty of immigrants did what Benicewicz's parents did: They got off the boat in Curtis Bay and went no farther.

Staying in Curtis Bay

"The seasick people ... simply refused another trip across the water to Fells Point or Canton," wrote Polish historian Tadewsz Przewski, a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s.

Catherine Benicewicz has a more down-to-earth explanation: "Someone met them on the dock saying, 'Stay here; there are jobs.'"

The jobs were often rough, low-paying work that few others would take. The men worked as stevedores or day laborers. Benicewicz's father did better: He spent 40 years mixing vats of sulfuric acid at Davison Chemical Co., and got a gold watch when he retired. His daughter still wears it.

The women and children worked in "the bean country" - the farm fields of Anne Arundel County, where they picked beans, tomatoes and berries. Benicewicz met her husband-to-be in a bean field in 1934, when both were teen-age pickers.

Many Poles had been forbidden to own land in the old country and were eager to buy homes here - but the downtown bankers often refused them credit. Other families were so poor that they couldn't pay relatives' burial expenses.

To solve these problems, Baltimore's Poles funded 20 building and loan associations, started two newspapers and opened night schools. By 1925, Curtis Bay had a dozen Polish organizations. The Poles were crowding the Germans, Lithuanians and Czechs out of the parish hall at St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church. The Polish community needed its own place.

Finding a building

Community leaders created the United Polish Societies. They found a good building - a former town hall and firehouse built in 1909, when Curtis Bay was part of Anne Arundel County. It stood at Fairhaven Avenue and Filbert Street. Its two front doors opened wide enough for horse-drawn fire engines. Its second floor had the elegant proportions of a turn-of-the century public building. The societies bought it for $14,000.

Downstairs was "our Polish school," Benicewicz said. "A one-room school with four grades and one teacher. We all spoke Polish at home, and we needed to learn English. We learned reading, writing and arithmetic, and then after four years we went to what we called 'the English school.'"

In the kitchen, aunts and grandmothers worked at a 10-burner cast-iron stove, turning out delicacies for weddings, baptisms, First Communions and wakes. Fathers and uncles drank beer at a carved oak bar. Dockworkers, railroad men, shipbuilders and chemical workers held union meetings here. Politicians courted the Curtis Bay Democratic Club.

Upstairs in front of a hand-painted village scene, children staged plays to celebrate Poland's Constitution Day. Polka bands played to celebrate just about anything. The music and the sound of stamping feet bounced from the pressed tin ceiling to the polished maple floor. The grownups pushed their chairs aside, Benicewicz said, "and by the end of the night the chairs would all be full because the children would be sleeping on them."

Decline of the dream

It was the homeland the immigrant parents had always dreamed of, a Poland that existed only in America. To their children, it seemed timeless. But by about 1980, its time was up. Some of the wartime factories shut down. Others mechanized and cut payrolls, said Richard Anderson, president of the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition.

"We've become a poorer community," said Anderson, who has lived in the area since 1977. "As some of the businesses moved away the people who worked in them remained, but their children moved to the suburbs. Now the older folks are dying, and the children are selling the houses."

In the 1990s, Curtis Bay lost one out of every four residents as the population fell from 4,150 to barely 3,000. Those moving out were mostly white; those moving in were African-American and multiracial, according to census information.

Speculators targeted the area, "flipping" houses by selling them at absurdly high prices, Anderson said.

The result: defaulting buyers and boarded-up houses. In 1990, one in every 10 houses stood empty. By 2000, one in five was vacant. Others now belong to "bad landlords," Anderson said, "folks that are just willing to rake off the profit without putting anything back."

By the mid-1980s, Catherine Benicewicz and her husband, Casimir, were the caretakers of a much-diminished Polish Home Hall. By 1994, the couple could no longer manage the work.

The United Polish Society turned over the hall's operations to another Polish organization, which tried to make a profit on the place, and failed. In 1996, after 71 years, the Polish Home Hall went out of business.

Squatters moved in, jury-rigged an electrical hookup and kenneled pit bulls on the dance floor, Eshelman said. They sold off furniture and mementos, she said. Nobody paid the water bill, so the city sold a private investor the right to pay off the bill, after a grace period, and take over the building.

In the summer of 2001, leaders of the newly formed Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition decided the community needed a new heart, a social center that would encourage residents to stay. They chose the Polish Home Hall.

It took nearly two years to sort out the legal tangle. The surviving board members of the United Polish Societies deeded the building to the coalition for free. The new group paid about $10,000 in utility bills, interest and legal fees, and the hall was theirs.

The coalition doesn't expect to make a profit. "If the hall is used and appreciated by large numbers of people, then it's a success," Anderson said.

Eshelman is looking for grants to pay for the renovation. Does she worry that the building may become a white elephant again?

"No," she said. "This is still a strong community. There are people here who still remember the Polish Home Hall, and still care. This building is going to come alive again."

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