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No Polish Festival this year for shrinking Fells Point community

Warm, melodic polka music still fills the Polish Home Club in Fells Point every Saturday night, where rounds of the house drink — golden, honey-flavored Krupnik — are passed around the bar and quickly drained.

But the decidedly older crowd — one member recalled the first time he walked into the club, still recovering from injuries he sustained fighting in World War II — has thinned as residents from the Polish community die off, with many of their children already having left the neighborhood.

And now, a major symbol of the community's vibrant past is fleeting: There will be no Baltimore Polish Festival this year for the first time in nearly four decades. When the celebration returns next year, it's likely to be held at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

"We've been in the city all of this time. It's a sad thing we have to move now," said Steve Lesniewski, president of the Polish Community Association of Maryland, which organizes the festival. Lesniewski is also the vice president of the Polish Home Club. "You hate to see things fall by the wayside but it happens. … Polish organizations are drying up."

Each June, the festival has attracted throngs from all over the city over a three-day weekend to celebrate Baltimore's Polish community — largely congregated in Southeast Baltimore's Upper Fells Point neighborhood, where immigrants established a number of churches, small businesses and social clubs.

The festival featured pierogies, golabki (a stuffed cabbage dish) and kielbasa. Guests drank beers such as Zywiec and Okocim, and danced to music at three stages. The celebration kicked off the city's ethnic festival season each summer. This would have been its 38th year in Baltimore; after a long run at Rash Field, the celebration moved to Patterson Park in 1990.

But the cash-strapped city recently raised the fees to hold festivals and obtain permits, and the dwindling Polish Home Club members who attend each year say that even if the festival is able to continue, it will not hold the same significance outside the old neighborhood. There was no time to find another location this year, organizers said, but they hope to secure a slot at Timonium in 2012.

Leaving the city also means leaving the historically Polish neighborhood behind, as well as the Gen. Casimir Pulaski monument in the park. A Pole, Pulaski fought and died in the Revolutionary War.

"People are disappointed to hear we are leaving," Lesniewski said. However, "I'm almost relieved. It's become a stressful fight with the city," he said. As an organizer, he is responsible for securing a number of permits, and also attracting vendors and volunteers.

Lesniewski said the city has increased the festival's required contribution for services such as sanitation in recent years. This year, the increase was 50 percent, and organizers must now pay the full cost of police and fire services.

Tracy Baskerville, spokeswoman with Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which works as a liaison with festival organizers to assist with logistics and promotions, said in an email that two participants in the "Showcase of Nations Ethnic Festivals" opted out after the fee increases. The other was FestAfrica, which celebrates African culture.

City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Southeast Baltimore, called the festival's departure "disastrous."

"The Polish Festival, like all festivals, are an integral part of Southeast Baltimore," he said. Kraft said he would work to bring the festival back next year. "It strikes at the character of Southeast Baltimore."

John F. Giza, president of Polish Home, grew up speaking Polish and attended classes at St. Stanislaus, the now-shuttered Catholic school. He said he's concerned about attendance if the festival moves.

"It's too far to travel. It's going to affect it pretty bad," he said.

Adding to concerns about where the festival will be held is the lack of involvement by younger generations.

"This was once a young crowd," Giza said, watching the bar's evening crowd slowly pour in, quickly shedding their coats and greeting each other with hugs and raised glasses. But like the club, church attendance has dropped off, and many of the old businesses and other clubs have closed. Only Polish Home and the Polish National Alliance on Eastern Avenue remain of the old social clubs.

"Unless you get involved, it's going to fizzle out," Lesniewski said. At 54, he's one of the youngest and most active in the Polish community, helping to lead the club and the Polish community association. "I told my wife I want to retire, to move to Florida, but I can't."

He began playing the accordion as teenager, performing at Polish Home and other social clubs in the neighborhood such as the Polish Veteran Club and the Polka Weekenders VIP Room on Milton Street. He got his start playing polka at the festival with fellow musicians, who later started a polka band called Radosc, which means "Joy" — the current name of the three-man polka band that plays at the club.

Polish Home still holds dances, where the group performs and guests pay a flat fee for a meal and all-you-can-drink alcoholic beverages. They used to draw about 250 guests easily, but that number has dwindled, Lesniewski said one recent weekday night as he walked through the half-lit, empty ballroom.

The room sits above the bar and is anchored at the rear by a large stage. The gold, mirrored glass walls have a marble pattern,and are adorned with mementos. Among the decorations are a painted portrait of Pope John Paul II, a painting titled "Market Place for Krakow" and an Uncle Sam sign that reads, "I Want You to Sign the Guest Book and Join the Polish Home Club."

At one point, there was talk of moving the club to a single-story location that had more parking for those driving into the city, no steps for older members and a building that wouldn't require a complete renovation. Lesniewski said many did not want to relocate — the club has been here since 1918.

But while much of the club's interior remains frozen in time, much of the surrounding neighborhood has changed. Across Broadway, the impressive neon front of the Latin Palace represents the ethnic community that has adopted the neighborhood, breathing life into some of the emptied storefronts. According to recent U.S. census data, Hispanics make up about 20 percent of the population in the three census tracts that comprise Upper Fells Point.

Nancy Mulcaf, who started going to Polish Home 30 years ago, said she worried about Polish traditions continuing, especially when the festival leaves.

"The roots, the integrity of the whole Polish community was this area," she said. "It's a proud community."

"We need to get some of our people to get themselves interested in everything that is Polish," said Walter Stankawski, 86, who retired after 58 years from the Canton Liquor House — one of the old neighborhood haunts that has closed. "We don't care if they can't dance a polka, just jump around like a rabbit," he said, as the loud accordion music began to play at the bar.

Lesniewski said the he stays involved in the community because of the music. While his 16-year-old daughter occasionally comes down to the club and sings, she doesn't want the polka band's accompaniment. He's already set his sights on his grandson, though, and plans to teach him the accordion.

He cautioned the younger generation: "When they get ready, this might not be here."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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