Twentieth Century Changes

In The Clarinet Polka, a novel about Polish Americans in a town very similar to Wheeling, West Virginia, the author Keith Maillard describes an encounter between two Polish Americans. The son of a working class Polish family living in the town’s Polish neighborhood pays a visit to a family that arrived after World War II as displaced persons. The head of the family is resented for his “pure Polish” and for the fact that he got a college degree, became an accountant, and moved across the river to a better part of town. Set in the early 1970s in a community not unlike Cleveland’s, The Clarinet Polka shows how Polish Americans changed throughout the twentieth century as they became more rooted in American society.

The influx of Poles to Cleveland in the early decades of the twentieth century led to the growth of a community in Cleveland that worked, prayed, and lived in Polish, but changes in the rate of immigration significantly changed Polish American life. Restrictions on immigration to the United States in 1924 meant that the immigration of the late 1800s would not be repeated. War and political events conditioned future waves of emigration. Displaced persons from Poland arrived in the United States after World War II, and this group of immigrants was better educated than the unskilled laborers who arrived at the end of the nineteenth century. Another smaller wave of immigration occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, making Poles the second largest European immigrant group in Cleveland (behind those from the former Yugoslavia). Each group of immigrants faced distinct challenges. The immigrants from Poland in the mid to late twentieth century left amid significantly different political conditions than earlier immigrants and they arrived in a United States that had already attained status as a world superpower.

A number of Poles in Cleveland had begun as early as 1910 to move to outlying neighborhoods and suburbs, away from the industrial enterprises near which they originally settled. They spread themselves throughout the greater Cleveland area, increasingly becoming more like other “Americans”. The effort to hold on to Polish identity became even more difficult later, as the economic prosperity brought to America by World War II meant that Cleveland’s Poles could afford to move out of the city and own their own homes, usually in places like Garfield Heights, Cuyahoga Heights, Maple Heights, and Parma.

Cleveland’s Polish Americans were not unique in making the move to the suburbs. They were part of a process that affected many city dwellers in the mid to late twentieth century. Each of these groups followed a similar pattern, immigration to the United States, settlement in or near an urban ethnic neighborhood, such as Cleveland’s historic district of Warszawa, and then movement to the suburbs. This movement has not been without its consequences. As Poles fared better economically and adopted English as their primary language of communication, Polish-language newspapers that once prospered in Cleveland, such as Wiadomości Codzienne, folded. Wiadomości Codzienne last appeared in 1966.

Participation in exclusively Polish institutions also declined as the descendants of earlier immigrants integrated into American society. The neighborhoods the Polish immigrants left behind were transformed, as African Americans and members of other ethnic groups began to move into the homes left behind. In the 1970s, Warszawa became Slavic Village. The name suggests the blurring of distinctions made between older ethnic neighborhoods and was intended to spur economic development in a depressed area.

As Polish Americans began to make their lives in the suburbs, the church was often the sole reason for them to return to their old neighborhoods, and Polish parishes became the strongest institutions in which Polish Americans gathered to celebrate not just their faith but also their separate ethnic identity. However weakened by the move to the suburbs, a Polish presence continued in Slavic Village throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Visitors to the Mill Creek Falls History Center off of Warner Road will see an exhibit that includes a photograph of Polish Americans marching to support Solidarity in the early 1980s. The Cultural Center itself has provided a place other than the church where Poles can be Polish. With luck, the Center and other local Polish institutions can bring Polish Americans back into their old neighborhood and work with local residents to revitalize the area.

Sean Martin

Forum, 4/2004