Returning to the East Side for Dyngus Day


The church was gorgeous, one of the city’s great gems, and it evoked a spiritual sense within me. I wasn’t looking for a religious experience. Yet, there I was sitting in Corpus Christi Roman Catholic church on Buffalo’s East Side. To be honest, it felt a bit102_1106strange. Although I was raised Catholic, I was never a strong believer. I was a mere observer now, a tourist, respectful of the customs and traditions, but not an active participant. All of the rituals involved were familiar to me, and yet I was an outsider. This would be the theme of the day, and one of countervailing, contradictory feelings.

Dyngus Day in Buffalo, a Polish holiday celebrated each year on the day after Easter, is kind of a big deal. The best way that I can think to describe it is thusly: that it is somewhere, in both scale and pageantry, between a football tailgate party and Mardi Gras – though somewhat more child-friendly. It is often mocked in the media for its tradition of children – in age and at heart – flirtatiously squirting each other with water or tapping each other with pussy willow branches. It’s worth noting that we, Greater Polonia, are mostly OK with that; we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

The festivities, it could be said, bring out some of the best and worst of humanity. On the one hand: playfulness, tradition, creative expression. On the other: extreme drunkenness, obscenity, littering.
The parade was a veritable menagerie with men, women and children of varying age dressed in traditional Polish garb; keystone cops; suited politicians; and a guy dressed as Frederic Chopin. It’s a fun, if modest and somewhat tawdry, affair. As I watched, behind me stood the Buffalo Central Terminal, a handsome art-deco structure that is now abandoned. Beside it was an ecological restoration project in progress, which will help to contain some of the storm run-off from overwhelming the sewer system. Some parade attendees ignored the police tape and trampled the designated zone.

The area around the parade route, known as historic Polonia, is where many Polish immigrants settled starting in the late 1800′s. I passed by the house on Gibson Street in which my mother grew up, where I would go to visit my grandparents. I remembered how they used to take me to the Broadway Market and to MLK park. Yet, even back in the 80′s the neighborhood was changing quickly. Younger generations had moved out to the suburbs. Houses went vacant and fell into disrepair. Many have been demolished. Some fell into the hands of slumlords, and crime rates increased. The East Side remains a neglected area of Buffalo. To say that it has never been a place of affluence is somewhat of an understatement, but now it looks a bit like a war zone in spots.

At the Corpus Christi bowling alley, a DJ was playing polkas, children were trying their best to knock down pins, and adults were drinking beers with names unpronounceable to the uninitiated tongue. Polish food was served, including sauerkraut pierogi, golumpki, and kielbasa. State Senator Tim Kennedy introduced himself. He told me that he was backing a push to get the area around Broadway and Fillmore granted historic district status at the state102_1110 level, which would provide tax credits for qualifying developments, and that, if achieved, it would allow for the same at the federal level. It seemed like a nice sentiment, but I wondered if it was any more than an empty gesture. A certain amount of buy-in from the community is required for such a campaign, and as some cynics have pointed out, in ways both blunt and subtle, this seemed to be the only time of the year in which white people have taken an interest in the neighborhood. For the most part though, that has been the elephant in the room, crapping on the carpet and breaking the fine china. The issue that nobody seems to want to talk about on Dyngus Day, or any time of year for that matter, is race, and it is clearly apparent. We, most of us – the descendants of Polish immigrants, are now visitors in this neighborhood. Nonetheless, the residents that I met were cordial and respectful, we greeted each other as we passed on the streets. A few asked me if I knew when the parade would start and about the route. Was I being too pessimistic? Had I dreamed up the idea of decades of mistrust between cultures? If not, could that climate be changing?

As the saying goes: “Everyone is Polish on Dyngus Day.” This should be, and is, an inclusive event. It’s fun for people of all ages and backgrounds. It is also an opportunity to shed light on an area that has gotten the worst of the city’s economic downturn. I hope that it sees a revitalization in which people of all races and ethnicities can share. The discriminatory housing policies have left many northern cities deeply segregated. Buffalo is among them. It is time to reverse that legacy in the City of Good Neighbors, while keeping our distinct heritages and traditions alive and well. In our city, none of us should feel like outsiders.

Now, I can drink to that. As we say in Polonia, with a clinking of glasses: Na zdrowie!

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