Why Historic Polonia Still Needs to Be Celebrated

Earlier this week we shared a post on social media about the aspect of Dyngus Day celebrations that no one seems to want to talk about, and it seemed to have rubbed more than a few people — including this writer, at times — the wrong way. Still, written over a year ago by Christine Slocum, a recent guest on the What’s Going on in Buffalo? Podcast and a person for whom we here have the utmost respect, it was admittedly not an altogether inaccurate representation. Ms. Slocum is, as they say, a “smart cookie.” She has experience in both the analysis of data and working with under-represented groups.
Nevertheless, I, like many others, could not allow the simple conclusion to go unchallenged: that “Dyngus Day is celebrated in a Black neighborhood because of racism in Buffalo.” To be clear, no one should be denying that racism exists in Buffalo as it does in almost any place on the globe. It also cannot be denied that racism plays a large part in how we’ve gotten to this point. The question is: how do we correct it? Where do we go from here?

As the slogan goes, “everyone is Polish on Dyngus Day.” So why do we still seem to have so much trouble making this event feel more inclusive?

The answer to that question might lie, in part, in how social networks form and evolve. To illustrate this point, let’s introduce some fictional characters. Meet John. John is friends with Reggie. He’s also friends with Jake. Reggie and Jake are thus more likely to meet and become friends because of this shared connection — even more so if they share a common interest or geographic location. When John’s friends Reggie and Jake become friends with each other, they form what is called a closed triad. Groups called clusters are rife with these closed triads. Within these clusters, information — which includes culture — travels rapidly though it doesn’t as easily spread to other groups. You are probably familiar with this type of social sorting from high school, a dreadful place in which social cliques are formed.
Thus, celebrations like Dyngus Day create an interesting social dynamic to put it mildly because it is here — in this instance historic Polonia — where separated clusters collide. That is bound to create some tension. But it is also an opportunity for greater integration.

Vacant businesses are just one of the main issues facing residents of Buffalo’s East Side. – Photo via http://broadwayfillmorealive.org

I’ve heard some say vehemently “Leave the East Side (presumably its residents) alone!” Yet, much of the problem is that this part of the East Side, the Broadway/Fillmore District, was left alone for decades. It was first abandoned by the city itself. Then it was abandoned by most residents (though not all) who could afford to move out — and who could blame them? It fell victim to slumlords as well as redlining and other segregationist policies. It was never given a chance to be an integrated neighborhood because those in power did not see it as being worth protecting from crime and blight.

I firmly believe that the efforts that have been — and are being — made to bring vitality back to this area are a step in the right direction. That new businesses like Bison Distillery have chosen this location to make their start would have been unthinkable years before the revival of Dyngus Day celebrations. Yes, we should remain skeptical. We should not assume that increased economic activity here will directly benefit nearby residents who are among the poorest in the region. It is, however, better than the alternative — to continue to live in ignorance within our separate clusters.
So while I disagree somewhat with the picture that has been painted in Ms. Slocum’s article, everyone is entitled to their opinions. Whether a person has lived here their entire life, moved here recently, or have only visited, the viewpoints may be equally valid, even if they differ in the way they are informed. That is true for a region, true for a city, and true for a neighborhood. There is room for more than one narrative.

Ecologist Dave Majewski near his rain garden by Central Terminal. – Photo via http://broadwayfillmorealive.org

Rebuilding this neighborhood is a monumental task that is going to have to include a diverse group of stakeholders in its entirety — from the vendors at the Broadway Market such as Gridlock Lacquer, to parishioners at St. Stans and Corpus Christi, to environmentalists like ecologist Dave Majewski whose work in creating a rain garden at Central Terminal helps keep runoff from further polluting Scajaquada Creek. They will all have a role to play. And, of course, many of these stakeholders are and will be “outsiders.”

As for Dyngus Day, if we do it right — and I believe we can — it can be an opportunity for greater integration and cooperation. Yet, we have a long way to go. I’m going to err on the side of naivety rather than cynicism. I know from experience that there are some bad actors: litterers, public urinators and even bigots. Still, I would like to believe that Dyngus Day is celebrated in this neighborhood, for the most part, because people still care about it.
Dyngus Parade

Here’s hoping for better days for the East Side!


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  1. Unit of Analysis: Power and Privilege Edition | ChristineSlocum.Net - June 30, 2015

    […] talk? I didn’t hear from many current East Side residents at all. It’s likely because, as Kevin Kud described in this response essay, social networks in Buffalo…. In my own experience, I have found that ideas of how things can be very uniform within a network […]

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