A neighborhood stirs again

Goal: The Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition aims to make old Polish Home Hall a centerpiece for the neighborhood again.

August 09, 2003|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

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.

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