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Polish Triangle losing its ethnic identity

As older residents die, younger ones move to suburbs

Zdzilaw Marecki, inside the Polish American Citizen Club in South Boston, recently lamented the demise of the once bustling neighborhood and talked about the financial difficulties the club faces.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Zdzilaw Marecki, inside the Polish American Citizen Club in South Boston, recently lamented the demise of the once bustling neighborhood and talked about the financial difficulties the club faces.

On certain evenings long ago, neighbors would pour out of the nearby triple-deckers on Dorchester Avenue and walk to the Polish American Citizen Club to revel all night. Weekends were a whirl.

In party clothes and lipstick, they or their kin had been among the tides of Polish immigrants that swept ashore in South Boston and Dorchester after each of the world wars.

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They had settled in a narrow slice of city sandwiched between South Boston and South Bay that became known as the Polish Triangle. Within the streets that defined its border - Boston Street, Dorchester Avenue, Columbia Road - people spoke the old language, practiced familiar customs, ate the traditional food. On Friday nights, they headed to the citizen club.

But times have changed, and Zdzislaw Marecki, a broad, square-faced man who is president of the 72-year-old club, is holding hard to a fading legacy.

The club’s dining tables sit empty. Every now and then a few after-work stragglers plant themselves at the bar for a beer before dinner. Above a cold stairway, the function hall that once heated up with fancy balls, parties, and wedding receptions sits empty like a cavern.

“We are slowly dying,’’ Marecki lamented one morning inside the club on Boston Street.

What he says of the club is also true of the ethnic identity of a neighborhood that has faded as older residents die and younger ones move to the suburbs. Vestiges of the culture remain, but now fewer than half of the neighborhood’s 2,100 residents are of Polish descent, replaced by college students and a surge of Asian-born and Latino residents, according to city data.

“It’s a little different now,’’ said Darek Barcikowski, the 33-year-old publisher of the Polish newspaper White Eagle/Bialy Orzel. “The community still exists. There is spirit here. But it’s a commuter community.’’

Each Sunday, some 600 attend Mass at Our Lady of CzestochowaPolish Catholic church, the only one in Boston where services are held in English and Polish. But most come from the suburbs. The area’s only Polish restaurant, Cafe Polonia on Dorchester Avenue, attracts customers from all backgrounds. And while business is down, Polish patrons frequent the two Polish-run travel agencies to mail packages to their homeland.

At the end of each day, most of those who come to pray, eat, or shop then head back to homes outside the city.

Barcikowski, who now lives in Salem, worried the neighborhood could be simply forgotten. Three years ago he pressed City Hall to officially recognize it as the Polish Triangle. There was a ceremony and fanfare near Andrew Square.

Still, there is no denying that social institutions that once thrived have fallen on hard times. St. Ann Polish Women’s Club, which once hosted parties, dances, and flea markets, now just meets monthly for coffee. The youngest member is 60, the oldest 89, said Carol Saniuk, who has been a member for 45 years.

“The young people are so busy working, or are involved in school,’’ said Saniuk, who lives in Hingham. “I’d say we are a dying breed.’’

Nine years ago, the Archdiocese of Boston shut St. Mary Elementary School, where many from the old neighborhood studied, because of a steep decline in enrollment and rising costs to operate. Marek Lesniewski-Laas, the honorary consul of the Consulate of the Republic of Poland in Boston, said immigration has slowed to a trickle in the decade since Poland joined the European Union, opening up new opportunities in Europe.

Yet the triangle, he and others say, remains a source of Polish pride.

“We have 150 kids at our school,’’ said Jan Kozak, who heads the Polish Saturday School, where the young learn about Polish culture, geography, and language. “The number has gradually grown year by year. Ten years ago, we had 88 students.’’

One cold afternoon, Father Andrzej Urbaniak sat behind a broad desk in the polished reception area at the office of Our Lady of Czestochowa. He said he has worked to emphasize the church’s role as a geographical, spiritual, and social core. And despite moves to communities such as Salem, Quincy and Stoughton, Urbaniak said, many former residents make a point of staying involved in the old neighborhood.

“I see a very committed group of people who, because of the language and because of the culture, feel very much at home here,’’ he said.

Alina Morris, 55, moved to the triangle when she was 6 years old and never left. The sprawl of the suburbs never appealed to her, she said. She went to school there, attended Our Lady of Czestochowa, and eventually opened DJ’s European Deli & Market with her husband, selling an assortment of Polish sausages, mackerel fillets, and goods from Poland.

“I like this neighborhood,’’ she said one day, as she worked the cash register. “That’s why I never left.’’ Richard Rolak, 58, also stayed. “The people that did move out, they still maintain their roots,’’ he said. “There is still in the triangle a good, core group of people.’’

As a child, Stasia Kacprzak lived with her family on a side street in the Polish Triangle, bonding with neighbors who were also children when they came.

“There was a whole group of us - about 20 of us,’’ said Kacprzak, as she tended bar at the Polish American Citizen Club recently.

She is the only one of them still living there.

For his part, Marecki says he is tired - tired of scrimping to make repairs at the club, of trying so hard to stay afloat and of dealing with the complaints of neighbors who no longer have a stake in the place.

He wishes a new generation would take over and resurrect the club’s status as a revered neighborhood institution.

But no one wants the job.

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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