NEW YORK -- The cheapest and fastest route to Eastern Europe? From Manhattan, take the L or M train across the East River to Brooklyn, transfer to the northbound G, and get off at Nassau Avenue. Just walk up the stairs and you may as well be in Warsaw or Krakow.
At street level, you'll quickly realize why this neighborhood, near trendy Williamsburg, is called "Little Poland."
Look at the signs on the two and three-story brick buildings that line Nassau and Manhattan avenues, the heart of the area.
Perhaps the most numerous marquees read "apteka" (pharmacy) -- they all seem to be mom-and-pop convenience stores with a druggist on duty. Doorways to upstairs offices say "Rozliczenia podatkowe" (tax accounts), "Dentysta" (dentist), and the like. Along the way, you'll see signs by many doorways reading "Zapraszamy" (You are welcome).
Use your nose. When glass doors swing open at Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant or any of the many bakeries that dot Little Poland -- roughly eight by 16 blocks on Brooklyn's north end -- you'll catch the aromas of breads and pastries. Step inside one of the many meat markets for a deep whiff, and perhaps a free sample, of the Polish hams and varied assortment of sausages.
Up and down the streets, you'll come across many signs bearing the White Eagle -- the white bird on a red background that has been Poland's national emblem since medieval times.
You'll hear pedestrians chatter in Polish, but nary a polka. The large Polish-American communities in Chicago, Cleveland, or Milwaukee may retain that traditional music, the last portion of a heritage that diminished over a century ago in the New World. But in Little Poland, the heart of Brooklyn's Greenpoint area, newcomers from the Old World arrive with a taste for European hip-hop.
Little Poland may be as authentic an anomaly as a Chinatown. That an ethnic European enclave endures in modern urban America, independent of tourism dollars, is startling.
Greenpoint is right on the East River and was urbanized by the Civil War, when the riverfront bristled with shipyards, docks, and warehouses, and apartment blocks and brownstones and row houses arose nearby. People with more cash in Victorian times lived in what has been preserved as the Greenpoint Historic District; others -- including a large influx of Polish workers -- settled where they could. Patricia Mae Andrzejewski was born here in the 1950s; this daughter of a sheet-metal worker became pop star Pat Benatar in the 1980s.
But also in the '80s, the rise of oceangoing container ships meant commerce couldn't venture to the Greenpoint docks; abandoned piers and warehouses line the industrial waterfront, though some at the end of Franklin Street have been repurposed as sets for Boardwalk Empire.
Then the Williamsburg area to the south started its renaissance, with yuppies streaming in from overpriced Manhattan.
That Greenpoint retains much of its old and ethnic ways is the result of a couple of factors.
● Unlike Williamsburg, Little Poland is literally out of the way, astride the only subway line entirely in Brooklyn.
● Polish emigration increased after the Cold War; of the roughly 12,500 Poles who settled in Brooklyn in the early 1990s, about 60 percent settled in or near Little Poland.
● Newcomers who prospered literally bought into the area: Why should you leave when you can walk to a cafe for a pierogi brunch while scanning the headlines of Gazeta Wyborcza?
At Christine's, pierogi -- Slavic egg rolls -- come boiled or fried: cheese-and-potato, meat, cabbage-and-mushroom, or spinach-and-ricotta. The eatery on Manhattan Avenue was opened in 1993 by Krystyna Dura, originally from Krakow.
Its Web site (christinapolishrestaurant.com) notes that Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, a frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera, always comes by when he's playing New York.
Steve Tychanski moved here from Wroclaw, the historic capital of Silesia, in 1962 and opened Steve's Meat Market on Nassau a decade later. He owns the building as well as the shop, which stocks at least 25 kinds of sausages. Ask for a sample from Stanley Dul, the burly, white-haired butcher behind the counter; he's originally from Rzeszow, in southeast Poland. He may carefully cut a chunk off a steaming and fragrant ring of kielbasa.
Little Poland also resonates with Poland's permanent mission to the United Nations, in Midtown Manhattan. "For sure people go there for dinner or lunch or shopping," its phone receptionist said. "It's definitely a Polish neighborhood."
In a move that echoes the Polish Solidarity movement (or stands it on its head), Little Poland activists have organized to oppose construction of luxury high rises.
Life in the neighborhood is both comfortable and familiar to Rick Karr, who he says he "speaks just enough Polish to get into trouble." He's a product of a Polish-American family from the northwest Indiana steel country who migrated to Chicago, Washington, then New York as a journalist for NPR and PBS; he teaches graduate courses at Columbia University's school of journalism. Since coming to New York, Karr has primarily lived in Greenpoint.
At $2,500 to $3,000, a two-bedroom apartment is more affordable than in Williamsburg to the south. That alone attracts young newcomers. "When I moved here 12 years ago, there was only one non-Polish bar," Karr says. "That's changed now."
He loves the neighborhood's bike-able proximity to other areas and its neighborhood feel. The cuisine kicks in, too.
"That's part of it for me, especially around the holidays, when I want to eat food that my babcia [grandmother] made."
If you wander over to Little Poland for that kind of fare, head for Karczma Polish Restaurant at 136 Greenpoint. The low-slung place has servers in traditional Polish costumes who can bring you entrees (all under $13) from roasted pork hocks in beer to grilled pork shoulder; a $23 grilled plate-for-two is a filling sampler with everything from kielbasa to salmon.
Other options include Pyza, a cafeteria-style place at 118 Nassau known for white borsht and low prices; and Lomzyniaka Polish Restaurant, 646 Manhattan. Krolewski Jadlo, 649 Manhattan, is impossible to miss: The door to "The King's Feast" is flanked by matching statues of medieval-style knights.
Greenpoint by Karr
Broadcast journalist Rick Karr is intrigued by the various overlays time has brought to his densely populated neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Franklin Street, which he describes as a "gentrified stretch" with boutiques and wine shops, is also where, by many accounts, actress Mae West was born (the gothic residence is at 184 Franklin, between India and Java streets).
Also of note on Franklin is Astral Apartments, a huge apartment building on the National Register of Historic Places. Looking at this Queen Anne-style pile, it's hard to believe this was built in Victorian times as "affordable housing."
At Kent and Dock streets is the former Eberhard Faber factory, once the largest pencil-making plant in America. Look for decorative pencil designs worked into places in the brickwork.
Another of Karr's oddities is the Rite-Aid store at 788 Manhattan Ave. It was once a cinema and the small storefront was the lobby: Follow the ramp down and you're in an enormous round theater that could seat 2,000.
The center of the high ceiling sports an ornate dome -- above the razor blades and shaving cream area -- tricked out in the 1980s with a disco mirror-ball.
The entrance is next to a Karr must-try: Peter Pan Donuts, a small but busy sit-down with $1 doughnuts (including a red velvet variety) and $1 coffee.
"These are classic 1950s donuts," Karr says, "and some say they're the best in New York City, tied with some place in Staten Island."
30 Rock star Tina Fey gave Peter Pan a bump last year in an Esquire interview. She didn't recall the name of that Staten Island place, either.