Pierogis and BLTs in the same meal? It’s not a trendy restaurant’s attempt at cultural fusion, but a dietary staple at Christina’s, a Polish-American cornerstone of Greenpoint for 21 years.
Since Krystyna Dura opened her diner, an unexpected mix of people—from Polish-American opera singers to millennial Americans to Woody Allen—have all stepped in the door. A native of Krakow, Dura says that her purpose is to bring familiar favorites to expats as well as American customers hungry for a taste of the old country. And to do that she has learned to adapt to a changing Greenpoint.
Located on 853 Manhattan Ave., a short distance away from the Greenpoint Avenue stop, she says her proximity to the G train is probably what brings in her diverse customer base, although it’s a number she fears may drop as Polish-Americans move out of the area due to increasing rent prices.
Greenpoint’s long established nickname as “Little Poland” may be dismantled within the next couple of years. Many Polish-Americans have already felt the squeeze of higher rents, and have migrated to Queens or Sunnyside, Dura says. According to the American Community Survey, in the five-year census from 2007-2011, 14.9 percent of Greenpoint identified Poland as their country of birth. This is a drop from 15.3 percent in the 2006-2010 census.
While these numbers indicate a shrinking community of Polish residents, this census data does not account for Polish-Americans who were born in the U.S. and claim Polish heritage, like many of Dura’s customers who can fluently speak Polish but maintain American citizenship.
The changing landscape is boosted by a multi-million dollar waterfront real estate plan for “Greenpoint Landing,” a collection of ten high-rise apartment towers that added around 5,500 units to the neighborhood, DNAinfo reported. Former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz approved the real estate overhaul in October 2013.
Although last month the New York City Housing Development Corporation announced that affordable housing units would be allocated in Greenpoint Landing, ultimately a lot of Greenpoint residents will be shoved out of the neighborhood if rent prices increase.
Rick Karr, a Polish-American journalist and professor at Columbia University, has lived in Greenpoint for 14 years. He’s witnessed gentrification in three cities where he’s lived: Washington, D.C., Chicago, and now Brooklyn. “When Five Leaves opened six or seven years ago on Bedford, that’s when I knew change was really escalating,” he said, referring to a bar he sees as contributing to a changing Brooklyn.
“The main investor was Heath Ledger so it was like, ‘Oh, the celebrities discovered Greenpoint.’ When his parents were executing his will he said he believed in this place so they put the money in there. Now that place is massive and it’s incredibly popular.”
Dura has also noticed that more bars and restaurants are opening up with more American owners than Polish. “We used to have a lot of Polish people around but now the neighborhood is more American,” Dura says. “Those huge buildings on the water are making everything trendier and more expensive, it’s becoming like Williamsburg.”
Dura says that she’s seen many Polish businesses close in Greenpoint, such as Staropolski Meat Market & Deli, a 21-year veteran, and Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant, where walk-in customers bought still steaming loaves of bread as they cooled on the display racks. She’s worried about her own restaurant’s longevity, but “when you’re in a new country that constantly changes, you adapt.”
That change is reflected right on the menu when you step into the restaurant, which has an Old World village pub feel, mixed with a Renaissance-era garden. Although Christina’s is cash only, the inability to flash plastic doesn’t stop the crowds. Even from outside one can hear the mixed conversations in English and Polish.
Dura noticed last year that a lot of young working professionals moved to the neighborhood so she started a happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the hopes they’ll stop by for a beer and a blintze.
Dura changes the menu monthly in order to provide new options that keep people coming back. She is not only the owner, but the main cook in the kitchen with huge influence into what diverse dishes can be ordered. The menu has an equal number of Polish and American foods, from pierogis, beef goulash and stuffed cabbage to grilled chicken salad, B.L.T.s, and veggie or salmon burgers.
On the weekdays, Dura says there are significantly less Polish customers than when she first opened Christina’s; although on the weekends she says that the Polish come back in full force. Despite the customer shift, both Polish and American options on the menu are ordered at equally high rates. In Poland, breakfast isn’t considered a main meal of the day aside from eggs or omelets, according to Dura, who says she learned about the demand for home fries shortly after opening her restaurant.
Dura says that in order to communicate well with all customers, all waitresses are expected to speak both Polish and English. She’s had non-Polish customers come in who said that they loved another Polish restaurant but they could never get their orders right because of a language barrier.
Ania Drewniacka moved to the US in early July and started her job at Christina’s as a waitress last week. In the fall she will be starting her masters in chemistry back in Poland at the University of Poznan, but wanted an opportunity to improve her English while she traveled.
It isn’t unusual for two separate groups of American and Polish customers to talk while waiting for a table and decide to combine their parties. “I often seat two Americans and two Polish people at one table,” Drewniacka says. “I’m nervous but I’m getting better, it’s the best way to train my language!” She says that she knows of a few other waitresses there who also say the best part of the job is being able to improve their English language skills.
Drewniacka doesn’t think there’s a typical type of customer at Christina’s except they all tend to be talkative: Everyone wants to know why she came to the US and what her life is actually like. “Most of the time, I do more than just give people their food. People like hearing stories about my country.”
This doesn’t come as a surprise, since Christina’s still seems to commonly be known as a major hub for Polish-Americans. Karr came to Christina’s three to five times a week when he lived a couple blocks from there. “Krystyna is like an unofficial mayor of Greenpoint,” Karr says. “To me it always seemed like the beating heart of the neighborhood. It was a place where people went to connect with her and their roots.”