By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
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Think "rival Polish nightclubs" is another punchline? For more than a decade, two competing spots in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood have hosted pan-Slavic dance parties introducing young Poles and Polish Americans to the concept of clubbing. With rent hikes in nearby Williamsburg driving gentrification north, Club Europaand Club Exit now aspire to look a little more domestic while making a perhaps more unnatural effort: luring hipsters inside.
Red neon over blond wood announces Club Europa, located between a 24-hour coffee shop and the 94th Precinct, just off Greenpoint's main drag, Manhattan Avenue. Outside stands Mark Davalos, the security head known to locals as the Cowboy because he's half Tahneemuh Comanche. He's bounced for 15 years, and drives three hours from Carbon County, Pennsylvania, each week, not for a glimpse of the city life but to go back in time.
To him, the Europa crowd is delightfully old-fashioned. "The Polish nationals are late-'50s-oriented mentally, in moral code, family upbringing, community mindedness, and dedication to church," he says. "Their mentality is Brady Bunch today, but it's not a rerun. It's a first-time viewing." He adds that the club is well-known in Europe, and often the first place Poles go here to experience the social atmosphere of the United States. Thus, Davalos considers himself not just door staff to the club, but to the country. "If I'm the first person that they're meeting and the authority in the house, it's my responsibility to show them the proper customs and how Americans are taught how to do things in the country," he says. The subtle menace in his voice is meant to dissuade people from forcing him to introduce his alter egoDavalos is also a professional wrestler, known in that world as "Bad Billy Walker."
Upstairs, it's hard to tell the difference between the Europa crowd and your typical Long Island summer dance party. Swift-moving lights and WKTU-friendly anthems call revelers to the dancefloor, while more sullen single men clutch Zywiec-brand beers and lurk like jealous monks near the faux exposed brick, candle sconces, velvet draperies, and dramatic arches. Several Paris Hilton look-alikes shake Shakira-style on dangerous stilettos, sandwiching a lithe mohawked Venezuelan club kid named Gabriel Torres, who loves Saturdays at Europa, even though "the Polish guys are always jealous," he admits with a laugh, "because I'm more romantic and they don't like to dance."
Club owner Zibby Chalecki is likely thrilled that Torres is teaching the stone-faced lurkers a lesson in Latin groove. The consummate businessman dressed always in a suit, Chalecki views his club as the cultural embassy of Poland: "It's not just a discotheque, it's an arts center," he says, citing "little kid" parties he hosts for the local YMCA, his Sunday "Art Nights," and his live-music nights, now fully booked for the next two years. The downstairs bar is open six days a week and has daily regulars back from the club's opening in 1994. Since that time, Europa has introduced an entire generation of Polish Americans to each other, like Tommy and Angelica Haines, a now married couple who met here when Tommy bought drinks for Angelica's disinterested friend"He looked like such a nice guy, I took mercy on him," Angelica recalls. They've since moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, returning to visit family and, of course, Club Europa.
Chalecki balances his love for locals like the Haineses with his eye for the new market. "Polish people don't come to America anymore since they joined the European Union," he laments. "They all go to places like England, Ireland, or Scotland, and young people get married and they don't go to nightclubs anymore. I have to have inflow." So, like many eager Polish businesspeople, he anxiously calls Greenpoint "a new Soho" for "mostly American, young professionals, musicians, and a lot of artists."
Furthermore, his views about gentrification couldn't be more celebratory. "I'm going to cater to them," he says. He's happy about the changes in the area. "I think Greenpoint looks 10 times better than even five years ago. The streets are cleaner. A lot of banks and bigger businesses moved in. We're talking about serious business. It used to be all small stores like Chinatownnow it's more cityish."
Like other American businesses, Greenpoint's clubs thrive on competition. A brushed stainless steel sculpture announces Club Exit's entrance at the intersection of Manhattan and Greenpoint avenues, a mere two blocks from Europa. Open since 1995 and totally renovated in 2004, the three-tiered club now has a zebra-print floor, crobar-like two-story palm fronds, and soft crimson mushroom-cap sculptures hanging from the ceiling, all hand-built by part-owner Mariusz Kupiec.
After the renovation, manager Pawel Flaga hatched a plan to make the club friendlier to the inflow. While their mainstream, mostly house, Saturday-night dance party plays to a primarily Slavic crowd, Exit opens Fridays to outside promoters, from Aladdin Projects' trance parties to Todd P's noise-rock shows.
Exit Fridays also host live Polish music, like the famous '80s rock band Kult, who still draw sellout crowds with frontman Kazik Staszewski's Bono-like charisma and progressive politics. Other partners include Prosto, the Warsaw-based hip-hop promoter that splits the cost of flying MCs from Poland by booking shows in a number of large Polish American markets. The shows here bring an exuberant, young, and mostly male clientele who rap along to each verse spit by stars whose nameslike Juras Wigor or Mor W.A.seem unintentionally ironic.
But Saturday is the big night at Exit, with a line wrapping around the McDonald's next door, and limos, SUVs, and car service Lincolns all double-parked outside. Exit's resident DJ, Cedrick Borodziuk, says it wasn't always that way. The 30-year-old grew up in Greenpoint and first came to the club when it was more a hangout space for young Polish Americans. "You'd see the same faces every weekend, mostly Polish," he recalls. "The music was Euro-cheese, and the atmosphere was totally different."
As Cedrick BK, he now mostly spins house anthems while partner DJ Nondas, a Greek, spins deep and Latin house. Borodziuk calls the new crowd "awesome," and while he says they don't ever get as wild and crazy as at Manhattan clubs, patrons at least finally seem to be coming to dance.
After all, dancing is the only reason he comes to Greenpoint at all. Born in the small Polish town of Augustow, Borodziuk was raised by his grandmother, reuniting at 15 with his parents in New York City. He hated it. "When I came the first time, I was like, 'Dude, what I'm doing?' " he says. "Greenpoint was dirty and I didn't like it. I got used to it, but I don't like it any better. Williamsburg got really nice, but Greenpoint is still the same. It's still dirty." He now lives in Rockaway Beach, where "there's a nice breeze."
Flaga, Exit's manager, also thinks the community needs a change. "I think living in Greenpoint, Polish Americans are more Polish than people in Poland," he says. "I visited Poland last year and did a little clubbing to see what was in the market. They play such danceable music. I'm a house guy. I'd love to have that music here, but you can't drop it on them. I talk to people a lot, especially people coming from Poland on vacation, and they hate Polish clubs. They say, 'I'd rather go to Manhattan and dance my ass off than stay in here, because you guys don't play what's on the market.' Before the renovation this club was like the twilight zonewe were in a bubble." He calls the new Exit "an introduction for Polish Americans to whatever's going on in the city" and compares it favorably to Club Europa, where "you'll see something completely differentyou'll see more Poland in the 1990s."
For Exit regular Elana Pesina Russian immigrant who moved from Hoboken to Greenpoint two years agoit's not the Poles who are in a bubble, it's the Americans. "For an average American, it would be a little different because it's mainly Polish people here," she says. "It depends if you're open to other cultures. If you're a little bit sheltered and not used to people speaking other languages, then you might feel a little uncomfortable."
The way many uncomfortable young hipsters deal with the Polish nightclub scene in their new neighborhood is to make fun of it. A Polish nightclub? Queue up the accordions for those two wild and crazy guys! Flaga sympathizes, but is eager for the laughter to die down. "It used to be, in the '70s and '80s, Polish people were coming in here as illegal immigrants to work as maids and in construction," he says. "Now most of the people I hang out with work in banks, in private businesses. Me, I'm an aerospace engineer by trade, so this too is a joke: the Polish astronaut.
"That stereotype is always going to last because people need to laugh at someone, but it's simply not true," he concludes. "I laugh too, but also use it against Americans. I can say things about Polish people that are impolite for others to say. If I screw up I say to my boss, 'I'm Polack, what do you expect?' He doesn't say anything. It doesn't work here though. Everybody is Polish."