For more than 100 years, 261 Driggs Avenue has been a staple in the Greenpoint community. Step inside on any Saturday night in the early 1900s and you might have found smoke filled rooms with trays of pierogis floating around as Polish gentlemen circulated full bottles of vodka and couples waltzed across the ballroom floor to a live band. Step inside today and you may find Polish men as old as 95, mingling at the bar with members of up-and-coming rock bands, sporting mohawks, just before a gig.
In the early 2000s, Greenpoint was beginning to undergo demographic change. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2010 the population of Polish-born Greenpoint residents nearly halved, indicating an exodus. The Polish National Home was struggling to keep its doors open and the Board of Directors turned to Mark Chroscielewski for advice. Chroscielewski had made a career building predictive models, using demographic data and other types of data. He had taken his software company, Cross Z Inc., public four years prior.
“I said the reason your business model isn’t working is because you just don’t have the big enough Polish population anymore,” said Chroscielewski. “And so you have to open up to a different demographic, to the community as a whole.”
The Polish National Home was always a concert hall and had hosted operas and vaudeville-type acts in the past. The stage is even fit with a trap door for magicians. Chroscielewski wanted to “take the character of the room and actually maintain it.”
“I said we’re going to go back to live music and between the bistro and ticket sales, this should be a very sustainable model,” said Chroscielewski.
Aside from the piles of speakers framing the stage, the building looks much like it did in the early 1900s.Before it was purchased in 1904 by the Polish National Home, the building was a Dutch bar and bowling alley. Today, in place of the bowling alley, there is a large bar and seating area. The wall over the bar is wallpapered with scenes from Poland, depicting famous cities along the Vistula River.
Behind the bar, you can often find Danielle Rossler, 24. She has been working here for about five years, but her father has been working security at the Warsaw for almost 20 years. Rossler says the people who work here are like family: “Everyone seems to be related even though none are.”
The back of the bar opens into the Warsaw Bistro. This part of the building was erected in 1918. Here hungry concertgoers will line up in front of the pass-through window for pierogis, blintzes, and kielbasa sandwiches. This is, after all, the Warsaw, “where pierogis meet punk,” a tag line inspired by a Zagat review of the bar.
Behind the window, there is a full working kitchen, typically manned by Danuda Zakrzewska and Grace Drapala. Zakrzewska has lived in Greenpoint for nearly 25 years and is a dance instructor. The Polish National Home has a dance studio on the second level, where Zakrzewska holds lessons during the week.
Both the Warsaw Bistro and bar open into the music hall, which was erected in 1914, and could easily be mistaken for a school auditorium. The empty room, half the size of a basketball court, faces a small wooden stage fixed with thick maroon curtains and framed in ornate gold molding. It can hold up to 1,000 people and is usually sold out for concerts.
The Spirit of the Founders
Chroscielewski feels a special responsibility to manage the building in the spirit of those who founded it in 1904. According to him, a group assembled with members chipping in a week’s worth of wages for a share in the building. These members then formed societies—some representing regions of Poland and others representing religious groups. The shares were donated to these societies and the Polish National Home was born.
Today, the Warsaw prioritizes Polish community events in their agreement with Live Nation, the entity which has handled booking at the venue since 2016. A calendar is set early in the year and when the space is not being used by the community, it is open for concerts.
During a typical month, the Warsaw may host one or two concerts per week and the rest of the time the Polish National Home is open to the community. “The only day that we’re closed is Monday. But Tuesday through Sunday there is always something going on here for the community,” said Chroscielewski.
The Saturday dances with live Polish bands that began at the Polish National Home’s inception continue to this day. Zakrzewska says she can be found dancing well into the early morning hours on these nights. If a rock band wants to play a Saturday night gig at the Warsaw they will need special permission.
During the week, the building is occupied by a number of youth organizations: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, choirs, and cabarets. Once a month, the Polish-Film Makers host movie screenings that turn out nearly 100 people, often attracting community members who have since moved as far as Connecticut or New Jersey. The bar is open weeknights starting at 7 p.m. and is filled primarily by neighborhood locals.
The space is made available for fundraising events to groups beyond the Polish community as well. PS 84, the Fire Department, and North Brooklyn Angels—a local non-profit combating hunger, poverty, and homelessness—are among the groups that have frequently held fundraisers and parties here. The Polish National Home was even instrumental in the fight against two power plant developers in the neighborhood, Con Edison and TransGas Energy, according to Rich Mazur, a local activist and community center board member who has lived in Greenpoint since the 1950s. Mazur says that he could have lived anywhere in the U.S. but chose Greenpoint because, “It’s my small town in the big city.”
The Polish National Home is a big part of this small town. “At the Polish National home it’s not about maximizing profits; it’s really about maintaining the place for the community, the Polish community, preserving its heritage and culture and things like that for the neighborhood itself,” said Chroscielewski.
But it is thanks to the money brought in by the Warsaw that the Polish National Home is able to continue to serve this community. The Warsaw opened as a punk-rock venue in 2001, and according to its website has since become “an industry go-to” for a wide range of artists including hip-hop, DJs, and more. Last year, the Warsaw hosted its first K-Pop group, drawing a crowd of tweenaged girls, and has begun hosting the occasional children’s groups, appealing to young families in Brooklyn.
Those who flock to the venue late weeknights and occasional weekends seem to have little knowledge of the history behind this place or the tight-knit community that brings it to life the rest of the time.
On one Wednesday evening in late summer, concertgoers lined up to see the British EBM group Nitzer Ebb.
Francis Nally, 28, had just moved to New York to start classes at the School of Visual Arts. He said this was his “first official concert in Brooklyn.” Deborah Saulter, 49 and Kim Lauer, 51 came together from Long Island, and Noah Moreno, 44 flew all the way from Chicago to see the band. They did not know anything about the venue or what to expect inside.
But if the 250 guests in attendance on this evening have an inquisitive spirit, they may leave the Warsaw with something beyond a musical experience. They may discover something about the Polish community in Greenpoint, because there is history in every corner of this building.