- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

UTICA, N.Y. — Once, a man could lean into the dim bar at the Polish Community Home, call “Daj mi piwo” (“Gimme a beer”) and be understood by all.

The club once buzzed with almost 30 Polish groups, welcoming nervous immigrants to this city on the Erie Canal with furniture, advice and jobs.

Now, a night at the bar reveals a different reality for this and other clubs founded by earlier immigrants across the country. The welfare services that made such places essential are in the government’s hands today, and membership is dwindling, or aging. The immigrants are so assimilated, they’ve almost disappeared.

At the same time, Utica has experienced growth among the nation’s new immigrants as refugees arrive from places such as Somalia, Bosnia and Burma. Refugees make up an estimated 15 percent of Utica’s population.

At the Polish Community Home, club President Zdzislaw Karas stands near the single pool table and watches the small crowd thoughtfully. “Tonight, we are 40 percent Polish,” he says.

It used to be strictly 100 percent, in a city once so ethnically divided that Poles lived on the west side and Italians on the east. Now, Italians are members here, as are Germans and others. A year’s membership costs $7. Anyone can join.

The number of ethnic social clubs in the country is not known. The member groups of the National Fraternal Congress of America have the ring of a certain age: Sons of Norway, Ukrainian National Association, Hungarian Reformed Federation of America and others. That doesn’t include the smaller, neighborhood clubs where regulars still gather for bocce, bingo or beer.

In 1920, about 100,000 ethnic clubs could be found across the United States as powerful community centers, says David Beito, a University of Alabama associate professor and author of “From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State,” a study of such groups through 1967.

With the welfare role shrinking or gone, “ethnicity is more and more difficult for them to maintain,” Mr. Beito says. He attended a National Fraternal Congress of America conference in January, and the biggest debates were about whether to admit other ethnicities. “A lot have opened up,” he says.

Keith Yates, the NFCA historian, says several groups are branching out or dropping the ethnic label completely. He points to the Polish White Eagle Association, which dropped “Polish” in 1998.

One 80-year-old Portuguese social club in Massachusetts elected its first female president this year, a bold move for a group that didn’t allow women for its first 60 or so years. Members hope more women will join, with membership dropping from 400 to 150 in recent years. New activities include a beauty pageant to draw younger members as well.

The groups that limit themselves by sex or ethnicity run the risk of aging. Take the Order Sons of Italy in America, whose membership is made up only of Italians, their children and spouses.

“We find we do not have the members until they’re like 55 or older,” says Lucy Codella, the past national historian and current historian for the New York chapter. “We’ve become like a senior group, basically.”

But the group survives, with different goals. It once helped immigrants become American. Now it tries to keep up the culture they brought from overseas. “Preservation,” Mrs. Codella says.

Sometimes it happens by gentle force. At the Polish Community Home, Bill Chomin joins Mr. Karas and former President Julian Noga in the empty dining hall. The red-and-white place settings for the Friday night fish fry echo the colors of the Polish flag.

Mr. Karas and Mr. Noga came from Poland, and they see their old immigrant struggle in Utica’s newest ethnic groups. They say it will take several years for these newcomers to feel at home.

Mr. Chomin is two generations removed from Poland, but he remembers being pulled, literally, into the club in 1978 by an elder.

“He grabbed me by the shoulders. ‘Be there. Monday night,’” Mr. Chomin, 64, remembers. So he came, and he stayed. But he’s the exception. “Of the 20 or so guys from the neighborhood, I’m the only one doing something like this.”

The others just aren’t into it. For some clubs, it’s a reason that’s quietly fatal.

“Sometimes I wonder if we’re fools to keep this open,” says Richard Noga, Mr. Noga’s son. He stands by the bar, where the call of “Na zdrowie” or “Cheers” still comes from the oldest members. Richard Noga says he doesn’t understand much Polish himself.

“But there’s a purpose,” he says, and for a moment there’s nothing on tap but nostalgia. He touches his heart and says, “Here.”

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