Travel to Little Poland in New York

The streets of Little Poland, the heart of Brooklyn's Greenpoint area, are filled with shops selling Polish meats and baked goods. (John Bordsen, Charlotte Observer, MCT / May 4, 2011)

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 due to 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 café for a pirogi brunch while scanning the headlines of Gazeta Wyborcza?

At Christine's, pirogi - 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 website ( 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.