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In Boston's Changing Polish Triangle, Deli Seeks To Modernize — And Keep Traditions04:23
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At the beginning of the morning rush, Jordan Hislop hands over a sandwich to a customer at DJ's European Market in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
At the beginning of the morning rush, Jordan Hislop hands over a sandwich to a customer at DJ's European Market in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When people say politics is like making sausage, kielbasa maker Danny Morris just smiles.

On this workday, the longtime employee runs 20 pounds of pork butt through a grinder and into a pig intestine -- no preservative, and definitely no politics.

"We sell this for $5.99 a pound," Morris says as he guides the kielbasa out of the machine. "I just went out and bought hot dogs wholesale that were like $6 a pound, and that’s not natural. But this here, you know what you’re gonna get."

Housed in a plain one-story brick building on Boston Street in Dorchester, DJ’s European Market looks like a garage from the outside. But walk inside and it’s a window into another time.

Row after row of colorful canned goods line the shelves; there’s a rack of fat Polish doughnuts behind the register; and in the back, there's a deli with a dozen varieties of kielbasa on display.

Dan Morris twists off 8-inch links of handmade kielbasa. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Dan Morris twists off 8-inch links of handmade kielbasa. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

DJ’s is one of three delis in the Polish Triangle, which for a century has been a destination for Polish immigrants seeking a new life in America. But as housing prices have soared, the number of Poles living in the enclave -- a roughly 12-block area from Dorchester Avenue in the south to Andrew Square in the north -- is a fraction of what it once was.

Now the deli is preparing for an expansion that its owners hope will allow the business to survive into a third generation of family ownership, and keep alive the old traditions.

South Bay Brings Big Changes

“I'm actually Polish,” laughs Michael Zementovsky, a construction worker who comes into the deli wearing a hard hat and a reflective jacket.

Zementovsky is working at a site just a few blocks away. He says the sandwiches at DJ's are enough to power him through the day -- and they’re affordable: A large kielbasa and sauerkraut sub is $6.15.

“It’s delicious food,” he says. “I can’t get enough. We’re here every day.”

Dawn Morris carries out a batch of Pączki, a traditional Polish doughnut. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Dawn Morris carries out a batch of Pączki, a traditional Polish doughnut. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Zementovsky has been working for months at the $200 million South Bay development, just outside the Polish Triangle. South Bay has already brought a 12-theater cinema and a Starbucks to the neighborhood, and 475 residential units are on the way.

South Bay is a big change for the neighborhood, and some of the old timers have been skeptical.

“At first I didn’t [like the development] because I didn’t know what to expect, because everything was so quick and we didn’t know … how it would change the neighborhood,” says Stasia Kacprzak, president of the Polish American Citizens Club.

But once South Bay started taking shape, Kacprzak says she came around to see it as a step forward.

“There’s more people coming in, which is good,” she says. “So it works out for us, it works out for other stores that are around.”

South Bay is one of the area's biggest developments in years. But it’s only the latest chapter in the transformation of the area that includes the Polish Triangle -- from a blue collar residential and industrial neighborhood, to a place that looks increasingly like gentrified South Boston.

Housing prices here have increased by more than 50 percent over the last decade, according to Zillow, and half as many Polish people live in the Polish Triangle, according to census data.

Stasia Kacprzak, president of the Polish American Citizens Club, smiles as she walks along the bar. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Stasia Kacprzak, president of the Polish American Citizens Club, smiles as she walks along the bar. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It’s not a big Polish Triangle like it used to be,” Kacprzak says. “A lot of people have moved away, the younger generation has moved away. People got married, they bought homes.

“The new generation has a little bit more modern ways of doing… I’m trying to preserve some of it.”

'You Have To Change With The Times'

The Polish club is facing the same challenges as the deli down the street. It recently renovated the interior of the building to help welcome new faces -- Polish or not.

“We have to provide for the new people that are coming in,” says Kacprzak, who’s the first female president of the Polish club since it opened in 1939. “You have to change with the times, because if you don’t, you won’t have anything.”

That’s a message that resonates with Alina Morris. She took over the Polish deli from her father, who bought it in 1979. Morris says business is good thanks to all the development going on. But construction doesn’t last forever.

“We have to get ready for when the construction is done,” she says, “and then we just have the residents that have moved in -- just be ready to serve and sell whatever their needs might be so that we could survive.”

Jordan Hislop takes an order of Polish bacon. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jordan Hislop takes an order of Polish bacon. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Morris said the neighborhood has changed so much that half her customers are newcomers. The median household income in the Polish Triangle has nearly doubled in recent years, to $65,000.

"When my father was here, his biggest lunch customers were the construction workers, the police, the fire department … big heartier guys that need a big sandwich,” Morris says. "What’s moving into the neighborhood is younger professional guys, and girls, that don’t eat that way. So we will have to, yeah, adjust a little bit."

A New Cafe

The "little" adjustment will actually be a big renovation that will nearly double the size of the market. The deli will continue with its affordable Polish offerings and sandwiches, while a cafe in the adjacent space will cater to the changing clientele.

Dawn Morris is the baker in the family and plans to run the cafe, which will open in the summer and still doesn’t have a name.

“[The cafe will offer] teas, coffee; we might do a light breakfast,” she says, her eyes flashing with excitement. “I would love to make a really good waffle and top it off with anything like fresh fruit and stuff like that, and then I’ll have little baked goods, like the Polish doughnuts will be coming into the bakery.”

Her mom, Alina Morris, interrupts with a grin: “I think you’re gonna sort of have to keep the Polish, especially if you’re next door here.”

The Morris family welcomes the changes happening to the neighborhood where Alina first came as a 7-year-old girl from Poland.

Deli manager Jordan Hislop talks with one of the new customers, Tyler Evans, about the cultural importance of a spot they say first opened in the 1930s.

"We're getting a whole new variety of different people because there's condos being built everywhere," he says. "And I think [the deli] is kind of just maintaining the older element, in a style that is just kind of hard to come by."

Evans agrees: “It's a neighborhood deli. It's a real piece of the neighborhood. These are people that live here, people that care about the neighborhood.”

Evans works at a boutique bike factory, Firefly Bicycles, that opened up across from the deli five years ago. Now Evans says he's looking forward to having a cafe across the street, especially if it means he can keep buying the kielbasa that has become a staple in his kitchen.

Polish Community Stays Strong

Despite the decline in the number of Poles living in the Polish Triangle, some say Polish cultural activity has actually increased.

Marcin Bolec came to Boston 20 years ago and edits the White Eagle, a local Polish language newspaper. He stands at the tip of the Polish Triangle in Andrew Square, where there’s a small sign recognizing the neighborhood.

“People may not live here physically as they used to 100 years ago,” Bolec says, “but they’re … still coming back here for the Polish [language] school every week, for the Polish church, for the Polish delis, for the Polish events.

“It’s still the heart of the Polish community in Boston.”

WBUR and the Dorchester Reporter have a partnership in which the news organizations share resources to collaborate on stories. WBUR’s Simón Rios is currently working from the Dorchester Reporter newsroom.

This segment aired on January 18, 2018.

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Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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