In the late 1880s, there were a few good years of political wrangling over which wealthy landowner was going to get to sell property to the city to build a market for the growing number of Polish immigrants in what was then the eastern stretches of the city.
Walden Avenue was an early favorite, but Broadway won out, and in 1888, Buffalo’s “Polish colony” of about 3,500 had a market of their own to match the worship space of their own at the recently built St. Stanislaus Church.
Sophie Frances Nowik remembered the earliest days at the market.
“It was not unusual to see housewives carrying bulging shopping bags made of leather or awning material, with a head of an alert fowl projecting above its top. Occasionally the birds would peck at anyone within reach of their beaks.
“Amid the loud cries of vendors and the whine of blind men with their pencils and wheezy accordions, the housewives stop their baby carriages, sometimes filled with babies, sometimes with vegetables, more often with both, and have their morning chats.”
The original market had a long, skinny building in the middle, but most vendors were outside. That changed when the current market building and parking ramp were built in the mid-1950s.
By 1969, the market was millions in debt with most vendors in arrears in rent for their stalls. Redlinski Meats President Paul Redlinski became president of the market association, and took up the responsibility of collecting the $600,000 in rents each year.
A decade later, the market seemed to be on firm ground, with 900,000 people visiting the Broadway Market each year. That included what Polish Union President Daniel Kij called the “closet ethnics.”
He told Marilyn Darch in a 1979 Buffalo Spree article that what he meant was the people — not necessarily Polish — who came to the market at Christmas and Easter time for the spectacle of it. Forty years later, these “closet ethnics” make or break a vendor’s year with their annual visits.
To live even part of Darch’s description of the Broadway Market on a weekday 40 years ago, one has to visit during Holy Week or around Christmas.
She says the bland, uninspiring exterior “frames a bevy of activity that assaults, engages, and titillates the senses. The first thing one notices is the sound: the low hum of marketplace banter, the roar of the butchers’ saws, the plop of food onto scales. The cash registers ring out crisp and clear, like cymbals in a marketplace symphony.
“Around the periphery of the building are twenty meat stands where one can purchase not only freshly made Polish sausage, but other ethnic specialties as well. These appreciative eyes noticed fat links of sausage coiled like cobras poised to strike, pale pink ground sausage, speckled white sausage.”
Redlinski Meats, she reported, sold more than 300,000 pounds of sausage the previous year at the family stall.
The sounds of the Polish language being spoken by women with their heads wrapped in babushkas still filled the Broadway Market 40 years ago, and those women were the mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers of those who’ll visit there this Easter weekend.
The Broadway Market is a different place today, but we visit because there is something of that essence that is still there as we watch the butcher uncoil the sausage and the horseradish jars being filled right before our eyes, and we hear people who don’t know more than ten words of Polish wish each other “Wesołego Alleluja” — Happy Easter in Polish — because it seems to be the right thing to do.