MAN WITH A PLAN Tomasz Kuczborski books bands for parties at places like Cafe Lura.
“In 20 years, Cafe Lura will be a relic,” Tomasz Kuczborski says unsentimentally, tossing a glance around the loosely stuffed couches at the cavernous Polish bar (3184 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-736-3033). The 28-year-old UIC poli-sci student has a bleak vision of the future of Avondale, the Northwest Side neighborhood most Poles call Jackowo but he calls “the Polish ghetto.” “Now when you come here,” Kuczborski says of Cafe Lura, “90 percent of the people are speaking Polish, but I think in 20 years, probably there won’t be any Polish people left. Or the ones that are left are going to be Americanized.”
In the past few years, four of Polish-born Kuczborski’s good friends moved back to Poland, and the stream of immigrants coming from the old country has slowed. For Kuczborski, who was born in the small ski town of Rabka and immigrated to Chicago in 1992, the pull of vibrant European cities like Krakow makes sense. But his Polish girlfriend, Gosia Gazda, who came to the U.S. five years ago, isn’t as gung ho. “In Europe, it’s not any better,” she interrupts.
Yet the immigration slowdown has made it more difficult to find Polish bands to book—Kuczborski’s main interest. “Ten years ago,” he says, “I kept in contact with maybe 20 [Chicago] Polish bands, but now, there are maybe ten.” As the founder and webmaster of niezalezni.org, a sort of Chicagoland-only Polish Facebook where immigrant students post photos and chat in forums, Kuczborski organizes social events like concerts and art shows for the young Polish community. He books and promotes shows at Cafe Lura, and for the past three years he organized Juwenalia, a four-day outdoor summer music and art festival in West Suburban Yorkville. Almost all the people who attend his shows are Polish-born teenagers and twentysomethings, but they’re a niche group within the Polish community. “Most of the Polish people are not interested in this kind of music,” Kuczborski says, referring to the reggae, hip-hop, punk and metal acts he books for Cafe Lura (Polish death-metal band Whorrid disagrees). As far as he’s concerned, Jedynka and the other large-scale Polish dance clubs around town can keep their DJs and disco music to themselves.
If Kuczborski’s taste differs from that of most of his Polish peers, he’s worlds away from the older Polish generation. In planning the Juwenalia festival, he’s had run-ins with the Polish National Alliance, which he describes as a group of “hard-core Catholic senior citizens—they’re a completely different culture.” For the past few years, the PNA rented the land in Yorkville to Kuczborski’s student organization (which is based around the niezalezni.org site) for Juwenalia, but their relationship has fallen apart. “They’re always bothering us to turn down the music,” Kuczborski complains. “They think that Polish culture is polka music or something. It’s not. It used to be—a long time ago.”
The low wooden table next to the couches is getting crowded with 22-ounce bottles of Tyskie, a Polish pilsner, and the bartender sends over two not-quite-cold bottles of Lech—another Polish beer—on the house. It’s a slow night at Cafe Lura. A couple of stragglers have set up at the bar, and a few of Kuczborski and Gazda’s friends trickle in, wishing Kuczborski a happy belated birthday before heading into a smaller room to hear Kekx, a Polish-rock cover band. Gazda takes a sip of her apple juice mixed with Zubrowka vodka (“the national drink of Poland,” Kuczborski says). “Sometimes I don’t know where I fit in,” he admits toward the end of the night. “I’ve been here a long time, but I don’t think I’m American, and I’m not Polish either. I was born in Poland, but I’m not Catholic; I’m atheist,” Kuczborski explains, pausing before his final confession: “And then, I’m vegetarian. Sometimes I just don’t know.”