Ukrainian club goes silent
Less than a decade ago, the dark wood-paneled bar at the Ukrainian American Citizens Club of Allentown rocked most Friday and Saturday nights with the whining accordion and oom-pah brass of polka bands like the Mel-O-Dee-Aces.
Its kitchen cranked out steak sandwiches and savory ethnic specialties like halupkis and its bartenders still hoisted frosty pitchers of beer onto the orange linoleum bar. Pins clattered to the wood on the six pristinely maintained bowling lanes.
"You'd come in here on Fridays and this place was packed," said Nik Fartuch, president of the council of St. Mary's Ukrainian Orthodox Church. At its peak, the club's social membership topped 1,500 people.
But even then, the city was changing and the crowds were dwindling.
The club, which opened in 1921, closed last month, severing one of the last connections to the blue-collar melting pot that once dominated Allentown's 1st and 6th wards: a neighborhood of tightly packed downtown row homes that push up against the Lehigh River.
Faced with a social club that was losing members and thousands of dollars a year, the congregation of St. Mary's finally cast a difficult vote to pull the plug.
A combined active and social membership of 375 people, many of whom were primarily bowlers, wasn't enough to sustain the club at 803 N. Front St. as a business. Its property tax bill alone was $25,000, Fartuch said.
"It started to be more and more of a drain on the finances of the church," Fartuch said.
For longtime members like Mike Melinchok, who is 87, all that remain are memories of a time decades ago when the streets of the 1st and 6th wards were filled with ethnic social clubs representing Irish, Slovaks, Italians, Ukrainians and Germans.
"When I was a youngster, you could walk from club to club here," said Melinchok, walking into the cavernous upstairs banquet room that was once so popular it needed to be reserved months in advance. "We even walked to the Italian Club at times in the dark ... You don't feel safe no more. That hurt the business quite a bit."
Most of those clubs — with names like Harugari Home Association, the Allentown Italian Club and the Allegemeiner Club — long ago closed their doors.
Over the years, their membership aged and the once European ethnic neighborhoods changed. Members moved their families outside of the city and became more dependent on their cars. Their children grew up, went to college and followed their careers to other towns.
For the most part, ethnic groups and the clubs they founded are no longer the fabric that ties together the Lehigh Valley's communities, said David Amidon, a retired Lehigh University urban studies professor who studied the region's ethnic communities.
"They disappear quietly," he said. "By the time one of them is ready to go, there is often no one around to appreciate it."
The decline of the city's Lehigh River manufacturing industry also hurt the Ukrainian Club, as workers at companies like Lehigh Structural Steel who used to drop by the bar after a sweaty day of work in the steel mills for an ice cold beer gradually disappeared, Fartuch said.
While its peak was probably in the 1940s, the club remained highly popular through the 1970s and even into the 1980s. Fartuch said he vividly remembers the day in 1962 when his father, John Fartuch, was on hand at the club when one of his favorite authors, James Michener, a Bucks County native who was running for Congress, joined Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richardson Dilworth there for a political rally.
The club started to slow down in the 1990s and membership really lagged after the turn of the century.
Last call appeared to have been sounded in 2005, when Allentown officials informed club leaders that the city needed to purchase or condemn the club's social hall to make way for the long-anticipated American Parkway Bridge. Club officials sold a nearby parking lot across Front Street.
Church and club officials were waiting for the city to make an offer. Then, last year, the city changed its mind. It would no longer need to purchase the building.
City Public Works Director Rich Young said a PennDOT construction study determined that the bridge could be built without the expensive elevated on-ramps that would have required the club to be demolished. He said the city hopes the bridge can be completed by August 2013.
Uncertainty about the club's future didn't help membership, Fartuch said. Now the church is trying to decide what to do with the building.
"For the time being, we are going to be looking at all options," Fartuch said. "We are going to be getting a professional appraiser in to tell us what the building is worth."
15 June 2011 THE MORNING CALL