By Amy Tan
When Zygmunt Dyrkacz first immigrated to Chicago from Poland 27 years ago, he found a place that was far from what he had imagined back in Poland. He is one of the many Polish immigrants who saw greater economic opportunities in America and idealized the country in their minds. But instead of wealthy, pristine streets, he discovered a Polish neighborhood overridden with robbery and gang violence, Wicker Park.
“There were bullet holes in the windows of this place, which was considered normal,” said Dyrkacz, 63, describing his first years living in Wicker Park. Today, he owns the eclectic Chopin Theater in the center of the neighborhood.
Wicker Park is an ethnic enclave that lies in the north side of Chicago. At first glance, it looks like any other up-and-coming neighborhood in Chicago. The area is filled with trendy coffee shops and fast food chains, such as Wendy’s. However, only locals and experts know that this place is also at the heart of the “Polish Triangle”, bound by Division Street, Ashland, and Milwaukee Avenues.
The Polish Triangle established its roots in the 1870s, when the first wave of Poles immigrated to Chicago in search of economic and political freedom. They were under constant military distress, caught between the lines of the Prussian and French armies. To them, America seemed like a place of solace and prosperity, an ideal that held for subsequent waves of Polish immigrants.
“When I went back to Poland to visit, my relatives told me that I spoke like a peasant. That’s because my parents were farmers, and I just copied how they spoke,” said Adam Aksnowicz, 22, a docent and collections care assistant at the Polish Museum of America.
Aksnowicz’s parents, like many others, came to America knowing only their trade, farming. When the poverty-stricken immigrants discovered the economic bleakness of the Great Depression in the 1920s, Polish gangs were created to mitigate the harsh circumstances. These original gangs left an important legacy of violence and crime on the subsequent gangs that Dyrkacz encountered during his first days in Chicago.
However, as gang activity died down around the turn of the 20th century, so did the Polish identity in Wicker Park. Less and less Poles immigrate to America today as a result of Poland joining the European Union in 2003, which allowed for greater economic freedom in Poland.
Young urban professionals, or “yuppies,” are moving in to fill that void. They
are bringing with them their hip indie shops and generic chain stores, replacing the small, family-owned Polish businesses in the area.
As Andrew Obarski, 26, an intern at the Polish Museum of America and a history major at Loyola put it: “Polish culture is virtually nonexistent nowadays.
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