The Chicago Polish Culture: Going…Going…Almost Gone

By Jill Berndtson

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

A hundred years ago, the intersection of Milwaukee, Ashland, and Division was the hub of the Polish culture – with Chicago boasting the second highest congregation of Polish people in the world, only surpassed by Warsaw.

Today, however, Chicago has dropped down to fifth largest congregation of Polish people in the world as a result of gentrification and the lack of ability of new Polish immigrants to relate to the American Poles.

And the Polish Triangle in the Wicker Park neighborhood is now a culmination of diminishing traditional culture and newer, trendy shops and businesses.

“There were three major waves of immigration,” said Adam Aksnowicz, 22, collection care assistant and docent at The Polish Museum of America. The first wave was during the 1870 partition of Poland. They came to Chicago specifically looking for work, which was in high demand after the city of Chicago was destroyed after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Many took jobs in factories, stockyards, and construction to rebuild the city.

The second wave occurred after World War II, when Poland adopted communism, which the public rejected. The third wave was in the 1980s, referred to as the solidarity immigration. However, the third wave brought challenges as the new immigrants struggled to relate to the community in Chicago.

After three waves of immigrants, another wave of Polish Americans returned to their homeland in 2004 when they joined the European Union. There was “greater opportunity in Europe, so many started going back,” said Aksnowicz.

The change is evident in the community; the once Polish restaurants and bookstores have now shuttered and converted into boutiques and shops to fit the changing interests of the population.

“It was like a melting pot…we would have our own background…after getting to know them, everything started to make more sense…” said Polish Museum of America intern, Ferdinand Furnmor, 25, about moving to Wicker Park from Mexico 17 years ago.

“I did see some Polish influence…this neighborhood has changed dramatically…It’s very… diverse,” said Furnmor, 25, “this used to be a very Polish neighborhood…there’s Polish, Latino, African American…that’s what I like about the community. People from different backgrounds coexist together.”

Aksnowicz also noticed the cultural shift affecting him personally. The streets that once bustled with the Polish language have mostly deserted the language altogether. His routine of always speaking the Polish language has dissolved. “I only speak it (Polish) at home.”

 

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