The Truth of Wicker Park’s Gentrification

By Katrina Nickell

Thirty years ago, Helena Madej, opened her family owned and operated Polish Restaurant in Wicker Park, once home to many other Polish Immigrants. The streets outside of Podhalanka restaurant used to be full of rich Polish heritage and liveliness as Madej recalled. Today, the streets outside are surrounded by pigeons and street people.

The vicinity of the Polish Triangle–identified at the intersection of Division Street, and Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues, what is remembered to be the heart of the once lively Polish community– would be unrecognizable to some returning 50 years later.

“Now we have 95 percent American people who live here. The younger generation, maybe later generations of Polish people, and American people working downtown,” Madej said. “A lot of people don’t have good jobs, and then they don’t have money and go to other places because rent is too expensive.”

Today, the Chopin Theatre and Podhalanka, are the only remaining Polish owned businesses around the Polish Triangle.

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Stained glass window that was apart of Poland’s first World Fair collection in 1939. Photo by Anjali Patel

Madej has been very aware of the decline in the Polish population.

While gentrification is to blame for the decline in this once lively Polish neighborhood, there are other causes to the effect. Some not as obvious as many think.

Due to Poland joining the European Union in 2004, this was one cause to the decline.

“That changed things drastically,” said Adam Aksnowicz, 22, Polish Museum of America docent, Adam Aksnowicz, 22. “Now they are European citizens which means they can travel work and live freely in any other European Union country. Now that there are these greater opportunities in Europe many are staying and going back.”

The decline of Polish residents in Wicker Park is also the result of people seeking a better lifestyle. They often found a better lifestyle in the suburbs.

Julita Sigel, 39, a Polish immigrant herself and photography collector curator at the Polish Museum of America  said, “having a house where you can have more space, a garden, a place where your kids can run around and play freely.” This was the better lifestyle they found.

“They were not really pressured out but were becoming richer and could afford more,” Siegel said. “It was a natural process.”

 

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