By Gretchen Thomas
In what used to be the home for international Poles to settle, now the Polish identity in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood is almost a myth.
Bordered by Division Street, Ashland and Milwaukee Avenues, the Polonia Triangle, was once the 2nd most populous area for Poles behind Warsaw. Now falling back into 5th, Chicago is home to 300,000 Poles spread throughout the city.
Zgmunt Dyrkacz, 63, a Polish immigrant, moved over 35 years ago to America. With Wicker Park flooded with gang violence and the Polish culture fading, Dyrkacz was determined to reform the neighborhood back into the home it once was to thousands of Polish immigrants.
“I don’t want to go to Paris, I want to build a Paris around Chopin Theatre,” Dyrkacz said.
In multiple waves, from the 1870s to the 1980s, Poles fled to Chicago in hopes of building a better future for themselves and their families amidst the turmoil in their own country.
“What drew them so Chicago specifically was all the work,” said Adam Aksnowicz, 22, of Arlington Heights, Polish-American, collection care associate and docent at The Polish Museum of America.
In the 1980s, a third migration, the Solidarity Movement, brought many young Poles who grew up under the Communist system. Similar to the migrants before, these Poles were, “coming to the U.S. because they knew there were Polonia communities,” said Aksnowicz. But upon mixing into old Polish town, it was clear the “younger Poles were from a completely different world.”
“The more that came, the more they spread because there were so many,” said Andrew Obarski, 26, and intern at The Polish Museum of America and history major at Loyola University Chicago.
Wicker Park is now one of the best hipster neighborhoods in the nation. “Polish is almost nonexistent,” said Aksnowicz.
But the Polish Museum of America, which still hosts a Pulaski Day celebration annually, is drawing in a “2nd generation American-Poles trying to rediscover their history,” said Aksnowicz.
“Maybe Poles will try to grasp onto their heritage even more,” said Obarski, hopeful the Polish culture now expanding through the city will not be overlooked.