The Myth of Wicker Park
By Zach Tholen
The Polish Triangle on Division Street, Ashland, and Milwaukee avenues seems like a typical Chicago neighborhood filled with chain stores and restaurants. Although it was once a Polish community that thrived, it is clearly not the same.
However, old remnants from Polish culture still exist today, this includes the Polish Museum of America, the Chopin Theatre, the Holy Trinity Polish Church, and more. A multitude of Poles immigrated to Chicago in 1870.
“Work in steel mills and stockyards drew Poles to Chicago, and is also a great shipping place,” said Adam Aksnowicz, collections assistant at Polish Museum of America.
In the early 1900’s the Polish economy was in shambles, many Poles were poor and needed more opportunities. Chicago offered that, with a wide variety of jobs and business opportunities.
Chicago stood as the main shipping connection between the east and the west, with the Mississippi river and Lake Michigan providing great opportunities for Poles.
The second wave of Poles came during and after WWII. The height of the Polish era came in 1937, when Chicago had the second largest Polish population behind Warsaw.
The Solidarity movement in 1980 was the last wave of Polish immigrants to Chicago. “The Polish National Alliance helped Poles to fit into new culture and traditions in Chicago,” Aksnowicz said.
The Poles that arrived during the Solidarity movement were mainly young Poles that came from a communist state that valued education. The Polish alliance helped Poles transition into a new way of life.
During the 2000’s the Polish population in Chicago dropped dramatically. When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, more jobs came available for Poles in Europe, mainly in L
ondon. “Poles could not relate to anything and had a hard time fitting in,” said Andrew Obarski, 26, Intern at Polish Museum of America.
Poles captured a sense of freedom and hope back in their home country. Poles were ultimately more comfortable in Europe, with a wide variety of opportunities. After Poland joined the EU Chicago’s Polish population dropped to fifth in the world, with 300,000 Poles.
“Poles in Chicago are mythical today, Obarski said, but the ones that are still here tend to grasp onto their identity more.”
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