Polish community grips its’ roots during gentrification

By: Anastasia Papanikolaou

The intersection of Milwaukee, Ashland and Division in the Chicago neighborhood of Wicker Park lies at the center of what used to be the world’s second largest Polish population. Throughout recent years the population has diminished from the area, and become gentrified.

Gentrification is the replacing of older, family-owned businesses with newer, larger businesses. Many people, including Adam Aksnowicz, 22, docent and collections care assistant at the Polish Museum of America, believe this is due to a gap between the older generation and a newer one.

“During the third wave of immigrants something changed,” said Aksnowicz. “When they came to the United States, they knew about these neighborhoods. They right away came here because they were looking for someone to identify with. When they came here they couldn’t make that connection because the older Poles that were here because they grew up in a pre-World War II Poland… They just didn’t have the same values; they didn’t see Poland, or Poland’s future the same way. Because they didn’t really click with this older community, they ended up breaking off.”

One of the people who has seen the firsthand effects of gentrification in the area is Helena Madej, 76, owner of Podhalanka restaurant. Podhalanka is one of the few authentic restaurants left in the Polonia Triangle.

“I come for first time in 1971. I live here three years, then back to Poland,” Madej said. “Customers change. I came when there was a lot of Polish people. Later, there was change… Young American people live here and have a good education. There are different people coming to this place.”

While some effects of gentrification, like replacing small businesses with franchises and raising rents are seemingly negative, there are many more positive effects.

“This neighborhood has changed the past 15 years. It is better because before it was very dangerous. Outside it was so dangerous… it was very, very terrible. Thank God I don’t have a problem,” Madej said.

Even though gentrification has its effects on the Polish community in Wicker Park, Madej still has love for being in America.

“I love Wicker Park. It is very close to downtown and nice people live here. I have very nice customers. That’s why I like no change,” Madej said. “Everyone come in.”

Chinatown Project