By: Jack Ryan
Restaurant owner Helena Madej once could look out her restaurant window, Podhalanka, and see the Polish neighborhood of Wicker Park bustling with people speaking the language, or eating an old-fashioned potato pancake.
Thirty years later, she now looks outside her restaurant window and sees hipsters riding down the street on bikes or people eating pizza. Times have changed for the 76-year-old Polish immigrant, and she realizes that no matter what neighborhood a person lives in, change is inevitable.
“I love Wicker Park though because it’s very close to downtown, the people here are very nice people and I have very nice customers,” Madej said.
This change that Madej saw as inevitable came about in the 1980’s due to two generations of Poles not having the same values or ideas. As the Poles moved out of Wicker Park they took their businesses with them, and in came business owners looking to bring back single-family homes, and the upscale image that was once there in the early 20th century.
Wicker Park became once again in the 21st century one of the most hip neighborhoods in Chicago with businesses like Urban Outfitters and Starbucks covering the streets, while few Polish businesses remain.
One person who has tried to keep the Polish culture alive in the area is Adam Aksnowicz a 22-year-old docent of the Polish Museum of America.
As a child, Aksnowicz would come to the then heavily Polish community of Wicker Park with his family and see shows at the historic Chopin Theatre, and go to restaurants like Podhalanka. Growing up though, he understood the community was gentrifying, and made a promise to himself to keep his Polish traditions alive.
“It’s important to hold onto Polish customs and traditions,” said Aksnowicz, who lives in suburban Arlington Heights.
With fewer Polish people in Wicker Park, Aksnowicz does not see them ever returning since there is nothing here for them anymore.
They understood that to keep what is left of the Polish community in Wicker Park they needed to adjust with the changes that gentrification brings.
Aksnowicz has experienced firsthand what gentrification can do to a community, and has an indifferent view of the ideology.
“I wouldn’t say gentrification if positive or negative,” Aksnowicz said. “That’s the flow of things, that’s how things are. Gentrification is not good or bad.”