By Kelsey Lentz
Wicker Park, for decades, has been the home of many Poles and the center of work for 19th century Polish immigrants seeking refuge from occupation and fleeing from poverty. Since then, Polish culture has been embedded into the Chicago way of life to the point where its prevalence has begun to dwindle and it has morphed into conformity.
In a town that was previously a melting pot of Polish culture and a hot spot destination for immigrants, native Poles now face immense changes through the all too common process that is gentrification.
This is never more evident than in Wicker Park as chain stores like CVS, Subway, and McDonalds are replacing local and ethnic Polish shops.
“During the 1980s the solidarity immigration movement brought young poles who grew up in a post ww2 Poland to Chicago.” said Adam Aksnowicz, tour guide and collections care assistant at the Polish Museum of America. “Unlike the old immigrants, these immigrants were educated and raised under communism. They did not have the same values and viewed Poland differently than the old natives; because they could not clique with the older generation they broke off.”
As young Poles moved onto different neighborhoods and lifestyles, older Poles died out and gentrification swept in.
Though the neighborhood has now turned trendy through urban development and has said goodbye to many Polish traditions as well as people, a few insinstitutions such as Chopin Theatre and Podhalanka restaurant, remain in attempts to preserve and hold onto Polish lifestyle.
“I love Wicker Park, it is safe downtown and the people are nice; that is why I make no change. I have very nice customers, young Americans.” said Helena Madej, owner of Podhalanka.
Many can argue that this rapid change in culture is for the better as the town is now a safe community, but there is no denying that things are different in wicker Park. Those few Polish establishments left, do not let this change their Polish pride and way of life though.
“A lot of Polish people lived here. Fifteen years later it changed, very changed. But I make Polish breakfast for young Americans, it’s just different people.” says Madej.