Written by: Ada Bulka
Visitors to the Chopin Theatre in Chicago’s Wicker Park might mistake it for a small, private concert hall, given the name of the famous pianist. In reality, it is a thriving theater featuring live performances.
Similarly, visitors to the surrounding neighborhood might mistake Wicker Park as just another generic community filled with chain stores and franchise restaurants. If they dig deep enough, they discover that wicker Park is home to a small, but proud Polish population.
That population is represented by Zygmunt Dyrkacz, 63, owner of the Chopin Theatre. He came to the area, known as the “Polish Triangle,” in 1990, and has tried his best to maintain the Polish culture ever since.
The Polish immigrant explains his journey here and how he came to own his theatre. Originally invited from Poland to America to study killer bees as an entomologist, when he came here along with thousands of other post Communist Poles in 1980 as a 26 year old, his plans veered off in a different direction:
“Me and my wife, she is African American, met and fell in love with theater,” Dyrkacz says, “I threw away 17 years of schooling in biochem and my wife an MBA to open up Chopin Theatre. We could’ve been millionaires but now we are happy.”
Established in 1990, the couple began hosting multiple performing art functions and served as an anchor of Chicago’s Polish community for years. However, when asked about the surrounding Polish area, Dyrkacz says the community’s Polish culture has been fading. “Groups like this form because it was something resembling the old country from back home, however, people have since moved away and Poles have scattered.”
Adam Aksnowicz, 22, a docent at the Polish Museum of America explained the dying Polish Triangle, where the original influx of Poles was thanks to the immigration of 1870 for food and work called “Za chlebem,” translated to “for bread.”
“The second wave of immigrants post WWII were young and educated and raised in a communist system, creating a generation gap between them and the older immigrants. The second wave couldn’t relate to the older immigrants so they left to start someplace new instead,” Aksnowicz said.
This change in settlement left the area with very few, now elderly, Poles to fill the beautiful old churches and Polish restaurants that are now left over from the once thriving Polonia.
“Although the Polish have left,” Dyrkacz said, “cultural neighborhoods like these will always leave behind the flair that makes Chicago.”
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