Where did the Polish Culture Go?

By Katia Villevald

Polish Museum of America

For 30 years, Helena Madej, 76, has owned
Podhalanka, the only remaining Polish restaurant in what was the hub for Chicago Polish culture.

She has lived in Wicker Park long enough to see the community transform. “Americans are moving into the community while the Poles have moved out and a lot have moved back to Poland, too. Now 95 percent of the people here are American,” Madej said.

Wicker Park is a neighborhood west of downtown Chicago and is within the Polonia Triangle, a collection of neighborhoods between Division Street, Ashland and Milwaukee Avenue that used to make up the old Polish Downtown, the old heart of the Polish culture.

Today Wicker Park is basically barren of Polish influence, its endangered Polish influence preserved only through a few businesses – the Chopin Theater, the Podhalanka (a Polish restaurant) and the Polish Museum of America.

Julita Siegel, 39, the Photography Collection Curator at the Polish Museum of America and a Polish immigrant, sees the nonexistent Polish presence in Wicker Park, as “sad because we lost that influence and that strong voice that we had congregating in the city.”

Julita Siegel and Adam Aksnowicz

Adam Aksnowicz, 22, the museum’s docent and collections care assistant, explained the migration of Poles out of Wicker Park, as a consequence of the Solidarity Immigration in the 1980s. During this diaspora, “something was different…the newer Poles couldn’t relate to this old community of Poles.” This disconnect between the old and new caused the new to scatter further from Wicker Park, mostly in the nearby suburbs.

This physical distance between the new Poles and the old heart of the Polish community has created an apparent cultural indifference amongst the Chicago Polish community.

Siegel seemed frustrated when she recounted her efforts to reach out to the new Poles in the city about new exhibits at their museum. Siegel explains that many of them do not feel like giving up hours of their time just to drive down to Wicker Park, just for an opening at the exhibit.

Yet, many Chicago Polish parents still wish to preserve their native culture through their children. Parents make their children attend Polish schools where they learn the Polish language and Poland’s history. In fact, the museum proudly displays a set of bookmarks made by kids that have visited the museum and learned about the Polish culture.

Even though Siegel is discouraged by the indifference she notices from the new Poles she is still determined to “hopefully expand the museum’s fan base to all Americans” so they can come to enjoy the museum’s many exhibits, like the “beautiful art collection, because art is universal.”