The Polonia Triangle


By Shannon Smith

       Wicker Park looks like many other neighborhoods in Chicago. On every corner there are franchises such as CVS, Subway and McDonald’s.

Wicker Park used to be a thriving Polish community, but lately, there has been a dramatic decrease in the amount of Poles.

“Gentrification is the main cause,” said Adam Aksnowicz is a 22- year-old docent at the Polish Museum of America. He grew up in Arlington Heights and he earned a history degree from the University of Illinois Chicago.

The older generations of Poles in Wicker Park kept the traditions alive while the younger grew up differently and were more Americanized and that lead to gentrification of the area, Aksnowicz said

Another person trying to keep Polish culture alive is Helena Madej, a 76-year-old owner of Podhalanka restaurant.

“This neighborhood has changed the past 15 years. It is better because before it was very dangerous,” she said.

Madej has lived in Wicker Park for 30 years and she noticed the change in the population of Poles in the area. Wicker Park used to be a dangerous area and that may be the reason for the Polish population leaving, she said.

“Customers change; when I came to the area a lot of Polish people lived here, 15 years, later it changed, Polish people left.” Madej said.

“I am happy though that the neighborhood has changed, it is much safer now.”


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Poles slowly disappear in Wicker Park

By Andrew Pendergast

In Chicago’s Wicker Park, a neighborhood of hipsters, there is one woman who clings to the traditions of the old Polish neighborhood. Helen Madej 76, talks about how the neighborhood has changed.

“When I came, a lot of Polish people here, but time goes by, younger people come and make condos,” Madej said.

She also speaks about how the neighborhood has become safer then what it used to be. She also says she came to Chicago because of family and opportunities.

“Because I had family here and my grandfather came in 1905 I came in 1971. Life is a little bit different and different people live here,” Madej said.

Another Pole who has seen the changes in Wicker Park is, Adam Aksnowicz 22, from Arlington Heights says “The Polish population is basically non-existent.”

During the time of the first immigration waves to America from Poland, most came for work and safety. The first wave of immigrants didn’t have much education they didn’t mix too well with the new generation. When the second wave of immigrants came, they didn’t fit in, so they left the Wicker Park area and set up a new Polish community on the far west side of Chicago and in the suburbs.

Aksnowicz also says that there won’t be any more waves of immigration from Poland. The number of Polish people in Wicker Park is pretty low.

Just recently, Poland became part of the European Union, making it easier for people in Poland have more of a chance to make a life in Europe. Most people won’t be immigrating to. Yet the Polish will continue to impact the Wicker Park Area.

“I did see some Polish influence…this neighborhood has changed dramatically…It’s very… diverse,” said Furnmor, 25, “this used to be a very Polish neighborhood…there’s Polish, Latino, African American…that’s what I like about the community. People from different backgrounds coexist together.”

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Accepting Modern Integration


By: Ashley MullerIMG_9610

Adam Aksnowicz, docent and collections care assistant for the Polish Museum of America, is an example of the past and present of Chicago’s Wicker Park. Living in an area that was once a headquarters for Polish heritage and tradition, Aksnowicz has made the adaptation from traditional Pole to modern hipster. This does not change Aksnowicz views on his heritage however.

“It is extremely important to hold onto Polish customs and traditions but not hold on to them too much you know?” Aksnowicz said.

Although the area has adapted to the modern changes of art and culture throughout history, Aksnowicz recognizes the importance of preserving the history of polish individuals as well as accepting the fate of society’s new diverse surroundings. Not only does Aksnowicz respect the past of his native people, but he also has learned to intertwine his own heritage with that of those who neighbor him.

Podhalanka restaurant owner, Helena Madej, at the age of 76 shares similar viewpoints with Aksnowicz. Thirty years in the past, Madej was accustomed to naturally speaking fluent Polish language as well as dining on traditional potato pancakes and baked Polish goods. Now, looking back, she realizes that society has surely developed into a small franchise for larger corporations as opposed to small business owners. While Polish immigrants may be hesitant to accept the new surroundings, especially those that have experienced the integration of Poles into society first hand, Madej takes a more positive approach to the situation.

“The people here are very nice and I have very nice customers.” Madej said.

Her optimistic outlook provides a nourishing atmosphere and is likely a reason that her traditional Polish restaurant has not yet been overcome by large business owners as several others have been.

“I do not see more Poles returning to this area.” Aksnowicz said while eyeing several traditional Polish paintings preserved after World War II.

Reflecting on this statement may strike a saddening impression for Polish traditionalists, but luckily Aksnowicz and Madej are two strong-minded examples of individuals that do not allow new adaptations within society to compromise their strong hold to Polish heritage.

“I do what I love.” Aksnowicz said. “I am happy to live in what is now such a diverse area.”



Continuing the culture

By Micah Banks

Even though Chicago’s famous neighborhood of Wicker Park isn’t home to as many Poles as before, the ones who are still there hold on tightly to their culture.IMG_3205

Adam Aksnowicz, 22 of Arlington Heights, is Polish and is a collections care assistant at the Polish Museum of America.

“Everyday for work, I get to talk about things I’m really passionate about,” Aksnowicz said. “I feel like I barely do any work.”

Aksnowicz says many moving parts cause the changing population in Wicker Park. He says Polish people leaving mixed with young Americans moving in caused the neighborhood to change.

“Rent used to be so cheap over here,” he said. “Now it has skyrocketed.”

He says that he expects neighborhoods to change, and because of that, he doesn’t see gentrification as positive or negative.

“That’s how things are,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s good or bad.”

Looking into the future, he says Chicago’s Polish population will not increase.

“Unless something changes in Europe, I don’t really see more Poles coming,” he said. “Unless something bad happens, like a war.”

Helena Madej, 76 and Polish, lives above her authentic Polish restaurant in Wicker Park.

Madej has cooked at and owned Podhalanka for 30 years, and she says over those years, she has seen a change in her customers.

She says before the gentrification of Wicker Park, she used to serve mainly Polish people, but now it’s a lot of young Americans that visit her restaurant. After the population changed, crime rates went down a lot in the neighborhood.

“The change is good to hear,” she said. “We were in danger. Outside was danger, it was very, very terrible.”

Mandej says she’s very happy she lives in Chicago because living in Poland can be very difficult. She says people work really hard there, but all of their money goes to food, and their left with no more money.

“Life is so hard in Poland,” she said. “I live in the best city, Chicago.”

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Wicker Park: A neighborhood of vanishing Polish culture

By Kelsey Lentz

From Friday to Tuesday at 11a.m., the doors of the Polish Museum of America open and the hopes of keeping Polish culture present in the Wicker Park community are put to the test.IMG_9634

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 insFeatured imageinstitutions 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.

The Transformation of Wicker Park

By: Jordan Campbell

photoIt’s mid afternoon and Helen Madej sets down a plate of Polish pancakes on the counter of her restaurant, but as she peers out into the dining area she doesn’t see any customer of Polish descent.

“Most of my customers aren’t Polish but that’s a good thing,” Said Madej the owner of Podhalanka, one of the only remaining authentic Polish restaurants in the neighborhood.

The reason why the majority of Madej’s customers aren’t Polish is because Wicker Park is slowly but surely losing it’s Polish identity. Wicker Park used to be a Polish cultural hub in the Chicago. But, due to a difference in immigration as well as the effects of gentrification, Wicker Park might not ever return to being the supreme Polish neighborhood in Chicago.

There were three main waves in Polish immigration to Chicago; however these waves brought completely different type of Polish immigrants to the neighborhood.

“The first and second immigrants were mainly composed of un-educated skilled laborers, as opposed to the highly educated ‘white collar’ third wave, “ said Adam Aksnowicz, 22 ,a tour manager at The Polish Museum of America.

These different waves shared their Polish heritage but had completely different visions for the future of the Polish people. The difference in visions made it difficult for the varying waves of Poles to coexist, and led to the displacement of Poles to various other Chicago neighborhoods.

Now if that wasn’t enough to damage the Polish identity in Wicker Park the effects of gentrification sealed the deal. As more upscale business moved into the area, the neighborhood improved drastically. Crime decreased drastically and new businesses increased opportunity for employment in the area.

Yet, while gentrification “cleaned up the neighborhood” so to speak, it is essentially destroying the remaining cultural identity. Polish immigrants were no longer able to afford the increased rents and property taxes this forcing out the last of the residents who kept the Polish culture alive.

“Personally I don’t think Wicker Park will ever return to what it was, ” Aksnowicz said “the Polish people don’t have a need to immigrate to the neighborhood and I don’t think they ever will. “




The Window of Change


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.”






Polish community grips its’ roots during gentrification

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.”

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The Chicago Polish Culture: Going…Going…Almost Gone

By Jill Berndtson

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset
Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

A hundred years ago, the intersection of Milwaukee, Ashland, and Division was the hub of the Polish culture – with Chicago boasting the second highest congregation of Polish people in the world, only surpassed by Warsaw.

Today, however, Chicago has dropped down to fifth largest congregation of Polish people in the world as a result of gentrification and the lack of ability of new Polish immigrants to relate to the American Poles.

And the Polish Triangle in the Wicker Park neighborhood is now a culmination of diminishing traditional culture and newer, trendy shops and businesses.

“There were three major waves of immigration,” said Adam Aksnowicz, 22, collection care assistant and docent at The Polish Museum of America. The first wave was during the 1870 partition of Poland. They came to Chicago specifically looking for work, which was in high demand after the city of Chicago was destroyed after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Many took jobs in factories, stockyards, and construction to rebuild the city.

The second wave occurred after World War II, when Poland adopted communism, which the public rejected. The third wave was in the 1980s, referred to as the solidarity immigration. However, the third wave brought challenges as the new immigrants struggled to relate to the community in Chicago.

After three waves of immigrants, another wave of Polish Americans returned to their homeland in 2004 when they joined the European Union. There was “greater opportunity in Europe, so many started going back,” said Aksnowicz.

The change is evident in the community; the once Polish restaurants and bookstores have now shuttered and converted into boutiques and shops to fit the changing interests of the population.

“It was like a melting pot…we would have our own background…after getting to know them, everything started to make more sense…” said Polish Museum of America intern, Ferdinand Furnmor, 25, about moving to Wicker Park from Mexico 17 years ago.

“I did see some Polish influence…this neighborhood has changed dramatically…It’s very… diverse,” said Furnmor, 25, “this used to be a very Polish neighborhood…there’s Polish, Latino, African American…that’s what I like about the community. People from different backgrounds coexist together.”

Aksnowicz also noticed the cultural shift affecting him personally. The streets that once bustled with the Polish language have mostly deserted the language altogether. His routine of always speaking the Polish language has dissolved. “I only speak it (Polish) at home.”


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.”