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.”

Chinatown Project


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.”

Journey Around The City by: Jasmine Smyles


Polish Triangle: We Need Support

By Jasmine Smyles


They came in three major waves, flowing from Europe. Chicago held the second largest population of Polish people in the world behind Warsaw.

On December 5, 2013, the intersection Division Street, Ashland and Milwaukee Avenues was officially named the “Polish Triangle.” Although today, the Polish Triangle doesn’t resemble the Polish culture, which has died out.

“I remember seeing the old vibrant photograph and I compare it to now… yes I do get sad a little bit,” said Julita Siegel, 39, who lives in Elk Grove Village and works as a photography correction curator at the Polish Museum of America.

These photographs exist in the three elaborate levels of this museum. Adam Aksnowicz, 22, lives in Arlington Heights and is a docent and a collection care assistant for the museum, explained how there were three different waves of Polish immigration to Chicago.

The first wave was the largest in the 1870s due to the Franco Prussian War. The second wave was WWII and the nazi take over of Poland. The third wave was because of the “Solidarity” immigration as a result of the martial law in Poland in 1981.

But Why Chicago? Aksnowicz explained that during these mass immigrations there was a lot of work in Chicago with its steel mills, stockyards and railroads. Polish came and created their own town and comfort zone within Chicago.

Although now this Polish Triangle has change drastically and is more seen as a melting pot.

This might sound like a positive outcome, but Siegel expresses her concern of the lack of support for the Polish Museum of America. She stresses “we get only a small article in the paper or small recognition and advertising… if we had more support we can fix some of the issues within the building.”

However, the biggest event for the museum is on Pulaski Day, when all the politicians and the community come out to support and celebrate with them. This holiday always brings the neighborhood how it once was, vibrant and full of Polish culture. They work together as a team to gain members and support for the museum. “I don’t want this museum to be known as a Polish Institution,” Aksnowicz passionately states, “but as a Chicago Institution.”


A Dull Glow: The Polish Museum of America

By Katie Eppley

In the dull glow of distanct lighting a cleaning woman Helena Glinczak methodically cleanses the of photos and ceramics of a time long past. She descends the steps as a hundred painted eyes stare at her she feels as if she’s not alone, not as if there’s someone there but rather, something.

As she finishes her duties and begins to leave see hears the music of Ingnacy Paderewski’s minuet wafting through the still air.

Is it the ghost of a long departed pianist, or rather the memory of a culture long dead?

“The Polish Identity is part of the history.” says Adam Aksnowicz.

The 22-year-old docent and collections care assistant of the National Polish museum of America. He, like his coworkers Ferdinand Furnmor , 25, and Julita Sigel, 39, are passionate about Polish culture.

The National Polish Museum of America, located in Chicago’s Wicker Park, was established in 1935 in the former building for recruitment of Polish soldiers in the First World War and is now the largest collection of artifacts from the 1939 World’s Fair’s Polish Pavilion in the world. This beautiful museum also holds traditional costumes, military medals and uniforms, historic photographs and many artistic masterpieces.

Many of theses relics from the World’s Fair such as the striking pieces like “Poland’s Past”, “Poland’s Future” as well as a large collection of post impressionistic and Polish color style paintings. However, also in the year 1939 Poland was invaded by Germany and returning the art from the Polish pavilion to Europe encompassed a huge risk of their destruction so it was instead sold to the city of Chicago and eventually given to a safe heaven in the Polish Museum of America.

The museum also has annex known as the Paderewski Room in honor of the “Polish Elvis” Ingnacy Paderewski, a famous pianist and spokesman for Polish independence. The Paderewski room is the largest collection of Paderewski memorabilia in the entire world including his practice piano, and the pen, he used to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

But within with this already intriguing collection is a much more intriguing object of the metaphysical variety, the ghost of Paderewski himself is said to haunt this room where his deathbed is displayed. Some of the cleaning staff has heard the sound of his typewriter typing or piano playing. Regardless of weather or not the Polish Museum of America is haunted, it’s a gem of the polish culture in an area where the culture is fading.

According to photography collection curator Julita Sigel, 39, though the Polish culture is less vibrant then it used to be in the Wicker park area you can still find it if you know where to look.

And in her own words “ I would like to see more Polish influence in the community again, to see Poles come here and support the museum…it would be great to have more support from the Polish community”



Paderewski: The Polish Elvis

By Roy Purdy

Polish influence in Chicago has a history going back 150 years. Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a Polish politician as well as an accomplished pianist.

He was born on November 6, 1860 and died June 29, 1941.

He was a member of the Polish National Committee in Paris, and soon became representative of the organization.

He played an important role in getting Poland its independence. He signed the treaty of Versailles.

IMG_3397Paderewski was a supporter of the Polish Museum of America. He has a whole section in the Museum dedicated to him. In this section, the actual hotel room that he died in is preserved. The Polish Museum helps keep his long lasting legacy alive.

In 1922, he retired from politics to focus on composing music. He was tremendously famous for his piano playing abilities. He toured the world playing at big concert venues.

“He was the first musician to perform at Madison Square Garden,” said Adam Aksnowicz, 22, tour guide at the Polish Museum of America.

His last composition lasted an astounding 75 minutes.

His life may be over, but his music lives on.

“Paderewski’s fame was equivalent to that of Elvis Presley,” Aksnowicz said.

China Town Video

Audio Recording Project

Diamond in the Rock

By Maisha Kasole
In a dark empty museum along Milwaukee Avenue, in Chicago’s Wicker Park, Julita Maria Sigel, 39, a photographer, talks with melancholy of the old photographs.

“ Look at those photographs, you can tell it was a very vibrant community,” she said of the photographs in the Polish Museum of America.
The black and white photographs of crowded streets, in front of museums, theaters, and restaurants.
Glimpses of the past, men laughing and kids running.

Today, Walgreens and Starbucks has replaced the little Polish shops.

Visitors to the so-called “ Polish Triangle,” which is Division Street, Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues, see little evidence of the Polish culture.

A Polish restaurant, a theater, and a museum, are the remainders of that original Wicker Park. Today, it looks like any other neighborhood touched by gentrification; it looks random.

First in 1870, Polish came to Chicago to escape a war, they didn’t believe in. It was the first wave. During World War II, a second wave of refugees came. The last wave was the third wave, they arrived after the collapse of communism, in 1980’s.

The Polish people are now spread in the suburbs, some of them return to Poland to look for jobs. There is no hope for a fourth Polish wave of immigrants.

Those who did come 40 years ago didn’t fit in with the old generation, and their perspective of a Poland that doesn’t exist anymore.

Wicker Park is a museum. Each and every street has been once crossed, by a Polish immigrant. Some man or woman who believed in the American Dream.

Every day, 13,000 human beings cross those streets, they live on those houses.

The Polish culture is like a diamond, in the rock, for tourists. They try to find it, but only the ghost of it is left.

Ferdinand Fornmoi, a 25-year-olds is Hispanic. The young man always has been interested in the Polish culture. “ Polish culture can still be found,” he said,” but you have to look for it. “

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