The History of Chicagowski
One of the largest immigrant groups to first call Chicago their new home were the Poles, who began settling here during the 1850s and the 1860′s. By the time of the Civil War, approximately 500 Poles had created a small community on the Northwest side.
The area once known as Polish Downtown is the city’s oldest and most prominent Polish settlement. It was the political, social and cultural capital for Polish-Americans in Chicago. That area was centered around the Polonia Triangle — the intersection of Division, Ashland and Milwaukee Avenue. It served as the headquarters for many of the major Polish organizations in the nation, including the Polish National Alliance and the Polish Daily News.
Neighborhoods that originally made up so-called Polish Downtown were Pulaski Park, River West, Bucktown, Wicker Park, East Village and Nobel Square. Other large Polish communities to this day include Jefferson Park, Avondale, Irving Park, Portage Park and Norwood Park. Outside the Northwest parts of the city, there are Polish communities in Archer Heights and Garfield Ridge.
Like many immigrant groups that first came to America, the Polish immigrants typically worked unskilled, low-paid jobs in steel mills, stockyards, tanneries and packing houses.
“Chicago had the jobs,” said Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America.
Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation during the time when emigration was at its peak. There was political and religious persecution for Poles in their homeland, and land ownership was difficult to obtain.
Their connections to their homeland remained strong throughout the ages. About 25,000 American Poles served in the Polish Army in France during World War I, including 3,000 volunteers from Chicago. Recruitment posters were a frequent sight in the city’s Polish areas. The community grew exponentially during and after World War II and historians estimate that almost half of all Polish immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1939 and 1959 ultimately settled in Chicago. That’s an estimated 120,000 to 150,000 people, according to records.
Chicago’s Polish heritage remains, even as newer immigrant communities surpassed the Poles in numbers. In 2000, according to New York Times immigration data, approximately 120,000 Poles and 430,000 Mexicans emigrated to Chicago out of more than 1 million immigrants who came to the city that year. Data from the U.S. census revealed that 21.7 percent of Chicago residents reported themselves as being foreign-born, and 35.5 percent said they spoke a language other than English at home.
As of the 2000 census, there were 933,000 persons of Polish ancestry in Illinois. Sixty-five percent lived in the Chicago suburbs, 23 percent lived in Chicago and 12 percent lived downstate. The Polish immigrant population in Chicago, nearly 70,000 as of the 2000 census, is the largest in the U.S. Traditionally, Poles coming to America would start out in Chicago and then eventually move out to the suburbs, but nowadays Polish immigrants are more likely to bypass the city and go straight for the suburbs, Lorys said.
Despite the changing demographics, the Polish influence remains prominent throughout the city even as many Polish-Americans have moved to the city’s suburbs and as more Poles choose to move throughout the European Union as opposed to coming to the United States. Chicago’s library system offers its website in Polish.
Since 1979, the city’s Copernicus Foundation has held the Taste of Polonia every Labor Day weekend, and it’s become one of the city’s most popular ethnic festivals, attracting more than 30,000 people each year. Many politicians have made the festival part of their national campaign tours during election season, including Tipper Gore and Vice-President Dick Cheney in 2000, and President George W. Bush in 1992.
Despite these influences, “Poles haven’t been as able to make a huge impact (on Chicago,)” Lorys says. “There has never been a Polish mayor… and you can vote here in Chinese and Spanish but not Polish.”