Like most big cities, Chicago has been a hub for those looking to start anew in a new nation with new opportunities. Along with the rest of the United States, the first waves of immigration consisted primarily of Europeans from Germany, Poland, Ireland and other “old-world” nations. The secondary waves saw mass numbers of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
The roots of Chicago’s immigrant history run deep. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull-House here in 1889. Hull-House, located in the near west side of Chicago, was a settlement house for newly-arrived European immigrants. By 1911, the complex had grown to 13 buildings. Hull House became the standard-bearer for the movement, and by 1920 there were almost 500 such settlement houses nationally.
According to Rob Paral of the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs at Roosevelt University, the Windy City has one of the richest immigration histories among American cities. In 1870, immigrants made up almost half of the city’s population – larger than anywhere else in North America. Between 1880 to 1960, the city’s foreign-born population was second only to New York’s.
Paral found that as of 2003, the metropolitan Chicago area had the seventh largest immigrant population in the nation, with 1.4 million immigrants constituting 18 percent of the overall population.
Ethnic groups formed in new homelands typically follow patterns of what’s called “chain migration.” That is, immigrants tend to settle in neighborhoods with others who not only share their native country but are typically from the same cities and neighborhoods back home.
There are a lot of similarities between the Polish communities that formed in Chicago throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s and today’s Mexican communities, according to Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America.
“If you want to study the Mexican population here now, you should look at the Polish community of approximately 100 years ago,” Lorys said.
While emigration from Europe has slowed down, in large part because of the formation of the European Union, more immigrants are coming from Asia and Africa. Even with the EU, the U.S. still holds certain appeals for immigration, Lorys said. Most European nations are more bureaucratic, making it more difficult to start and run one’s own business, he said. More and better opportunities for entrepreneurship exist in the U.S.
Tracking immigrant populations in Chicago and other cities is difficult. The 2010 Census eliminated the ethnicity category, making the 2000 data the most recent available in many categories. And that data was collected before the international economic crisis, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and before the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other global events.
An interactive map published by the New York Times in 2009 tracked immigrant populations across the country, decade by decade. As of 2000, about one-fifth of the county’s 5.4 million residents reported themselves as being foreign-born. Of those, more than 120,000 were born in Poland while 430,000 were from Mexico. Newer immigrant groups made up a significant portion, coming from nations such as China, Japan, Middle Eastern countries and African nations like Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Paral and Roosevelt University found that the three largest foreign-born groups in the Chicago metro area as of 2003 were immigrants from Mexico (582,000 people,) Poland (137,670,) and India (76,931,) – constituting more than half of all the immigrants in the area. The other half is far more diverse, with no group comprising more than a small percentage of the population.
- PBS on the immigration experience in Chicago
- Jane Addams Hull House Museum
- Chicago Tribune: On the Move: Immigration Matters
- C-Span on Chicago Immigration
- Migration Policy Institute
- Mexican Migration Project
- Immigration History Research Center
- USA Today’s guide to ethnic Chicago neighborhoods
- Census maps for Chicago, 1990
- Great Chicago neighborhoods: “Three ethnic odysseys”
Map courtesy of the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs, Roosevelt University.
The smell of sweet spices and fermented bread hangs rich in the air at Kukulu Market in Edgewater. Throughout the day customers of all colors—black, white, brown—shop the tiny storefront filled with traditional Ethiopian foods and other goods.
The grocery is just one of a handful of Ethiopian-centric businesses and centers in the neighborhood. Across the street is the well-known restaurant Ethiopian Diamond, a couple doors down is the Pan-African Association and a few blocks north is the recently built Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago (ECAC) building.
This area of Edgewater, which bleeds into Rogers Park and Uptown, is just one of the small but potent ethnic enclaves located throughout the city. And while this one in particular is Ethiopian and more broadly pan-African, there are plenty of other concentrated ethnicities in this vicinity as well.
“Chicago has always been city that has welcomed immigrants from its founding,” says Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Ethiopians could serve as a case study on how ethnic communities develop. Several decades ago, many came to Chicago for education and business opportunities, and as famine and unrest in Ethiopia developed in the 1980s, the number of immigrants and refugees from there increased, Tsao says. Eventually the population grew to become a legitimate community, and organizations like the ECAC formed to address the needs of immigrants in Chicago.
“Settlement varies from group to group. Chicago is well known for its ethnic enclaves, and as they develop and people in these communities start faring better in terms of language skills and jobs, they feel more comfortable moving beyond the community,” Tsao says. But for new arrivals, ethnic communities often serve as a saving grace.
Nadros Gerna, an immigrant from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, came to Chicago because of the large Ethiopian community and because of the family ties she has here. “The more you see a concentration of your people in a city, the more you want to go there and that keeps building,” says Gerna, who works as a waitress at Ethiopian Diamond and attends the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Every winter I want to leave Chicago, but here there are a lot of Ethiopians and so it is very social and hard to leave.”
She says her Edgewater neighborhood has even adopted to an Ethiopian way of life. “There’s several mini markets selling our food here, and restaurants too. We are just part of the fabric now.”
Most immigrants and refugees come to Chicago with at least some sort of support system in tact beforehand, Tsao says. The common thread across groups: The more established refugees and immigrants help the newer ones.
Refugees and Immigrants help each other and give guidance when it is needed, says Lilian Samann, executive director of World Relief Chicago, an organization that provides aid to refugees. “Even our staff is full of former refugees and immigrants that want to continue to help others,” Samann says.
World Relief works with refugees to help them become self-sufficient after 90 days in Chicago. But even after the three month mark refugees continue to seek assistance with World Relief, which offers several language classes among other services. Learning English is one of the determining factors of how quickly immigrants can assimilate. “It’s quite a thing to see folks’ language skills change dramatically in a short period of time,” Samann says. “It’s quite a highlight for us.”
Pilsen is changing.
The Latino community, which began outnumbering the Bohemian immigrants in the ’50s and ’60s, is losing ground to the wealthier white population who are taking advantage of the affordable rent and close proximity to downtown.
Specifically, non-Latinos are moving into East Pilsen, considered safer than the gang-ridden West Pilsen neighborhood, said Montsserrat Hernandez, Pilsen resident and museum educator at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Now local businesses find themselves competing with other businesses catering to the new residents, and many families have decided to move to the suburbs.
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.”