How Chicago Became a Distinctly Polish American City
#lifestyle & opinion
default, Marina Towers & Chicago River, Chicago, Illinois, USA, photo: Jumping Rocks / Education Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images, center, chicagogettyimages_1.jpg
With a history of Polish migration dating back to the 1830s – and more than one million people of Polish descent in its metropolitan area today – Chicago is the traditional capital of the Polish diaspora in the United States. Culture.pl takes a look at the long history of the Windy City’s Polish community and the impact Poles have made there.
From the very beginning, Chicago had ties to Poland – it was founded in 1833, and Poles were already coming there in the 1830s. Little is known about these first Polish migrants apart from that they were refugees from the 1830 November Uprising, an armed insurgency against Russian rule in partitioned Poland. A veteran of the uprising named Captain John Napieralski is often considered the first Pole to have settled in Chicago, possibly in the year 1834.
In 1851, the Polish businessman Antoni Schermann came to the city, and in the mid-1860s, he opened a Polish immigration agency. He was soon joined by about 30 families from Poland who settled in the Northwest Side neighbourhood, laying the ground for what would become a Polish district. This Polish-speaking community was religious and wanted to have a Catholic parish where it could celebrate its holidays. Therefore, Schermann, together with another prominent Polish immigrant, the cavalryman Piotr Kołbassa, established a society for the creation of a Polish parish. Eventually, this led to the creation of St Stanislaus Kostka Church in 1867.
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St. Stanislaus Kostka was the first Polish parish in Chicago and is considered the mother church of all Polonia [the Polish diaspora]. Organized in 1867 by the Society of St. Stanislaus its first permanent pastor was Rev. Vincent Michael Barzynski, who served for 25 years. St. Stanislaus eventually became one of the nation’s largest Catholic parishes, with 35,000 worshippers.
From the 2004 book ‘Chicago’s Polish Downtown’ by Victoria Granacki
By 1871, about 1,500 families attended the parish to worship, and by the 1890s, about 120,000 Polish speakers lived in the city, which had itself grown to a population of approximately 1.2 million.
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Chicago attracted mostly Poles with peasant backgrounds who came there for economic reasons. After the abolishment of serfdom in Poland in the mid-19th century, the peasantry gained economic freedom, and many of its members sought to earn money in America. Chicago, with its growing industries and demand for unskilled labour, was a magnet for Polish peasants. Many of them initially planned to return home after saving up enough to purchase a farm but, after settling in, ended up staying in the New World.
A mixture of Polish & English
The incoming Poles looked to reside close to fellow countrymen, since they spoke the same language, and they would often count on help from family members or acquaintances in adapting to their new circumstances. In this way, Polish neighbourhoods were created. The original centre of the Polish diaspora in Chicago was the aforementioned Northwest Side area with its St Stanislaus Kostka Church (which stands today at 1351 West Evergreen Avenue).
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By the late 1870s, however, Poles had also concentrated in other places in the city: in Pilsen in the Lower West Side, as well as in the nearby Bridgeport and Back of the Yards neighbourhoods. In later years, the Polish diaspora also had a strong presence in places like Hegewisch or Avondale. Milwaukee Avenue gained the nickname ‘Polish Broadway’, as it linked a number of Polish communities and was home to many bars and shops. Polish businesses such as taverns and eateries started to appear in Polish neighbourhoods, catering to local needs.
Poles typically found employment as unskilled labourers in places like lumberyards, meatpacking houses and steel mills. Many Polish women worked in the garment industry located on the city’s West Side. A 1901 survey of the Polish neighbourhood near St Stanislaus Kostka Church found that 58,.% residents worked as unskilled workers, 37.5% as skilled workers and that only 4.2% had found employment requiring higher degrees of specialisation.
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Sajewski Music Store, 1227 Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, 1977, photo: Carl Fleischhaue / The Library of Congress
The Polish diaspora had to learn English to get by in the US, but they also maintained a knowledge of their mother tongue. However, the Polish spoken in Chicago quickly came under the influence of the English language. As soon as the 1870s, the eminent Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz noticed this process during a visit to the Windy City. He wrote of this in his 1880 book Portrait of America: Letters of Henryk Sienkiewicz, where he noted that the Polish used in Chicago was undergoing a ‘transformation like a plant transplanted to a strange soil’. Eventually, a specific dialect came into existence, called ‘po Chicagosku’ in Polish, which survived well into the 20th century:
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I, because of family gatherings […], did and do speak the local patois we called ‘po Chicagosku’ or in the Chicago manner, the usual mixture of Polish and English words with Polish endings attached. It was the lingua franca of West 47th Street in the 1950s and 1960s.
Chicago historian Dominic A. Pacyga, from ‘Ethnic Historians and the Mainstream’, ed. by Alan M. Kraut and David A. Gerber
Organising the community
The Polish community in Chicago established a vibrant network of organisations and institutions. Catholic churches played an important role in the life of the predominantly religious immigrant Poles, who created dozens of parishes in the city. Amongst them were the Holy Trinity Church, founded in 1873 and located at 1118 North Noble Street, or St Adalbert’s, built in 1914 in the Pilsen neighbourhood. Polish churches would run parochial schools providing the Polish community with basic education (classes were held in Polish and English).
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Chicago Poles also co-created, alongside Polish immigrants from other places in the US, the oldest national society of Poles in the USA – the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America. This organisation was created in 1873 in Detroit, and its goals were to give fraternal assistance to Poles in America, to take care of widows and orphans and to promote adherence to the Roman Catholic religion. In 1913 PRCUA raised its headquarters at 984 North Milwaukee Ave in Chicago, where it’s still located today.
In 1898, the Polish Women’s Alliance was founded in Chicago. This organisation promoted the rights, education and emancipation of Polish women and also campaigned against abusive husbands. It published its own newspaper titled Głos Polek (The Voice of Polish Women) and grew to become one of the largest Polish-American social organizations.
Chicago’s Polish diaspora also published plenty of other Polish-language periodicals, which provided the community with information about life in the States but also with news from the old country. For example, the prominent journalist Władysław Dyniewicz published the Gazeta Polska (Polish Newspaper) from 1873 to 1913. Other important titles included Dziennik Chicagoski (The Chicago Journal), which came out from 1890 to 1971 or the Dziennik Związkowy (Union Journal), which was first printed in 1908 and is still in circulation today.
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As the Polish community organised itself, it exerted greater influence on the landscape of the city. In 1904, thanks to the efforts of the Polish citizens of Chicago, a monument of Tadeusz Kościuszko, a hero of both the Polish and American independence movements, was unveiled in Humboldt Park.
For Chicago’s Polonia, a statue honouring Kościuszko erected in an important park spoke to the prestige and growing political power of the Polish community and was a way of expressing national life and prestige on both sides of the Atlantic.
From ‘American Warsaw’ by Dominic A. Pacyga
By the 1900s, the number of Poles and Polish Americans in Chicago had risen to about a quarter of a million. Due to its numerous Polish residents and its concentration of important Polish institutions, Chicago gained the status of the centre of Polish life in America.
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The Polish diaspora in Chicago have maintained a sense of connection to Poland over the years. This is evidenced in their following the news from Poland but also through their celebrating anniversaries of important dates in Polish history. For example, the Polish Constitution Day Parade is a huge event, which has been organised in Chicago annually since 1892. Held on the Saturday closest to the third day of May, it commemorates, as in Poland, the country’s adoption of the highly important Constitution of 3rd May in 1791.
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When World War I broke out in 1914, and Poland stood a chance at regaining its independence, Chicago’s Polish community responded to the occasion. Men with Polish citizenship volunteered for Haller's Army, a Polish military force created in France, whereas those who already had American citizenship joined the US Army. It is estimated that about 10,000 Chicagoans with Polish roots served in the US military during the Great War. Many of them hoped to carve out an independent Poland – and, fortunately, their wish came true.
After World War I, however, there was a surge of anti-immigrant attitudes across the United States. The US administration began to doubt whether people from Eastern and Southern Europe would fit into American society. As a result, it became harder for Polish immigrants to come to Chicago; also, the Poles who were already there came under increasing pressure to assimilate. At the time, the American-born descendants of Polish immigrants were becoming more and more Americanised, using English as their first language and marrying people of different ethnicities. The Chicago-born activist Mieczysław Szymczak encouraged Polish immigrants to apply for citizenship and to gain voting rights.
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As a result of all this, by the mid-1930s a shift occurred in the identity of Chicago’s Polish community:
Polish Americans no longer considered themselves Poles living abroad but, rather, Americans of Polish descent.
From ‘American Warsaw’ by Dominic A. Pacyga
Poland, however, remained an important topic for the diaspora. This became especially apparent during World War II, when Poland came under attack from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For example, Chicago’s Polish community sought to preserve Polish culture in the wake of the Nazi plan to destroy it. Therefore, in March 1941, the Polish Opera Society organised a performance of the classic Polish opera The Haunted House by Stanisław Moniuszko at the Civic Opera House. Also, after the eminent Polish pianist and activist Ignacy Paderewski passed away in New York the same year, a special room devoted to him was set up in Chicago’s Polish Museum. The museum had been created six years earlier at the PRCUA headquarters (where it’s still located today) as a place promoting Polish culture in the US. The diaspora also showed concern for the old country by organising aid for it throughout and after the War.
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According to the 1940 Census, Chicago had 3.3 million citizens, whereas its Polish-born population counted about 380,000 people. More Poles arrived to the Windy City after World War II, when the States decided to let in Poles who had been displaced by the conflict. Apart from having a large community of ethnic Poles, Chicago also had plenty of American-born citizens of Polish descent.
From city to suburbs
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Bertel Thorwaldsen & Bronislaw Koniuszy's Nicolaus Copernicus Monument sits outside the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, photo: Raymond Boyd / Getty Images
After World War II, Polish Chicagoans, who mostly came from working-class families, began to aspire to the middle class and started to move from the city to its suburbs, such as Lansing. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, by 1968, hundreds of thousands of people with Polish roots had relocated in this way. This was made possible by, amongst other things, the rising participation of Polish-Americans in higher education, which resulted in better job opportunities for them.
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Around this time, 32% of Polish Chicagoans worked as operators and labourers, and 28% as sales and clerical workers, whilst 28% held professional and managerial positions and 14% were employed as skilled craftsmen. The change, as compared to the findings of the 1901 Census, was very clear.
As Polish-Americans relocated to the suburbs, the traditionally Polish neighbourhoods changed. People of other ethnicities, such as Latinos, moved into them, and the streets which once sported business signs in Polish began to sport signs in Spanish instead. An event symbolic of the change that Polish Chicago underwent in this time was the 1978 relocation of the monument of Kościuszko from Humboldt Park to the median of East Solidarity Drive, near Shedd Aquarium.
Despite these changes, the Polish community in Chicago remained significant. A 1975 survey showed that a quarter of a million city-dwellers and 200,000 suburban residents considered themselves Polish-American. At about the same time, there were around 200,000 Polish-born people in the city. The vitality of Polish Chicagoans was evidenced by the creation of the Copernicus Cultural Center in the early 1980s. This institution, named after the famous Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and located at 5216 West Lawrence Avenue, serves cultural, educational and entertainment purposes. Here, you can see a play in Polish, listen to a concert by a Polish band or attend a Polish dance class. One of the interesting features of the centre is its unique architecture:
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The exterior of the building was modified to resemble the historic Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland. The tower is a scale replica of the clock tower adorning the castle – it can be seen from the Kennedy Expressway by all that make their way between downtown Chicago and O’Hare airport.
From the website copernicuscenter.org
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Magdalena Abakanowicz's headless and armless 'Agora' sculptures stands in Grant Park in Chicago, 2017, photo: Raymond Boyd / Getty Images
The 1980s saw another wave of Polish immigrants, numbering tens of thousands, come to the Windy City. Some were political refugees involved with Solidarity, a social movement in Poland which opposed the communist regime. Others were economic migrants with temporary visas who ended up staying longer than their documents allowed. Many of the latter group found employment as construction workers, domestic help, or other hourly workers and settled down in the Avondale neighbourhood, revivifying the Polish presence in that area.
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After the fall of communism in Poland, Poles continued to come to Chicago. They were drawn to the city by economic perspectives but also by family connections and the presence of Polish institutions. However, after Poland’s accession to the European Union – when travelling to European countries became far easier for Poles than travelling to the USA – Polish migration to the Windy City dwindled. The year 2008 even saw thousands of Poles leave Chicago for their homeland because of the financial crisis (Poland wasn’t affected by it as much as the US was).
Even though Poles no longer migrate to Chicago in the numbers they once did, the city still exhibits plenty of Polish influences. It is estimated that its metropolitan area is home to more than one million people of Polish descent today. There are a number of Polish restaurants in the city serving traditional Polish foods like pierogi or borscht. The Polish Constitution Day Parade is still held annually, and in 2018, it attracted well over 10,000 participants. The Polish Film Festival showcasing Polish films, an event praised by the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, has been organised in Chicago since 1981.
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A very clear symbol that recalls Chicago’s ties to to Poland is the installation Agora, created by eminent Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz. The work was permanently placed in Grant Park in 2006:
It consists of 106 headless armless cast iron figures, each about 9 feet tall, shell like, ‘frozen in walking movement.’ The large sculptures are considered as one art work. They blend human and natural forms. […] The sculpture honors the Sister City relationship between Chicago and Warsaw.
The special relationship between Chicago and Warsaw reflects the Windy City’s role in the history of Poles. Whereas Warsaw is the capital of Poland, Chicago is the traditional capital of the Polish diaspora in the USA.
Written by Marek Kępa, Mar 2020
polish culture in america
Source: ‘American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago’ by Dominic A. Pacyga (University of Chicago Press, 2019)