A History Of Polish Americans In Chicago

Picture of Elizabeth Newhart
Updated: 10 October 2016
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Being Polish in Chicago has never been a rare or unique trait. In fact, some have claimed that Chicago is home to the largest population of Poles outside of Warsaw itself. Yet even though they make up a significant portion of the city’s ethnic composition, they no longer have a specific neighborhood to call their own.

Like many European countries at the time, Poland saw potential in America in the late 1800s. Poles began immigrating to Chicago for its promise of work around the turn of the 20th century. The famous stockyards and steel mills were a huge draw for those looking to make a new life in a new world.

By 1950 there were roughly half a million Polish people living within Chicago city limits. They occupied an area between modern day Wicker Park and Noble Square. The central hub of this Polish Downtown neighborhood was the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, Division Street and Ashland Avenue that was nicknamed Polonia Triangle. In its height, it became the social, cultural and political capital of Poles in both Chicago and all of North America.

But everything changed in the 1960s. With the completion of the Kennedy Expressway that essentially ran through the heart of Polish Downtown, hundreds of people were displaced and forced to move elsewhere. It cut into the community feel of the neighborhood. Poles also partook in the movement sweeping the city of leaving urban life and settling out in the suburbs during the housing boom. Changes in Lincoln Park also brought a new wave of people into the area, Latinos and Puerto Ricans in particular.

In the decades since, immigration has tapered off and Polish presence in the suburbs has continued strong. Gentrification hit the North West side, which has been supremely evident in neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Bucktown. Today Polonia Triangle is home to Subways, Potbellys and Jewels. Many of the Polish roots have been snuffed out at the source, but some remain.

The Polish Museum of America still sits at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Augusta Boulevard and ‘collects, preserves, interprets and promotes materials, artifacts and history that chronicle Polish history and the Polish-American experience.’ It also houses a library and archives used by students and scholars. The Chopin Theatre, just across from Polonia Triangle, was built in 1918 and remains one of Chicago’s premiere off-Loop theatre troupes. The Polish American Association, the Polish National Alliance, and several Polish Cathedrals of the Roman Catholic faith along the Kennedy Expressway still exist and all serve a large audience.

Today around 150,000 Poles call Chicago home, and they live all over the city. But an estimated 1.5 million reside in the entire Chicago metropolitan area, putting down deep roots in the suburbs. They convene for annual events across Chicago like the Polish Film Festival of America, the Taste of Polonia Festival, the Polish Constitution Day Parade and Casimir Pulaski Day.

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