Chicago: America’s Bridge to Poland
Author: Daniel Pogorzelski
On June 4th, 2014, President Barack Obama opened his speech in Warsaw commemorating the twenty-fifth Anniversary of Freedom Day by talking about the Polish spirit which pervades his adopted hometown of Chicago:
In Chicago, we think of ourselves as a little piece of Poland. In some neighborhoods, you only hear Polish. The faithful come together at churches like Saint Stanislaus Kostka. We have a parade for Polish Constitution Day. And every summer, we celebrate the Taste of Polonia, with our kielbasa and pierogies, and we’re all a little bit Polish for that day. So being here with you, it feels like home.
Praise from politicians should be met with skepticism, particularly by those hailing from a place like Chicago where elected officials are well-known for their gift of gab. However, President Obama was not exaggerating about the scope of Poles’ imprint on the cultural landscape of Chicago. For those outside of the city, it can be difficult to ascertain how this longstanding presence of Poles in the metropolitan area has found its way into the most unexpected places.
Saint Sabina Roman Catholic Church is a sanctuary of Chicago’s African-American Catholic Community. The parish is located in Auburn-Gresham, a South Side neighborhood which is over ninety-five percent African-American. The pastor, Michael Pfleger, who served as the model for John Cusack’s character in the Spike Lee film “Chiraq,” campaigned for President Obama during his bid for the US Presidency in 2008. Yet even here in the cultural center of African-American Chicago, the visitor cannot miss the work of local artist Jerzy Kenar, a sculptor who works with wood. His career began with the creation of a wooden throne for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Chicago in 1979. Mr. Kenar’s work can be found all over the city, including prominent locations like the International Terminal at O’Hare Airport, and the city’s flagship Harold Washington Library downtown. The artist’s surname is recognizable to any Pole knowledgeable about their homeland’s art history. One of Poland’s most prestigious art schools is located in Zakopane, the cultural capital of Poland’s highlands, named after Jerzy’s relative, Antoni Kenar. Other expatriates from the highlands have found a home eight miles west of Saint Sabina in the suburb of Summit. This is the seat of the Tatra Mountain Cultural Foundation, where Polish Highlanders have formed a community in the Chicago Southland.
Multiethnic fusions are typical of a cosmopolitan global city like Chicago, where diverse people live in close proximity to each other. What makes Chicago unique is the immense size of the Polish community at large, with an estimated nine hundred thousand inhabitants tracing their roots back to Poland. It’s no surprise that Chicago’s first Sister City was Warsaw. With the placement of “Polish Patches” scattered amongst a metropolitan area that spans three states, the Polish presence in this region has led to some fascinating cultural syntheses. Among these are murals depicting Frida Kahlo in Polish folk costume and designs which blend Polish and Latin American papercutting traditions, guava-flavored pączki, restaurants serving Polish-Korean cuisine, annual performances of Japanese Taiko drumming on the Polish Triangle, or an African-American woman who together with her Polish husband run one of Chicago’s premiere Theater venues which doubles as a nexus for Polish cultural gatherings. These are just a handful of examples illustrating how Polish folkways and customs have woven themselves into the fabric of the city in intriguing ways.
There were Poles here before there was a Chicago
Prideful Poles wishing to highlight the community’s long history in the city may joke that “there have been Poles here before there was a Chicago,” referring to the first Polish migrants who came to the settlement before its formal incorporation in 1837. From the very beginning, there was a contingent of Polish political refugees and activists who built their new lives in Chicago. Pushed out of Europe as a result of the November Uprising, one of the many failed bids for Polish independence during the partition era, two hundred thirty-four insurrectionists departed Trieste in November 1833, reaching New York City in early 1834. This group had hoped to settle together on a land grant in Northern Illinois, but the effort failed. Historian James Lodesky counts that at least thirty-five of these Polish insurrectionists made their way to Chicago before 1850. Some of these Polish pioneers would even vote in Chicago’s first mayoral election in 1837.
A Polish Downtown
Today, Poles and Polish-Americans are found all over the Chicago region. Historically, there were five concentrations of initial settlement for Poles migrating to the city in the 19th century. One of these areas is a neighborhood which came to be called “Chicago’s Polish Downtown.” This district would become in the words of Victoria Granacki the place where “nearly all Polish undertakings of any consequence in the U.S. during that time either started or were directed from this part of Chicago’s near northwest side.” John Joseph Parot in his book Polish American Catholics in Chicago writes eloquently about the Polish Downtown’s transition from a rural outpost to the vibrant capital of Polish America:
Schermann’s property and surrounding environment must have reminded him of many Polish farming communities. From the still undeveloped and sparsely settled prairie on the outskirts of ante-bellum Chicago, he could see nothing but grassland stretching westward to the horizon. East of his land stood a thickly wooded area guarding both the both banks of the nearby North Branch of the Chicago River which swung noose like around Goose Island. The virgin land between Schermann’s settlement and the river was populated at the time only by chickens and cattle belonging to neighboring farms; fifty years later this same land would support the highest population density in the city-more than 450 Polish immigrants on each acre of land, packed into tenement houses. But in the 1850s Schermann’s rural outpost was a picture of serenity. His only outlet was Plank Road, a clumsily built highway actually constructed from wooden planks- a far cry from the bustling commercial thoroughfare later called Milwaukee Avenue along which Polish merchants in the 1920s built their own “Polish Downtown.” Schermann’s closest neighbors were other Polish settlers, perhaps landless tenant farmers, numbering approximately thirty families during the American Civil War.
All over the Midwest, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, as well as New England regions of the United States, one can find Polish enclaves referred to as “Poletown”, “Little Warsaw”, “Polish Village”, or even “ ‘Ski Town.” However, Chicago alone has a neighborhood designated as “Polish Downtown”, a reflection of the prominence and prestige conferred upon this nook of Polish America. Centered on Polonia Triangle, a triangular park at the intersection of three major streets, the headquarters of nearly every significant Polish organization in the United States had their headquarters within a half-mile of the triangle. Nearly half of the population of Poles in Chicago lived in the vicinity Polish Downtown in 1890. Little wonder that historian Edward Kantowicz would write that “Polish Downtown was to Chicago Poles what the Lower East Side was to New York’s Jews.”
A city of Polish Cathedrals
One of the striking contributions of Poles and Polish-Americans to the built environment of the Chicago Metropolitan Area are the ornate churches that these immigrants constructed. The elegant spires, steeples, and domes built by Poles are prominent landmarks for drivers along the Kennedy Expressway. This interstate highway, running parallel to the Milwaukee Avenue corridor which historically anchored Northwest Chicago’s Poles, is a great way to quickly survey some of the best examples of sacred architecture in the city.
Poles immigrating to Chicago were followers of several distinct religious traditions including Judaism, Lutheranism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and various other Protestant denominations. However, the vast majority were devout Roman Catholics. Their numbers, coupled with the clear nationalist leanings of the Resurrectionist religious order which founded many of the Polish parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago, led to a wealth of religious structures which people admire to the present day. Over twenty churches in Chicago and its suburbs were constructed in a style popularly referred to as the “Polish Cathedral style,” brought together not by the language of exterior architectural style, but by their largely consistent interior décor. Often built in an eclectic style, with elements of baroque and renaissance motifs predominating in a nod to the heyday of Polish grandeur during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
As with other immigrant groups, religious communities were an anchor that helped people acclimate to their new surroundings and eventually assimilate. In the Catholic context, churches became centers of social integration and interaction with many of the other ethnic groups who called the city home. At a time before the creation of the social safety net in the United States during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Polish Roman Catholic parish network in Chicago created a unique system akin to Scandinavian socialism with a robust system of cradle to grave care for adherents. The first Catholic retirement home in Chicago was founded by Poles in 1894 and continues into the present day as St. Joseph’s Village in Avondale, and the current Catholic health care system traces its origins in part to hospitals founded by Polish nuns.
A safe haven and a bastion of activism
The role of Chicago as a haven for Polish people during their turbulent history contributed to the growth of the community over successive generations. Poles immigrated to Chicago after the January Uprising collapsed in 1864. The pediment of Saint John Cantius Roman Catholic Church and the logo of the Polish National Alliance both bear the coat of arms of these insurrectionists. Chicago’s booming economy was a magnet and pressure release for the people of the overpopulated and largely underdeveloped Polish lands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, some one hundred fifty thousand Poles would create a new life in Chicago over the next two decades. The home of Polish American Congress Founder Charles Rozmarek reputedly housed thousands of Poles over the span of nearly a half century. After the Soviets installed the Communist regime in the aftermath of World War II, dissidents and rebels opposing the government continued coming to Chicago. This wave would crest following the rise of the Solidarity movement and the subsequent declaration of martial law in the 1980s which brought large numbers of new Polish immigrants with them.
Parallel to this was Chicago’s role as a hotbed for agitation during Poland’s many fights for freedom. The city played an outsize role in Poland’s successful bid for independence following the first World War, when a sizable number of Chicagoans joined a military force funded by pianist Ignace Paderewski which became the nucleus for the future Polish army that would later defend the nascent Polish state. There were five offices scattered across the city to draft soldiers into what came to called the “Blue Army” led by General Haller. Nearly five hundred boys from the parish of St. Hyacinth alone fought during the first World War in support of the Polish cause.
During the Second World War, Polish organizations came together first for war relief and then subsequently formed the Polish American Congress. This organization would play a key role in the successful effort to topple the Communist government in Warsaw. It was this vitality that brought Pope John Paul II to visit Chicago in October of 1979, where he met with the local Polish community, thus keeping up the pressure in his confrontation with his native country’s undemocratic leadership.
The Polish touch
The uniquely Polish aura in Chicago when compared with other American cities has lent itself to utilizing Polishness in literature, stage, film, and music as a way of highlighting the Chicagoness of a composition. Songs like Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens and Pulaski at Night by Andrew Bird are examples of this phenomenon. This trait is also visible in cinema, with actors playing Polish-Americans on the screen in films such as Call Northside 777, The Fugitive, The Breakup, or the recently released Widows.
This dynamic also works the other way, where Polish-American characters have their ethnic background changed as the setting is moved away from Chicago. The film Grease, which was filmed the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles is an example. The original musical was based on the teenage recollections of the author who attended Taft High School on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The female lead character in the original was Polish-American Sandy Dumbrowski. This role was ethnically altered into the Australian Sandy Olsson when the piece was reworked for film, with the creative team evidently deciding that the Polish origin needed to be jettisoned in their retelling.
Chicago’s sizeable Polish community was also something that captured the imagination of street photographer Vivian Maier. Maier captured images of elderly people gathering at Polonia Triangle and immigrants congregating in Chicago’s Polish Village along Milwaukee Avenue. She even visited Polish film screenings in Avondale’s Milford Theater which was known by locals at that time as the “Cinema Polski.”
Where US leaders come to practice their Polish
The first movie palace in the city designed exclusively for sound cinema was purchased by Chicago’s Polish community in the 1970s. The exterior was modified to resemble the exterior of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, with the newly constructed spire visible from the Kennedy Expressway, serving as a symbol of pride to commuters traveling between Chicago’s city center and O’Hare airport. Christened as the Copernicus Foundation, the Polish cultural and civic center is home to Taste of Polonia, the largest ethnic celebration in the City of Chicago with upwards of forty thousand attending during the four-day long festivities. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama, Vice President Dick Cheney, Second Lady Tipper Gore, and Speaker Newt Gingrich have all visited the Copernicus Center during the festival to show their affection for the Polish community in the United States.
The children of Polish immigrants in Chicago have risen to prominence on the municipal, state, national, and even international stage. Writers such as Stuart Dybek and John Guzlowski have captured the imagination of readers, channeling their singular experiences of growing up Polish-American in Chicago. Ray Manzarek helped propel the rock band The Doors to stardom as the artistic foil to the grit of the band’s iconic frontman Jim Morrison. Photographer Victor Skrebneski, painter Ed Paschke, sculptor Stanislav Szukalski all came into prominence as part of Chicago’s art scene. Historian Dominic Pacyga has written several seminal books covering Chicago, lectured as a visiting scholar at Campion Hall in Oxford, and was a Fulbright Scholar at the prestigious Jagiellonian University.
The same exceptional trajectory was also true for the sons of Poland who entered politics. There was a time in the 1960s and ‘70s when nearly a quarter of the Chicago City Council was of Polish descent. The Illinois congressional delegation included names like Derwinski, Kluczynski, Pucinski, and Rostenkowski, a tradition continued by Congressman Dan Lipinski into the present day. Congressman Kluczynski is remembered with a forty-five-story skyscraper designed by Mies van der Rohe housing Federal government offices in downtown Chicago. Congressman Roman Pucinski was responsible for the Federal mandate to install flight recorders on all commercial flights, as well as the US congressional investigation into the Katyń Forest Massacre. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Congressman Daniel Rostenkowski controlled the finances of the US House of Representatives, making him the second most powerful figure in Congress after the Speaker of the House during his tenure in the 1980s.
A dynamic community
Statistics help to illustrate how active the Polish diaspora is with promulgating their native traditions. As of this writing, there are forty-seven Polish language Saturday schools teaching over fifteen hundred students. Two FM and three AM stations broadcast Polish language programming. There is Polvision TV. The Polish Scouting Organization Harcerstwo has around five hundred members imparting Polish cultural traditions to young Polish Americans. There are a plethora of Polish language publications, including daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers, in addition to a number of different magazines as well as a phone book advertising the many Polish businesses and services throughout the Chicago area.
Just scratching the surface
The scope of this work and the medium of its delivery demands brevity for a topic that has been the subject of lengthy works on much narrower aspects of this subject. Numerous links that tie Poland to the United States all run through Chicago, which have lent the city an unmistakable streak of Polishness, are evident upon further reflection. It is my hope that this overview will spark the reader to investigate these topics for themselves in a place so intricately intertwined with the history of both Poland and the United States.