Poland has had the unfortunate luck of being sandwiched between the Russian, German/Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian empires during its history. Poland was partitioned three times by these empires, and was absent from the European map for a 123-year period, until 1918. Poles have been coming to the USA at least since the first partition (1772), evidenced by the American Revolutionary War (1776) hero Casimir Pulaski, who has two holidays, one in Illinois (Casimir Pulaski Day), and a US federal holiday (General Pulaski Memorial Day) dedicated to him.
The majority of Polish immigration to the United States came in 3 distinct waves: 1850-1920 during the partitions; post-World War II and during the communist takeover of Poland in the late 1930’s through late 1940’s; and in the 1980’s after the imposition of martial law in Poland (1981). It was after the November Uprising (1830-1831), an ultimately unsuccessful armed rebellion against the Russian Empire, the first known group of Poles made their way to Chicago.
Most early Polish settlement of Chicago was centered around areas of the city that had industrial or meat packing jobs. Poles settled mostly at the “Polish Triangle” at Milwaukee and Ashland, Pilsen on the Near West Side, and Bridgeport and Back of the Yards on the South Side. Even in areas where there are few Americans of Polish descent living today, these neighborhoods are still marked by Catholic churches bearing names like St. Stanislaus, St. Casimir, and St. Bronislava. The Catholic Church has probably been the most influential institution on Polish culture (being the only non-communist organization that was legal for many years), and the Polish Pope John Paul the II is still greatly revered and a source of pride for many Polish-Americans.
As of the year 2000, the US Census counted 182,064 Chicagoans self-reporting as being of Polish descent (second only to German-Americans and Irish-Americans). There is also a large population of undocumented Polish residents in Chicago; The USA is estimated to have around 70,000 undocumented Polish immigrants, with 58,000 of those residing in the greater Chicagoland area. Obtaining visas for many Poles is difficult, as there is a high rate of Polish nationals obtaining visitor or student visas, and then overstaying them.
Immigration is a hot-button issue in the USA right now, but it’s telling that there is little, if any coverage in the national media of non-Latino undocumented immigrants such as Poles. In any case, if you add up the self-reported and undocumented populations, the greater Chicago area is the home to about 1 million Polish immigrants and Polish-Americans, which makes it the 2nd biggest Polish area in the world after Warsaw (though London may have passed us). It’s estimated that 3 million people of Polish descent live in the corridor between Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the northwest Chicago suburbs, and Detroit, Michigan.
In Chicago you can find Polish delis, grocery stores, shops, bars and nightclubs, as well as The Polish Film Festival, the Paderewski Symphony Orchestra (dedicated to the promotion of Polish music and culture), The Polish Museum of America, The Polish Constitution Day Parade, and The Taste of Polonia. There are two local Polish AM radio stations, and “PolVision”, a Chicago-based television station, that is the biggest provider of Polish news and programming outside of Poland.
And the food… ah, the glorious food. While I do a reasonably good job of eating healthy, mostly vegetarian meals in the summer, the long, cold, grey, icy, windy, snowy, never-ending miserable Chicago winter makes for a heavenly marriage with starchy, meaty, fatty traditional Polish foods… though my fiancé disagrees with that assessment sometimes. Some of my favorite Polish foods to make are pierogies (potato and/or cheese-filled half-moon shaped dumpling) topped with sautéed onions, mushrooms, and sour cream; barszcz (borscht), a sour soup made with beets and meat; bigos (“Hunters Stew”) a hearty soup with various meats, sauerkraut, mushrooms, onions and beef broth; and gołąbki, cabbage stuffed with meat and vegetables. Chicago has a number of Polish restaurants, some of which serve buffet-style, allowing you to try a variety of dishes. I’m not usually a big fan of buffets, but I make an exception for extra helpings of pierogis and kielbasa! (Polish sausage)
If you’re on the Northwest Side, you’re more than likely to hear Polish spoken on the street, on the L train, on a bus, or in a restaurant. While it’s relatively rare to hear 3rd and 4th generation German-Americans, or Italian-Americans speaking German or Italian, I’ve personally known a few 3rd/4th generation Polish-Americans who were taught Polish growing up, and speak it with their parents or grandparents at home. Being that the Polish language & culture was suppressed for hundreds of years, and Poland was wiped off the map multiple times, it’s not suprising that Polish-Americans take great pride in retaining their language & culture!
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