Chicago’s Milwaukee Av. to be renamed Polish Heritage Corridor in honour of city’s Poles
Settled by Poles fleeing after the fall of the November Uprising, Chicago is said to be the largest Polish city after Warsaw.
The large Polish community in the city would go on to become the inspiration for John Travolta and his crew of T-birds in the hit film Grease.
Now, Poles in Chicago are to be honoured by having part of the iconic Milwaukee Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in the city, named the Polish Heritage Corridor.
A 15-mile stretch of the avenue will now be known as the Milwaukee Avenue Polish Heritage Corridor and is intended to highlight Milwaukee Avenue's role in Polish culture for more than 100 years.
Bogdan Pukszta, executive director of the Polish-American Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes the corridor will also help revive businesses along Milwaukee Avenue, especially Polish-American establishments.
"Milwaukee Avenue is already well-known among Poles, both in Poland and here," Pukszta said. "But it will be easier to promote Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago and the Polish heritage in Chicago among non-Poles."
Pukszta said the Polish Heritage Corridor will make it easier to "share our heritage" and wants it to attract tourists from the Chicago area and beyond.
"Not only American tourists from out of state, but also tourists from Poland, who we expect to come to Chicago in greater numbers after the pandemic," Pukszta said.
"Milwaukee Avenue will certainly be an attraction for them to visit."
The state law creating the Milwaukee Avenue Heritage Corridor was signed last week, and the designation will become official in January 2023.
State representative Delia Ramirez, who introduced the bill, said “Establishing this corridor is an opportunity to … acknowledge, reflect and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the Polish-Americans in Chicago and throughout the city.”
Poles started arriving in Chicago in the 1830s around the time the city was established.
Little is known about these first Polish migrants apart from that they were refugees from the 1830 November Uprising.
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.
The Polish immigrants set up what were known as Polish Patches, establishing churches, schools and hundreds of businesses.
Chicago drew a large number of Poles from peasant backgrounds who migrated for economic reasons. They had gained their freedom after serfdom was abolished in Poland in the mid-nineteenth century, and many sought work in America.
With its expanding industry and need for unskilled labor, Chicago became a magnet for Polish peasants. Many of them intended to return home once they had saved enough money to buy a farm, but a lot decided to stay in the New World.
As of the 2000 U.S. census, Poles in Chicago were the largest European American ethnic group in the city, making up 7.3% of the total population. It is estimated that as many as 1.9 million people of Polish heritage live in the Chicago area.
The areas of Polish settlement have gone under different names, such as Polish Downtown, the Polonia Triangle and the Polish Village.
To add to the confusion, Polish neighbourhoods were given colloquial names based on the local church, such as Stanisławowo, Trojcowo, Jadwigo, and most famously Jackowo.
Milwaukee Avenue gained the nickname ‘Polish Corridor’, as it linked a number of these Polish communities and was home to many bars and shops.
As Poles grew in number and became more affluent, they moved further away from the city along Milwaukee Avenue, creating a ‘Polish Corridor’.
The Polish community became distinct, not least for its mixing of English and Polish languages, creating a dialect known as Chicagowski, which saw English words blending into Polish syntax, for example, On mnie lowuje (he loves me), and Polukuj jak rejn rejnuje (look how it’s raining).
Chicago Polish youth culture from the 1950s was captured in the 1972 musical Grease, in which the majority of characters had Polish surnames like Zuko, Dumbrowski and Kenickie.
Jim Jacobs, who conceived Grease, based the musical on his real-life experiences in a Chicago high school.
Much of the Polish nature of the musical was discarded when Grease was made into a feature film in 1978, casting non-Polish actors in the lead roles, such as John Travolta who played the role of Danny Zuko.
While the Polish Heritage Corridor celebrates the historical Polish community in the area, it may also mark the end of an era.
The traditionally Polish districts of Chicago have been losing their Polish character for some time. They are becoming more diversified, and Spanish is just as likely to be heard as Polish on the streets.
In Jackowo, traditional Polish businesses such as restaurants and bakeries are being replaced by tattoo parlours and pet grooming studios.
A housing boom over the last ten years has seen many new apartment complexes, which has brought younger people from different backgrounds into the district.