Chicago’s Polonia

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

Start at the intersection of Milwaukee, Ashland, and Division, or “the Polish Triangle,” where Poles set up their first community in Chicago during the 1860s and remained dominant well into the 20th century. Then go north on Milwaukee, up through Logan Square and into Avondale, or Jackowo, where many Poles lived in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Then travel further up Milwaukee and into the neighborhoods of the northwest side, including Portage Park and Jefferson Park, where there are still strong concentrations of Poles today. Then continue on out of the city, into Niles, Park Ridge, Morton Grove and other suburbs, where Polish immigrants have been settling for the last few decades. This is one way to trace the history of settlement, movement, and dispersal of Chicago’s Polonia, as Poles refer to the diaspora around the world. The story is more complicated of course, and this route doesn’t cover all of Polish Chicago (most notably, the southwest side, where highlanders from Southern Poland have lived for more than a century). But it does provide a basic sketch of Poles’ gradual movements from concentrated in-town neighborhoods to further out, more dispersed neighborhoods and suburbs. These movements are not unique to Poles—a similar pattern is recognizable among other Chicago ethnic and immigrant groups, and recent data show that many new immigrants are bypassing the city altogether and moving directly to the suburbs1—but our interest is specifically how this spatial dispersion is affecting Polish immigrants’ feelings about community, identity, and ethnic solidarity. In other words: does this historical trend towards suburbanization and dispersion signal a social breakdown in the Polonia immigrant community?

We have observed, worked with, and interacted with Chicago Poles in multiple settings. We have also conducted interviews with members of the community on a range of rhetorical, social, and political issues in order to develop a richer understanding of how Polish immigrants conceptualize and talk about their everyday lives. One such issue is how people feel about the spaces they inhabit. For some, moving to the suburbs seems to satisfy a life-long dream, the familiar “American Dream”: you can buy a house with a backyard, own a little space, enjoy isolation, and disconnect from the city’s rush, traffic, or crime. This is a lifestyle that very few could have afforded in Poland. It is also dramatically different from the lifestyle that most people experienced during the communist period and that many continue to experience during the on-going post-communist transformation. One of the consequences of this lifestyle is that the car-centered geography of the suburbs limits the kinds of everyday encounters that typify denser city neighborhoods. However, Polish immigrants in the suburbs who desire a sense of proximity seem to seek out and create shared spaces, such as Catholic churches and Polish grocery stores. Also there are always a few big summer picnics in the far suburbs. On the other hand, other immigrants may simply be comfortable with a more detached experience of community. As one suburban Pole, Michalina, describes her relations with Polish neighbors: “There’s not really a chance to meet and talk… But it’s no loss for me. It seems like if there’s a chance, we’ll talk. That’s it. But I’m not going to just go around and knock on doors, ‘Ah, you’re a Pole? I’m a Pole, too!’”

There are many Poles, however, who continue to live in the city. In some cases this is precisely because they crave the traditional urban closeness to people, the walkability, and the rich social life, even if it might mean ignoring crime or higher real estate prices. As one Polish immigrant in her 20s, Gosia, describes her choice to live in Chicago: “It’s about how fast and easy you can meet with your friends and enjoy your social life.” In her case, she can take her son for a walk and meet her Polish friends on the way to the many coffee shops and restaurants that her Humboldt Park neighborhood offers. Also, her job as a nanny is in the city, and the city’s amenities (free park services and Polish classes for her son at a public school), as well as the support system she receives from Polish friends, all affect her choice of where to live.

It might be possible for us to posit these two trends as emerging from our observations: one, a movement away from traditional ethnic community centers and out toward the suburbs, and, two, a desire to stay in the city to maintain a more traditional community structure. However, we would stop short of making strong conclusions by complicating the issue in a few different ways. First, one’s relationship to the community is very individualistic, and it is shaped by one’s specific immigrant experience. Additionally, as the social geographies of our lives change, people’s understandings of “community” change. In the case of Chicago Poles, many seem to feel that interactions with other Poles are essential, but this does not necessarily mean that they feel the need to belong to a greater, unified Polish community or to live on a street where there are primarily Poles. In many cases, the need is to have a close circle of Polish friends who become like family or to go to a Polish movie once in a while. Finally, on the broadest scale, Chicago Poles’ experience of space has to be considered in the context of overarching economic and governmental forces, which frame and limit individuals’ choices. For example, the migration of immigrant groups to the suburbs can be understood as a reflection of the shifting labor market. The private sector relocates its production jobs from cities to suburbs to capture a non-unionized labor force and cheaper real estate2. As a result, some Polish immigrants follow manufacturing jobs as they relocate to the suburbs. Others stay in the city to take on the service-oriented jobs of today’s economy, such as being a waiter, nanny, or house keeper. And since many Chicago Polish immigrants are undocumented, their earning power is limited, and, in effect, their living options are limited. Furthermore, the fact that Chicago, unlike many suburban areas, is a “sanctuary city,” where local law enforcement technically cannot inquire about immigrants’ legal status, certainly makes the city a more attractive place for some Poles.

So what does a consideration of these multiple factors suggest for the future spaces of Polish Chicagoland? It’s difficult to say, but the trend towards the suburbs is not going away. Also, there has been an overall decrease in Polish immigration to the Chicago area, a direct result of Poland’s entrance into the European Union in 2004 and the global economic downturn of the last few years3. Nonetheless, we feel sure that there will be a strong community of Polish immigrants in and around Chicago for many years to come. The question of how, exactly, members of this community will maintain their feelings of identity and solidarity across diverse urban and suburban spaces remains to be seen. ◊


1.     See the January 2010 report Open to All?: Different Cultures, Same Communities from the Voorhees Center at UIC (

2.     See the 2009 report from the Brookings Institute, “Job Sprawl Revisited: The Charging Geography of Metropolitan Employment,” available at

3.     The number of Poles applying for a visa to the U.S. in the consulate in Krakow recently declined from 60,000 to 30,000 a year, according to the Polish radio station RMF (“Stany Zjednoczone coraz mniej popularniejszym krajem w?ród Polaków”,nId,324766). At the same time, it is estimated that between 2004 and 2006 two million Poles migrated to European Union countries (See Gazeta Wyborcza, “2 mln Polaków w ci?gu 2 lat wyjecha?o z kraju?”,90443,3410728.html). The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that between 2007 and 2009 the inflow of unauthorized immigrants declined by 8% due to the economic downturn (See: “U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since mid-Decade,”

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