As Milwaukee Avenue stretches from downtown Chicago to the Niles and Park Ridge area, it has long been lined with Polish-American institutions, from St. Adalbert’s Cemetery to Oak Mill Bakery and White Eagle Banquet Hall, as well as nearby Polish residents and strongly Polish churches.
Milwaukee Avenue now has an official state designation: The Polish-American Heritage Corridor.
The law, which took effect Jan. 1 after Gov. JB Pritzker signed it last year, makes Milwaukee Avenue from Sangamon Street in Chicago to Greenwood Road in Niles the heritage area.
Local business leaders hope the distinction will attract customers. But they also hope that the designation will help preserve existing Polish culture, institutions and identity in an area that is experiencing demographic shifts, especially in the gentrification of Wicker Park and Logan Square.
The stretch of Milwaukee that is now the Polish American Heritage Corridor includes the Polish American Heritage Museum and encompasses dozens of Polish churches such as the Holy Trinity Polish Catholic Church in the 1100 block of North Noble Street and the Basilica of St. Hyacinth in the 3600 block of West Wolfram Street. .
Chicago’s first Polish and Polish-American residents congregated at the southeast end of Milwaukee Avenue, near its beginning in downtown Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago professor emeritus of history Dominic Pacyga said, beginning with an early citizen leader named Anton Schermann.
“[Schermann] he opened a small store and then a travel agency,” said Pacyga, who has written books on Polish-American history. “And it brought, supposedly, 1,000 Poles to the area.”
That was the beginning of Chicago’s Polish-American community around Noble Street and Division Avenue, he said.
“That area attracts a lot of Polish institutions, as well as Polish shops, taverns, dance clubs, things like that,” Pacyga said. “So this just became the capital of Chicago Poland. And Chicago itself became a kind of capital of American Poland.
As the Polish-American population grew and became more established, it began to develop political influence.
Polish newspapers, for example, in the 19th century, [were] encourage people to get their citizenship and vote,” Pacyga explained. “Them [were] saying, ‘Look, when you’re stopped by a policeman, you don’t want an Irish policeman to stop you… You want a Polish, Polish-speaking policeman to stop you.’”
Institutions also merged on Milwaukee Avenue and other nearby thoroughfares as the Polish-American community traveled northwest to Logan Square, Avondale, and beyond. They included the Polish Roman Catholic Union, the Polish Museum of America, the Polish Women’s Alliance and the Polish Veterans Association, Pacyga said, just to name a few.
An institution with roots in the Polish Triangle at Milwaukee Avenue, Division Street and Ashland Avenue also migrated northwest, settling in the 6800 block of Milwaukee Avenue.
Ted Przybylo originally purchased a boys’ club at the intersection of Division Street and Western Avenue to start the White Eagle Banquet Hall in 1947. His son, former Niles mayor Andrew Przybylo, noted that the original location had a seating capacity of 750. and very little parking.
“It was a testament to a community that basically walked to a place or to public transportation,” he said. “They could have driven, but only a few, and we would have ample street parking and so on.”
When the banquet hall moved to Niles in 1967, it needed parking spaces for about 300 cars, Przybylo said. He said that when his family sold the institution in 2015, it had space for more than 800 cars.
Przybylo said he welcomed the official designation of Milwaukee Avenue as the Polish-American Heritage Corridor, saying it could help shed light on the area’s history.
“I just hope they do something tangible to create a historical perspective on the corridor,” he said.
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Daniel Pogorzelski has an idea on how to create that perspective. Pogorzelski has a sign in his office that he hopes to see posted throughout the corridor to mark his estate status.
The sign depicts Chicago’s Polish nickname for the “Polish town of Chicago,” Jackowo, above renderings of a Polish and American flag and one of the crests of Poland’s provincial capital. Pogorzelski said he’s hopeful that signs similar to this can be put up around Milwaukee Avenue, instead of the typical brown street signs announcing honorary designations.
Pogorzelski said he hoped the change would help draw people onto the streets as a way to learn about the area’s history.
“People are more interested in experiences, and historical and heritage tourism is an integral part of that for those who are interested in learning more about the culture of the Poles in both Chicago and Niles along Milwaukee Ave. “, said. “I think they will find a wealth of experiences.”
Farther northwest, Pogorzelski said he hoped the corridor would serve to highlight the institutions that served members of the community throughout their lives, from grocery stores and delis to hospitals, places of worship and end-of-life care. such as funeral homes and cemeteries. .
Two major cemeteries with Polish-American roots are located in the Niles corridor.
“Niles is the last place of residence for much of the North Side Polish community,” Pogorzelski said, referring to St. Adalbert’s and Maryhill cemeteries.
As for the value of declaring an area as a heritage corridor, the executive director of the Polish American Chamber of Commerce, Bogdan Pukszta, said the significance was both symbolic and practical.
“As a motivator for companies, I think it has value,” said Pukszta.
Pukszta added that the pandemic had been hard on many businesses and said that some Polish-American businessmen might feel unsure about bringing their businesses to the area, or perhaps even opening them.
“The designation helps them identify with it, and I think maybe others will identify with it and therefore visit more often,” Pukszta said.
Then there’s the memory, tradition and sense of community that, he said, the designation captured, particularly in a Chicago where communities that were once concentrated have scattered.
Pacyga agreed with Pukszta on the symbolic meaning of the corridor.
“Look, the Milwaukee Avenue corridor is no longer the Polish Broadway it once was,” Pacyga said. “It’s gentrifying, from Sangamon onwards, it’s going through a transformation.”
Although the Polish-American community is no longer as concentrated along the street as it used to be, Pacyga said the designation is a good way to “honor this group, who gave so much to the city.”
State Senator Christina Pacione-Zayas and former State Representative Delia Ramirez, both Democrats from Chicago, sponsored the measure in Springfield to designate the Polish-American heritage corridor.