POLISH TRIANGLE — Heads of state have designated nearly all of Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue and suburban Niles as a Polish Heritage Corridor.
Milwaukee Avenue has long been the main thoroughfare on the northwest side, cutting through the West Loop and Wicker Park to Jefferson Park and the suburbs.
It also serves as the central business district for Chicago’s Polish-American community, which has been present in the Avenue neighborhoods for over 100 years.
Polish immigrants began settling in the Wicker Park area in the 1800s, establishing churches, schools, and hundreds of businesses. Polish businesses and communities were also established in Avondale, Jefferson Park, Niles, and elsewhere along Milwaukee Avenue.
Now, state lawmakers have designated a 15-mile stretch of street as a Polish Heritage Corridor to honor that history and the Polish communities that still inhabit the area. They also hope that the designation will support the economic development of Polish and non-Polish companies.
The bill was introduced to the General Assembly earlier this year by Representative Delia Ramirez and Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas. It was signed into law last week by Governor JB Pritzker.
The law authorizes the Illinois Department of Transportation to erect plaques along the corridor in recognition of its status, according to a press release from Ramirez’s office. These plates should be installed in early 2023.
“Establishing this corridor is an opportunity to … recognize, reflect and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Polish-Americans in Chicago and throughout the city,” Ramirez said at a ceremony Thursday celebrating the bill at the Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Avenue Milwaukee.
Only a few remnants of Wicker Park’s rich Polish past remain, such as the Podhalanka Restaurant, 1549 W. Division St., and the Catholic churches of St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Trinity.
Further north, Avondale has also lost some of its Polish identity as the neighborhood gentrifies. The Red Apple Buffet closed in 2019; it was known for its wide range of affordable Polish dishes.
Local officials hailed the designation of the corridor as a way to preserve Polish-American culture and business on the northwest side.
The initiative was spearheaded by Daniel Pogorzelski, a community activist involved in numerous Polish causes and organizations and a candidate for the post of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Harvesting District.
Pogorzelski said the hallway brings belated recognition to an iconic sample of Polish-American and Polish history.
“The State of Illinois…was able to ensure…that this [will] to be officially known as the first such ethnic corridor. There are real benefits to this legislation to help preserve our culture, which will be immense,” he said.
These benefits include supporting new Polish businesses on Milwaukee Avenue and attracting tourists to the restaurants, shops, and cultural sites along the corridor.
“The future of Milwaukee Avenue looks bright as it continues to be a vital part of Chicago and the suburbs. We believe its designation as a Polish Heritage Corridor will be very helpful in this regard,” Iwona said. Filipiak, president of the Polish-American Chamber of Commerce.
Pogorzelski floated the idea of a Polish Corridor after the General Assembly passed legislation last year that would create designated cultural districts to spur economic development and encourage historic preservation.
Sponsored by Pacione-Zayas and Ramirez, the legislation allows cultural areas to apply for state dollars to support business and tourism initiatives.
Criteria for these districts are still being decided by an advisory committee, Pacione-Zayas said, but designating the heritage corridor along Milwaukee Avenue could give the community a head start when applying for these funds.
“The Polish Corridor can then say, ‘Hey, we want to apply for this state designation.’ And that’s an advantage because what it demonstrates is that there’s a kind of pre-existing recognition,” Pacione-Zayas said. “In their application, it makes it stronger, that it’s not just a thoughtless idea, it’s something that has in fact been thought of and recognized by other government entities.”
The Polish Heritage Corridor is one of many initiatives underway to celebrate Chicago’s Polish past, many of which are supported by Pogorzelski.
Earlier this year, Pogorzelski was part of an effort to rename the neighborhood’s Woodard Plaza as the Solidarity Triangle, a nod to Poland’s 1980s solidarity movement.
Pogorzelski is also working with aldermen to rename the Division Street Blue Line station “Division/Polish Triangle”. The station sits under the present-day Polish Triangle, a public place bordered by Division Street and Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues. The area was once the epicenter of hundreds of Polish businesses and organizations.
Aldes. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Daniel La Spata (1st) signed in favor of the ordinance, which was presented to city council in April.
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