Avondale's Milwaukee Avenue. Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago

POLISH TRIANGLE — A bill moving through the Illinois General Assembly would establish a huge swath of Milwaukee Avenue on the Northwest Side as a “Polish Heritage Corridor.”

Starting at Sangamon Street in West Town and running all the way up Milwaukee to suburban Niles, the corridor would pass through historically Polish neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Avondale.

Sponsored by Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Democrat representing portions of Chicago, the bill was voted out of an Illinois House transportation committee last week. It “will be reported favorably to the House floor,” according to a news release.

“Polish Americans and immigrants have made significant contributions to art, music, philosophy, science and other disciplines. Most importantly, they have helped make Chicago what it is today,” Ramirez said in the news release. “I am proud to help honor and celebrate Chicago’s Polish heritage.”

Milwaukee Avenue has long been the main thoroughfare for Polish-American life in Chicago, said Daniel Pogorzelski, a local community organizer and historian who supports the initiative.

“Many people refer to Milwaukee Avenue as the Polish Corridor. This puts it into law,” he said.

Polish immigrants famously began settling in the Wicker Park area in the 1800s, establishing churches, schools and a vibrant business district. Throughout the 20th century, Polish Americans established communities up and down Milwaukee Avenue throughout Chicago’s Northwest side.

“Milwaukee Avenue is a place that is not only synonymous with Polish Chicago, but it’s synonymous with Chicago in Poland. In fact, there’s a way in which you can pronounce Milwaukee Avenue, but spelled in Polish, that people are very familiar with,” Pogorzelski said.

Only a few remnants of Wicker Park’s Polish past remain, like the restaurant Podhalanka, 1549 W. Division St., and St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Trinity Catholic churches.

Helena Madej, the owner of Podhalanka at the Polish Triangle in Wicker Park/Noble Square. Credit: Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago

Farther north, Avondale has also lost part of its Polish identity as the neighborhood gentrifies. The Red Apple Buffet closed in 2019; it was known for its wide array of affordable Polish food.

Earlier this year, Pogorzelski was part of an effort to rename the neighborhood’s Woodard Plaza as Solidarity Triangle, a nod to the 1980s Polish solidarity movement.

Local leaders in Chicago’s Polish-American community said the heritage corridor designation will further preserve their community’s culture while sustaining the Polish businesses that call the Northwest Side home.

Forty years ago, Bogdan Pukszta moved to Avondale after leaving Poland.

“Just about every store … featured Polish, and it was easy for new immigrants to find our place language-wise and otherwise in the new country,” said Pukszta, who is the executive director of the Polish American Chamber of Commerce.

That’s changed as Polish Americans have moved to other parts of the city and to the suburbs, Pukszta said.

“The past 10, 20 years, quite a few [Polish Americans] moved out of the Avondale area, farther northwest along Milwaukee Avenue, quite a few to the suburbs. For example, quite a few well known Polish stores that I remember from Avondale are now along the Milwaukee corridor in Niles,” Pukszta said.

Pukszta said the heritage corridor will be a tool to attract tourists to Chicago and to Polish businesses and cultural sites on or near Milwaukee Avenue.

In 2019, the United States started allowing Polish citizens to travel to the country for business or tourism without a visa for 90 days.

“Now it’s much easier for Poles to travel to the U.S.,” Pukszta said. “We expect that once the pandemic is over, this will translate into quite an uptick in the number of tourists from Poland coming to Chicago. And for that, it would be good for us to prepare all kinds of places, highlight some spots on the map of Chicago for them to visit and maybe even guide them there.”

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