POLISH TRIANGLE — State leaders have designated almost all of Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago and suburban Niles as a Polish Heritage Corridor.
Milwaukee Avenue has long been the main artery of the Northwest Side, cutting through the West Loop and Wicker Park up to Jefferson Park and the suburbs.
It’s also acted as a central business district for Chicago’s Polish-American community, which has had a presence in neighborhoods up and down the avenue for more than 100 years.
Polish immigrants famously began moving to 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 legislators have designated a 15-mile stretch of the street a Polish Heritage Corridor to honor that history and the Polish communities that still call the area home. They also hope the designation will support economic development for Polish and non-Polish businesses alike.
The bill was introduced to the General Assembly earlier this year by Rep. Delia Ramirez and Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas. It was signed into law last last week by Gov. JB Pritzker.
The law authorizes the Illinois Department of Transportation to erect plaques along the corridor in recognition of its status, according to a news release from Ramirez’s office. Those plaques are expected to be installed in early 2023.
“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,” Ramirez said at a Thursday ceremony celebrating the bill at the Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Only a few remnants of the Wicker Park’s rich Polish past remain, like the restaurant Podhalanka, 1549 W. Division St., and St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Trinity Catholic churches.
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.
Local officials hailed the corridor designation 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 many Polish causes and organizations and a candidate for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner.
Pogorzelski said the corridor brings overdue recognition to an iconic cross section of Polish-American and Polish history.
“The state of Illinois … was able to make sure … this [will] 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.
Those benefits include supporting new Polish businesses on Milwaukee Avenue and attracting tourists to restaurants, stores 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 think its designation as a Polish Heritage Corridor will be most helpful in this regard,” said Iwona Filipiak, president of the Polish American Chamber of Commerce.
Pogorzelski pitched 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 historical preservation.
Sponsored by Pacione-Zayas and Ramirez, the legislation allows cultural areas to apply for state dollars supporting business and tourism initiatives.
Criteria for those districts is still being decided by an advisory committee, Pacione-Zayas said, but the heritage corridor designation along Milwaukee Avenue could give the community a leg up when applying for those funds.
“The Polish corridor can then say, ‘Hey, we want to apply for this state designation.’ And it’s an advantage because what it demonstrates is that there’s some pre-existing kind of recognition,” Pacione-Zayas said. “In their application, it makes it stronger, that this isn’t just a fly-by-night idea, this is something that has actually been thought out and recognized by other governmental entities.”
The Polish Heritage Corridor is one of several initiatives underway to celebrate Chicago’s Polish past, many of them backed by Pogorzelski.
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.
Pogorzelski’s also working with aldermen to rename the Division Street Blue Line station “Division/Polish Triangle.” The station sits underneath the actual Polish Triangle, a public spot bordered by Division Street and Milwaukee and Ashland avenues. The area was once the epicenter of hundreds of Polish businesses and organizations.
Alds. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Daniel La Spata (1st) have signed on in support of the ordinance, which was introduced to City Council in April.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: