You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Identity Politics in Chicago Takes a Surprising Turn

When the Chicago City Council began its re-districting process last fall, the city was braced for a showdown between the Latino and black caucuses. What it was not expecting, however, was the persistence of a tiny band of Polish-American activists with a long list of complaints: There were potholes in the dominantly Polish neighborhood of Avondale that had gone unfixed for months; it was nearly impossible to get permits to work in all of the different wards that contained Polish-speakers; none of their aldermen staffed a Polish speaker. The contingent was tired of living in a community split over three wards; what they wanted was a ward of their own. Last month, they almost succeeded in getting it.

For most of the twentieth century, Poles were Chicago’s dominant white ethnic population—and one of its most politically powerful. The ranks of City Council were filled with Polish-Americans, as were some of the most coveted appointments in Cook County, which contains most of Chicago. The city clerk—the running-mate of the mayor—was expected to be Polish; a Pole held this position from 1955 until 1993, and again from 1995 to 2006. Stories grew up around powerful political figures, like ward boss Joe (“Big Joe”) Rostenkowski, the father of longtime congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who, according to a 1939 police report, chased for a mile a man hanging campaign signs for his opponent.

To a certain extent, the Poles’ influence is still strong. In the Avondale delis, you can buy liver, kielbasa, and beef tongue; raw spareribs sweat in unrefrigerated plastic tubs; and vacuum-packed mackerel sit on the shelves, eyes bulging through shrink-wrap. In the pubs, you can get tripe stew, and czernina—a clear, vivid red broth made from poultry blood—in tall drinking glasses. When I sneezed while talking to a local bar patron, he told me that an old Polish tradition declares that the traditional “god bless you” is a fine pretext for a shot of vodka. It was 1:40 in the afternoon.

But, fewer Poles are emigrating to Chicago, and more of the younger generations are moving to suburbs, shedding the language, and settling in communities that are less concentrated. Meanwhile, the number of Latinos in Chicago has steadily increased since the 1980s, Black voters have fought back against discrimination and gained political power that matches their numbers, and gentrification has forced Poles from their traditional neighborhoods. With every new white, African American, or Latino ward, the Polish political machine grew creakier.

Toward the end of last year, three prominent Chicago Poles decided to try regain a modicum of their old-style political power. Robert Groszek, a thirty-something attorney; Daniel Pogorzelski, the vice president of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society; and Mark Dobrzycki, director of the Polish Information Center and an administrator at the Amicus Poloniae Legal Clinic, formed a campaign to pressure City Council into reuniting Avondale and nearby Polish patches along Belmont Avenue in one contiguous ward. The movement, Committee for a United Polish Community, waged a mini-media blitz of Chicago’s Polish-language newspapers, leading delegations of dozens of fed-up Poles to every remapping hearing held by the city. They brought leaders of large, influential Polish organizations and mildly famous Polish celebrities, like the widow of Polish American artist Wojciech Seweryn, who died in the 2010 plane crash that killed the Polish president and dozens of his advisers.The Poles dominated proceedings. “The largest ethnic group of any kind was always us,” said Dobrzycki. “They were the one group who came forward that forcefully,” said Alderman Scott Waguespack. “They were organized from day one.”

The campaign also featured behind-the-scenes politicking. Unable to compete in numeric terms with Latinos and African Americans—and, unlike those two groups, unassisted by the Voting Rights Act, which protects racial but not ethnic minorities—the Poles positioned themselves between the two camps. Correctly anticipating that Latino and African American aldermen were going to butt heads, Pogorzelski cast the Poles’ demands as another potential flashpoint—something that could prevent either side from moving forward. He presented the Latino and black caucuses with what he called “the most palatable option” for avoiding a distracting squabble in Polish Village—drawing the 30th ward according to a map that he and his cohorts had designed. “We used kind of a carrot-and-stick approach,” he told me.

It seemed to many like a long shot. “[The Poles are] a white ethnic group looking for recognition in a post-ethnic political world,” one Chicago pundit wrote on his NBC Chicago blog. “They may try, but there’s too much competition from rival ethnic groups that are legally entitled to their own wards.” Dominic Pacyga, a professor of Chicago history at Columbia College Chicago, agreed. “The machine responds to clout,” he said. “The Poles just can’t put the numbers on the street that they used to.” Even Pogorzelski told me he did not expect their efforts to amount to much.

But when the City Council voted on January 19, they approved a compromise map between the black and Latino caucuses, with a 30th Ward that met a surprising number of the Poles’ demands. Pogorzelski estimates that the map will create a ward in which Poles constitute up to 30 percent of the population—a much greater percentage than any of the three wards they are currently split across contains. When the map goes into effect in 2015, for the first time in more than a decade, locally important institutions and landmarks like Chopin Park, St. Landislaus church, and the St. Wenceslaus parish will sit in the same ward as many Polish residents. Milwaukee Avenue—one of the main business thoroughfares of Polish Village—will still fall into several different wards, but a much longer stretch will sit in the 30th Ward. A local Polish TV and radio station that might have been re-designated will also remain in the ward. “I would say we got 85 percent of what we wanted,” Pogorzelski told me. “Which is a lot better than any of us would have anticipated.”

The question of whether this will stop the community’s dispersal still lingers. Many proposed to me that Chicago’s Polish community is simply in the late stages that all immigrant communities eventually reach, when its members are torn between assimilation and insularity—a process that old-school identity politics might not be able to undo.

Molly Redden is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.