Publication Date

December 1, 2011

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

In the 1850s, Polish and Czech immigrants began finding their way to Chicago, establishing between their adopted city and central and eastern Europe a relationship comprised not only of a population transfer, but also of a rich cultural and economic exchange. By the 1920s, people of Slavic descent made up the majority of the city’s population, surpassing the German Americans who had dominated from the 1850s until World War I. The Chicago area boasts the largest urban Polish population outside Warsaw, and the largest concentration of Czechs outside Prague and Vienna.

Five large Polish districts appeared across the city in the decades that followed: along the Milwaukee Avenue Corridor, the Lower West Side, Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, and South Chicago-Hegewisch. Czechs tended to settle in the Pilsen and Czech California neighborhoods, as they followed 22nd Street (Cermak Road), Blue Island Avenue, and 26th Street west to outlying neighborhoods and the suburbs. Other Slavic groups followed, with large concentrations of Slovaks on the Southwest Side, especially the Back of the Yards; Croatians, Serbs, and Slovenians on the Southeast Side; Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians on the North Side. Jewish communities from central and eastern Europe often settled in or near these neighborhoods.

The first Polish Catholic parish was established in 1867 in the West Town area, adjacent to a German Catholic settlement. Initially, Poles were welcomed into St. Boniface—the local German parish—but after being denied entrance to the church, they established St. Stanislaus Kostka, on Noble Street, just blocks from their German neighbors. St. Stanislaus Kostka became a seed that bore much fruit; from it, the Resurrectionist Fathers expanded a string of magnificent Polish parishes northwest along Milwaukee Avenue. National Polish fraternal organizations—including the rival Polish Roman Catholic Union and the Polish National Alliance—set up their Chicago headquarters near the intersection of Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues, whose surrounding area became known as the Polish Downtown. The addition of a second large Catholic church, Holy Trinity, in 1872 earned the neighborhood the name Stanisławowo-Trojcowo among Poles, after the two competing, sometimes ideologically opposed Catholic parishes. Today, both remain Catholic churches, though Holy Trinity changed its status to a mission to the Polish community in 1987. Over time, Polish Catholics would organize some 60 parishes in the Chicago area.

Work in the lumberyards, packinghouses, steel mills, foundries, and factories of Chicago drew and dispersed Polish immigrants across the city. Many were attracted to the Lower West Side, where they founded St. Adalbert’s, adding its magnificent Baroque edifice in 1914. Now a predominantly Mexican parish, St. Adalbert still acknowledges its Polish roots. To this second settlement were added Polish neighborhoods in nearby Bridgeport and Back of the Yards, as well as a large community of Poles on the Southeast Side, who established four parishes in South Chicago and one, St. Florian’s, in Hegewisch.

Czech Chicagoans settled first on the city’s Near North Side (in the area that would become the Gold Coast), then in the South Loop, and by the Civil War years, in the immigrant melting pot of the Near West Side. Here, in a neighborhood known as Praha (Little Prague), Chicago’s Czechs created fraternal, religious, and educational institutions that would serve the community well, spreading south to Pilsen after the Great Fire of 1871, and west to the suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn. The Czech community was ideologically divided between Catholics, Freethinkers, and Protestants, and their multi-layered history played itself out on the streets of Chicago. Praha’s Catholics organized St. Wenceslaus parish; Freethinkers established lodges and schools as well as the Sokol gymnastic clubs; and Protestants organized congregations. Svornost, a Freethinkers newspaper, was the first Czech journal in the city; Catholics and Protestants quickly matched it with publications of their own. Czech Catholics organized parishes and parochial schools, culminating in the 1887 creation of St. Procopius College in Pilsen. Now Illinois Benedictine University, it moved to its current location in Lisle, Illinois, in 1901.

The Pan-Slavism that prevailed between Poles and Czechs—sometimes sharing such services as cemeteries and savings and loans—increased during World War I, as both groups sought independence for their homelands and political power in Chicago. The city’s Poles and Czechs attacked German interests during the war and prepared the way for the rise of Czech-born Anton Cermak and the Democratic Machine. Cermak’s victory over Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson in 1931 made him the only immigrant mayor in the city’s history. Thompson, meanwhile, proved to be the last Republican mayor of Chicago.

Chicago’s other Slavic communities followed the pattern set by Poles and Czechs who, in turn, had followed the example of the Irish and Germans in establishing institutionally rich neighborhoods across the city. Evidence of ethnic linkage marks the landscape. Poles and Czechs settled near Germans; Slovaks and other Slavs tended to gather near the Poles and Czechs. Over the last few years, Hispanics, particularly those of Mexican descent, have settled in former Slavic neighborhoods. Despite ethnic turnover, monuments to former communities remain. Ukrainians, for instance, left behind two massive churches: St. Nicolas Ukrainian Cathedral at the intersection of Rice and Oakley, and SS. Volodymr and Olha Catholic Church on Superior and Oakley. Within walking distance stands Louis Sullivan’s magnificent Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, funded in part by Czar Nicholas II to serve Chicago’s Russian Orthodox community. These churches highlight the Slavic past of the fast-gentrifying Ukrainian Village. Serbian and Croatian churches survive in various neighborhoods across Chicago: the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Simeon Mirotočivi, constructed in 1968 on Chicago’s East Side, is perhaps the best example of Serbian ecclesiastical architecture in the United States.

Several of Chicago’s Slavic groups maintain museums or cultural centers, and small businesses with a Slavic flavor remain in the city and suburbs, such as the Polish Museum of America and the Ukrainian National Museum.

Dominic A. Pacyga, Columbia College Chicago, is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee. His most recent book is Chicago: A Biography (University of Chicago Press, 2009).