Chicago's 'Little Warsaw'; The pulse of Poland in America's heartland.
Chicago's multitude of ethnic working-class neighborhoods is, as one writer put it, ''touched by a friendly ugliness.'' And here on the wind-swept corner of Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues, the ice-caked sidewalks and plethora of neon signs that can only be described as junky are living testimony to that state. It is the aging heart of ''Little Warsaw,'' Chicago's well-known Polish community. And it is second only to its namesake in sheer numbers of Polish inhabitants.Skip to next paragraph
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The intersection is a mock blend of big-city spaces and neighborhood charm. The wider Ashland Avenue, awash in the wan winter light, carries all the ambiance of a bleak Edward Hopper painting. But the narrower, more closed-in Milwaukee Avenue is only pocketed with sun, lending it a cozier, almost European feel. It is this artery, angling across the city's western edge, that leads to the real core of the Polish neighborhood - a quiet, ethnic corner of the city that has been thrust into the national spotlight because of political developments some 6,000 miles away.
Heading north on Milwaukee Avenue past Walgreen's, the Florita Beauty Clinic, and the Mexico movie theater, the scenery begins to change. The buildings themselves seem to shrink, the doorways grow closer together. The Hispanic signs , ''A&P abierto 24 horas'' yield to the Polonia Bookstore and the Senkowswki Home Bakery. The black and Latino shoppers give way to fur-hatted, chunky patrons with faces of a decidedly Eastern European character. By the time one reaches the corner of Belmont and Milwaukee avenues, Chicago is only a leap of faith away from being a part of Poland itself.
And that is just the way the nearly 750,000 Polish-Chicago residents want it: a few streets they can call their own; a place to greet one another with the soft ''Prosze, Prosze,'' buy their 15 different kinds of sausages with such names as Metka and Slaska and Parowki, pick up the Polish-language daily ''Zgoda ,'' and comfort each other about the lack of news from the homeland.
But another side of the Polish-American neighborhood exists. Long content to live quietly and undisturbed on North Milwaukee Avenue, the Poles were thrust into a national limelight to which they were unaccustomed. The imposition of martial law in Poland called upon Chicago's largely apolitical Polish community to demonstrate their fierce devotion to their homeland before the eyes of the world.
And hesitate they did not. During those first days of martial law, it seemed as if every national network carried news of rallies and demonstrations put on or sponsored by Chicago's expatriated Poles. On one December Sunday, some 10,000 Poles and Polish supporters marched along the glittery, store-lined North Michigan Avenue carrying a symbolic coffin and placards denouncing ''Soviet imperialism.'' The somber and bulkily dressed demonstrators provided a poignant foil to the holiday shoppers darting in and out of I. Magnin and Saks Fifth Avenue.
For every Pole residing in America, many more remain in Poland. Says one local Polish-American official, Eugene Rosypal: ''There are so many families split up it's incredible.'' Hence the deep-seated urge to support and sustain those still in their homeland. In fact, much of the enthusiasm for the Chicago-based rallies derived from the possibility, however remote, that West German television would be able to transmit the news into Poland. ''Just knowing that somebody on the outside cares might be the most important thing in the long run,'' Mr. Rosypal says.
Keeping in touch with those Poles still remaining in Poland is one of the primary responsibilties of the Polish American Congress (PAC), a national organization headquartered in Chicago that has coordinated all demonstrations and relief efforts thus far.