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.
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.
Last year the PAC collected $900,000, most of it from the 12 million Americans of Polish descent, and shipped 3.4 million pounds of food to Poland. In the weeks since martial law was declared, however, the Chicago office has received offers of assistance from independent church groups and individuals from Washington to Minnesota to Florida. The PAC has shipped over 200,000 pounds worth of food, and in January alone, it raised $200,000 in contributions.
Before the crackdown in Poland, food and medical aid were easily flown to Warsaw and distributed from there. Now supplies are either shipped from the United States through private agencies (individual packages sent from relatives) or London (bulk shipments) and then trucked across the continent - a slower process, but one that has worked so far. CARE is continuing to make its own food shipments.
But beyond their national relief efforts, perhaps the most poignant symbol of these Poles' devotion to their homeland is found on the streets up at the intersection of Belmont and Milwaukee Avenues. Here nearly every shop - the Polish bookstores, meat markets, restaurants, and travel agencies - displays the brillant red and white Solidarnosc (Solidarity) poster in its windows; a bit of politics mixed in with the sausages, travel brochures, and Polish-English dictionaries.
It is symbol to a devotion that not only spans 100 years of Polish-American history, but also links the hundreds of families split by an ocean and a regime. More often than not the shoppers, trundling in and out the small speciality stores here, are buying for two families - for their immediate relatives in Chicago and for those left behind in Poland. Those who have emigrated have vivid memories of the hardships endured by those remaining in Poland due in part to their recent and frequent trips home. That is, until martial law was declared.
Said one young father: ''This past trip in May was the first time I saw no food in the stores. My sister had to get up at four in the morning to get in line for the baby's milk. She missed the line for bread.'' And another Polish-American, a woman prominent in one of the Polish fraternal organizations and who has met with every American president since John Kennedy, says of her frequent trips back home: ''This year was the first time for food lines. It is such a shame because Poland can be self-sustaining in agriculture.'' As for the Polish people themselves, she adds: ''In many cases it is beneath their dignity to stand in line for food, but there is nothing else to do.
''The shops, too, do their part. Beyond putting up the Solidarnosc posters, several stores advertise their willingness to ship customers' packages to Poland. One store, Intercontinental Travel, posts its ''Parcels To Poland'' sign right next to the ''Air-Sea Tickets and Tours'' poster. And while those parcels most often include food and clothing, they have been known to consist of motorbikes and appliances.
Too, stores show their dedication to the community by a willingness to hire new immigrants. One family-owned meat market, Bajik, employs all the members of its immediate family. And down the street, the Busy Bee Restaurant has earned itself a reputation for hiring a great number of freshly arrived immigrants who can speak no English. Another large source of employment for newly arrived Poles is to join those Polish-Americans already employed in groups as night-janitorial staffs. English lessons at local churches are an immediate priority. Few seem to go on welfare.
Such evidences of a tightly knit, hard-working community are testimony to their ethnic and national devotion. Chicago's Polish neighborhood got its start as early as 1870, when the first Poles began emigrating to the US. Landing in New York, most of them headed west in search of unskilled, factory-type work. Chicago, traditionally an employment-rich city, drew a disproportionate number of the new immigrants, although other industrial centers such as Buffalo and Detroit also claimed their share. By 1920, when the waves of immigration began to taper off, Chicago's Polish-speaking population numbered some 320,000 residents. By 1976 that number had doubled. Today the community registers over 750,000.
By nature or tradition, the Poles are a clannish lot. Maintaining amazingly strong links to family members still in Poland, the Poles on this side of the Atlantic nurture an unabating patriotism that puts more apathetic Americans to shame. Defending their language and customs against unneccesary acculturization is as natural to them as breathing. Of all Chicago's ethnic groups, and there are many here in the heartland city, the Poles have resisted assimilation the most strongly.
Unlike their Irish counterparts, who have long dominated local political circles, the Poles have largely avoided such forms of civic life and have remained devoted to their own neighborhood, according to Dr. Milt Rakove, a University of Illinois political science professor. Their chief dreams seem to have been home ownership and the construction of churches - huge European-style cathedrals that seem almost out of keeping with the working-class neighborhoods that surround them.
Perhaps such aspirations are understandable when one considers that -- Poland bears the marks of domination by foreign powers and the church has been the one constant in its history. Despite modern efforts to quell the church's tremendous influence, the elevation of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to Pope has only intensified the Poles' devotion to their church. To this day, attending mass in Poland remains a quiet sign of rebellion. It is not surprising then to see Chicago's Polish community easily supporting 22 separate churches.
The biggest of those, St. Hyacinth's, lists 3,500 official parishioners and is the largest Polish parish in the United States. The 81-year-old church is a giant Old World cavern of a cathedral. Able to hold 4,500 worshippers at a time, the church is reputedly the better side of packed on Christmas and Easter and for many of the six services held every Sunday. The lobby of the rectory also testifies to a busy congregation. Three service windows and a take-a-number-for-better-service pad attest to the integral nature of the church in the Poles' daily life.
Home ownership, the other pillar in the community, also has its roots in the Polish-American past. Until the 1930s, the Polish immigrants lived in ghettos that outstripped Calcutta for density. Today, the residential sidestreets bordering commericial Milwaukee Avenue are flanked by rows of unpretentious shingle-sided homes typical of the Midwest. Two banks -- the Avondale Savings & Loan, and the Manufacturers Bank -- are the financial bedrocks of the community. Along with the several Polish fraternal insurance organizations, they provide the frugal Poles with much of their coveted mortgage money. Says one plump Polish mother, now a US citizen, ''When we emigrated 30 years ago, our aim was to have the children educated and to own a home.'' Although the definition of that ''education'' more often than not means a college degree these days, little else seems changed.
Blacks and Hispanics have moved in at the lower end of the avenue, so the Poles have simply moved up the street and reopened their meat markets and restaurants. Polish mothers still drag little shopping carts over snow-clotted sidewalks in their daily shopping rites. The restaurants still cater to those couples who go out for their quiet lunch of dumplings and stuffed cabbage. The bookshops continue to ring up a good number of sales to first-generation Polish-Americans who come for Polish-language records and maps of the old country. Most of the Polish greeting cards, all with religious motifs, already come with airmail envelopes. And up until the closing of the Warsaw airport, neighborhood travel agencies were jammed with people logging return trips to Poland or arranging for relatives' flights to America.All this has remained the same, despite a small but steady segment of the neighborhood that has begun creeping toward the suburbs. Largely a younger generation, they represent the first group of Poles who have gone to college and beyond the blue-collar occupations of their parents. They also represent a new crop of younger immigrants who have had their appetite for material goods whetted by the lenient Gierek years in Poland. This latter group has emigrated with the full intention of remaining in the US and rapidly aquiring a car and house. Unlike the older generation, which clung to the church as the center of their life outside Poland , the younger generation is ''more money- hungry'' and inclined to inter-marry and venture into the suburbs.
People like 27-year-old Waldemar Koszela, manager of the Polish-American Restaurant here on Milwaukee Avenue, are not uncommon. Having emigrated six years ago, Waldemar is already a US citizen and owns his own house in nearby Morton Grove with his wife, two sons, and mother-in-law. Both he and his wife work full time, she next door at the travel agency. His mother-in-law cleans office buildings at night. To care for the boys during the day, the Koszelas employ another Pole as a housekeeper.
By most standards, Mr. Koszela has done very well by himself, and he treasures no thoughts of a permanent return to Poland, despite a mother, brother , and sister still living there. ''Poland is my first country,'' he says, sitting in one of the restaurant booths. ''But I love this country, too.'' And in spite of his suburban address, Waldemar is still very much of the Milwaukee Avenue set. Like the other residents here, he sends home monthly packages to the relatives in Poland. He also marched in all the recent rallies.
At the other end of the immigrant spectrum are those with less-permanent dreams of the US. Women like Waja Korankiewicz, who speak no English and emigrate just to find temporary work as cleaners in the US. They hope to return to Poland with a small but significant bank account. More often then not, these women were teachers, nurses, or some other profession back home. Says one woman, ''They may have acted like nobility at home.''
Waja, who has been in Chicago just over a year, cleans homes five or six days a week for cash payment only. She lives frugally with several other women in a small apartment with no telephone and regulary sends home most of her earnings. She is the only member of her family in the US, having left her three sons at home in Poland. She fears her youngest has been conscripted into the military, and her eyes fill with tears when she speaks of the martial-law takeover, which cut off all communication between herself and her children. When her work here is slow, she prefers to clean her favorite customers' homes for free, instead of sitting at home brooding. For her, thoughts of returning to Poland are constant.
Others, like Dr. Julius Szygowski, are less pessimistic about Poland's current state. He is the former vice consul for Free Poland and the secretary of the Polish Commercial Club, and refused when the communists asked him to stay on as consul for their regime. ''I am optimistic,'' says the dapper octogenarian in his memento-filled apartment one snowy afternoon. ''We are an honorable people and we cherish honor.'' Like so many of the Poles this side of the Atlantic, a profound and vivid sense of history provides Dr. Szygowski a perspective not readily available to yonger generation Americans. ''This is the fourth Polish uprising against the Soviets since their takeover of Poland,'' he explains in a voice thick with a Polish accent. ''We are fighting for our human rights, and this time the Russkies aren't shooting, which shows that somebody has learned something.''
As if to demonstrate the typical Pole's devotion to the past, he pulls off the bookshelf a two-inch-thick volume of his family history from 1436 that he has compiled over the past 30 years. This, and a record album of Chopin that he pats lovingly, are mementos of his and his nation's history.
Several blocks away, another man, this one not born in Poland but still in love with what he considers his homeland, is also busy caring for many cultural artifacts culled from Poland's history. His name is Henry Cygan, and he is the white-haired and ebulliant tour guide of the Polish Museum of America, ''the only one of its kind,'' he announces.
It is a rather grandmotherly and motley collection of painted Easter eggs, oil paintings, photographs, and more, sitting on four slightly dusty floors here at the lower end of Milwaukee Avenue. The musuem stands as physical evidence of the Polish heritage which ''must be preserved at all costs.'' Warsaw boasts 40 unofficial museums: ''Doesn't that tell you something about the Poles' devotion to history?'' Henry crows. Chicago's Poles choose to visit this museum as regular proof of their devotion to their homeland's past. On this busy weekday, Henry is busy trying to satisfy the public's desire for bumper stickers, posters , anything with the word Solidarnosc on it. ''You're not alone,'' he hollers out to an impatient visitor. ''Everyone wants T-shirts these days.''
In a quieter part of the museum, Marek Borchert, a Warsaw museum guide on his first visit to the US, sprawls at the top of the stairwell, leafing through the yellowed pages of the 1919 Polish-language daily Zgoda - the first non-communist paper he has seen. Having never been outside Poland, Marek is eager for news of his country's history - from the US, not the communist, point of view
But Henry barely has time for this visitor. Poles and Polish-Americans are always after tangible bits of Poland's history. Henry is more eager to show his visitor the museum's greatest prize, the piano of Ignace Paderewski - one of the world's most famed pianists, who also became President of Poland after World War I
In a darkened and slightly musty-smelling room, Henry seats himself at the small upright piano with a curious mixture of familiarity and reverence. The sheet music for one of Paderewski's own minuets sits on the stand. But Henry's choice is a nocturne from another Polish favorite son, Chopin. His long fingers send the delicate but melancholy strains out into the muffled room. The gray winter light, from the one unshuttered window, falls gently onto the floor. Across the ocean, martial law reigns. But here in this sister city, the history of Poland seems to hang in the air, testimony to the power of a people to preserve their essence.