by Dan Pogorzelski
Nestled between the stately Greystones of Logan Square and the weathered Victorians of Old Irving, Chicago’s Avondale community area, is filled with some of the Northwest Side’s most unique architecture with its characteristic mix of steeples, smokestacks and two-flats. While today Avondale is chiefly associated with the famous “Polish Village” along Milwaukee Avenue centered around St. Hyacinth Basilica and St. Wenceslaus Church in the district’s western half, diverse ethnicities have contributed over time to the area’s rich narrative.
Avondale’s history begins as part of the quiet prairie area surrounding Chicago in what would be incorporated as Jefferson Township in 1850. Two of the old Native American trails through the area were planked, becoming the Upper and Lower Northwest Plank Roads, routes traversed largely by truck farmers en route to sell their goods at the Randolph Street Market. Known to us today as Milwaukee and Elston Avenues, these two diagonal thoroughfares break up the monotony of the city’s ever-present grid.
The Upper Plank Road that became Milwaukee Avenue was particularly notorious. Full of warped and missing boards, it was the focus of local’s ire because you had to pay for the shoddy ride down this way at one of the toll booths that Amos Snell, the road’s owner had set up at regular intervals. One of these booths was located in what is now Avondale, where Milwaukee and Belmont Avenue intersect today, kitty corner to where the old Congress Restaurant was once located. After a clash with the city because of an attempt to toll the Fire Department, the tollgates themselves went up in flames and Snell himself was mysteriously murdered.
Avondale was first incorporated as a village in 1869. Although settlement in the area begins with the extension of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific tracks to Milwaukee in 1870 and the building of a post office at the corner of Belmont and Troy at a stop of the Chicago & North Western Railway in 1873, real development would wait until after Jefferson Township was annexed to the city in 1889. The city brought up the level of local infrastructure and even paved Milwaukee Avenue. Access to the city improved with the extension of the Milwaukee streetcar line to Jefferson Park and the building of the elevated train in neighboring Logan Square.
All of these improvements resulted in Avondale’s rapid development as people poured in from the overpopulated districts closer to the city core. Within two decades, the population in Avondale had reached just over 38,000, and by 1930 it was considered to have achieved residential maturity. Much of the population was foreign-born, with Germans and Scandinavians predominating east of Kedzie while Poles represented the chief group west of it, with a smattering of Italians later entering the area.
Poles, who have today become synonymous with Avondale, are recorded to have entered the area beginning in the 1890’s. Historian Edward Kantowicz maintains that Milwaukee Avenue’s role as the chief route between the old Polish Downtown and St. Adalbert’s Cemetery in Niles is the reason for the spread of Chicago’s Polish community along this street. Kantowicz cites the fact that the funeral processions down Milwaukee Avenue gave Polish immigrants to Chicago the opportunity to become well acquainted with the empty lots in its vicinity, giving rise to the city’s infamous “Polish Corridor”.
Coming from Bucktown and skipping over the German and Scandinavian dominated mansions along Logan Boulevard, Polish settlement of Avondale began in earnest. By 1894 St. Hyacinth’s Roman Catholic Parish was founded for Poles in an attempt to pre-empt the establishment of a schismatic parish by the Polish National Catholic Church. St. Hyacinth’s grew to be so large that another Polish church, St. Wenceslaus had to be built to serve the Polish community, in addition to a small mission church dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima at 3051 N. Christiana.
Ironically enough, although Avondale today is most closely identified as the home of these two Polish houses of worship, the first church in the area was actually an African-American congregation. “The Allen Church” as it was known, was founded in the late 1880’s and located just north of Milwaukee Avenue in the vicinity of the current Belmont Blue Line ‘L, station. Local Germans would later found Concordia Lutheran Church at the corner of Belmont and Washtenaw, while turn-of-the-century Swedes initiated their own Lutheran congregation on Spaulding near Barry before disbanding it just a few decades later as they moved out further out of the city center.
The two contiguous Polish Patches soon came to dominate the vicinity. The author of a Chicago Tribune piece published in 1913 described the area this way:
“On past Irving Park boulevard and into Avondale, where the names on the street signs make evident that this is a Polish neighborhood, “Ski” is the regular terminal, while the trim brick flats and shop buildings and the well kept, well paved side streets leading off from the avenue declare that these people are well to do and enterprising. Where Belmont Avenue cuts diagonally across Milwaukee Avenue there is a big holding of vacant land by a New York man, who is waiting to cash in on the movement increment built up by the busy immigration”.
It was on one of these side streets in the area, Haussen Court which played a role in the infamous and nearly two-decade drama surrounding the renaming of Pulaski Road. As certain groups mounted a move to restore the original name of Pulaski to Crawford by lobbying legislators to enact a law that allowed residents to change the name of a street if 60 percent of the property holders wished so, their opponents devised a counter plot. Taking advantage of the fact that most of the residences on this tiny one block street in Avondale were mostly owned by Poles, they petitioned to change its name to Crawford, thereby thwarting any attempt to restore the old name of Pulaski since that would create a duplicate street name. This in turn caused another uproar by descendants of Ferdinand Haussen, the pioneer farmer after whom the street had been named. When Mrs Eda Haussen-Bartels, who still lived on one of the corners of Haussen Court died in 1938, her physician declared that her untimely demise came about because of the stress brought on by the streets name change. Eventually the law was thrown out by the Illinois Supreme Court, and Pulaski Avenue and Haussen Court retain their names to the present day. A few old timers still recall that Nelson Street, sandwiched between Barry and Wellington Avenues was originally named Warsaw Street, giving rise to the neighborhood nickname of Warsaw for the area between Rockwell Street and Sacramento Avenue in its vicinity.
Avondale was also the site of one of at least five recruiting stations in the Chicagoland area for the Polish Army in France. Also referred to as the Blue Army, this military movement was crucial in securing Poland’s independence after being absent for over a century’s from the map of Europe. According to Jan Lorys, the director of the Polish Museum of America, this site was to be found in the building that housed the former Orbit Restaurant on Milwaukee and Central Park, where local politicians came to court the “Polish Vote” at election time by stopping by for a meal.
Avondale offered more than just a less congested setting for its new residents. First and foremost was the wealth of jobs available nearby. Due to its proximity to both rail and the North Branch of the Chicago River, the area developed a plethora of industry that still survives in the city’s Pulaski Industrial Corridor. The now closed Grebe’s Boatyard was located along the river’s west bank north of Belmont Avenue. Situated right across from the old Riverview Park, the boatyard built not only luxury powered yachts for the rich but also manufactured minesweepers and other small naval vessels during World War II. Companies such as Florsheim Shoes, Olson Rug and the like had large factories located here producing goods that were shipped across the United States. There was even a section in Avondale along Belmont Avenue that came to be called “Bricktown” thanks to all the clay pits and brick factories all around it. The key role that the area played in supplying the great demand for this commodity after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 rightfully earned Avondale its distinction as “The neighborhood that built Chicago”.
It was adjacent to his own factory that Mr. Walter E. Olson built what the Chicago Tribune put at the top of its list of the “Seven Lost Wonders of Chicago”, the Olson Park and Waterfall Complex, a 22-acre garden and waterfall remembered by Chicagoans citywide as the place they fondly reminisce heading out to for family trips on the weekend. Today many of these same factories have been converted into chic loft residences as demand for this kind of housing escalates.
The overall housing stock reflects the more modest livelihood of Avondale’s residents relative to its upscale neighbors. Instead of the double lots common in Old Irving and the Villa District or the elegant mansions along Logan Boulevard we see rows of well-kept bungalows and two-flats typical of Chicago’s “Bungalow Belt“. Opulent architecture in Avondale is something that is found not in the home but in its temples. Case in point is the Basilica of St. Hyacinth with its characteristic three-towered façade that is surely one of the city’s finest examples of the so-called “Polish Cathedral” style of architecture. With seating for over 2,000 people, stained glass windows imported from the workshop of F.X. Zettler of Munich, massive bronze doors cast by Czesław Dźwigaj, and its painted saucer dome measuring 3,000 square feet with over 150 figures, the church is sure to stir the soul. Nearby St. Wenceslaus impresses with a more daring architectural aesthetic and is considered to be “one of the best examples of the fusion of Art Deco stylings with medieval European architecture in the city of Chicago“. The purgatorial shrine here was designed by famed artist Jan Henryk De Rosen, responsible for the famous frescoes of the Armenian Cathedral in L’viv, Ukraine, as well as prominent pieces in both the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals in Washington DC.
St. Hyacinth Basilica anchors Jackowo, the Polish name for the “Polish Patch” that dominates over Avondale’s west end. The ethnic neighborhood is usually clumped together under this name with the Polish district just north around St. Wenceslaus, or Wacławowo, as local Poles refer to it. Until the recent installation of an automated system on Sunday mornings, the CTA driver announced Yats- koh- voh, signaling the stop for St. Hyacinth Basilica as Poles shuttled off the bus on their way to mass. This is the area that became the nexus of Chicago’s Polonia from the 1970’s onward as Poles left Polonia Triangle and the historic Polish Downtown centered on Milwaukee, Division, and Ashland.
The Polish Village saw its heyday through the 1980’s during the Solidarity movement as martial law in Poland brought a flood of Polish refugees and immigrants. Demand for housing was so intense at one point that locals claim that rents were higher than even many of the most lavish areas of the city for a short time. Even today, the Polish Patch within Avondale actually spills out of the community area’s boundaries so that Polish-themed neighborhood institutions such as Kosciuszko Park and the former campus of St. Joseph Home for the Aged are actually just over the boundary in the northern reaches of Logan Square.
Local landmarks and institutions increasingly became revitalized and renewed while taking on an increasingly ethnic hue by catering to these recent arrivals from Poland. The historic Milford Theater served as the central Polish cinema arts venue like Jefferson Park’s Gateway Theater today according to Polonia activist and former AP photographer Mark Dobrzycki, earning it the nickname as the “Cinema Polski”. The Milford Ballroom which became famous as the place for the “Over 30” swing dance set evolved into one of the many local fixtures of recreational night life in the neighborhood for Chicago’s Poles. The combined complex at the corner of Milwaukee and Pulaski burned down in 1994 and a CVS now occupies the site.
A distinct flowering of Polish arts and culture took place here in Avondale, an environment where Poles could finally freely express themselves without worrying about incurring the wrath of government censors or political repression. The events and activities organized here by Chicago’s Polish community played a key role in shaping the chain of events that eventually resulted in the collapse of the Communist government in Poland, bringing down the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since after World War II. A highly expressive and now unfortunately decaying mural in the McDonald’s parking lot combining Polish patriotic and folkloric motifs with the aesthetic of American street art by Caryl Yasko titled “Razem”, or together in Polish, was painted thanks in part to funds furnished by the Polish American Congress in 1975. According to a paper published by the Getty Conservation Institute, it’s Chicago’s only Polish-themed outdoor mural. It now stands forsaken at 4040 W. Belmont, near the corners of Belmont and Pulaski in mute testament to this bygone renaissance.
Avondale’s connection to Chicago Polonia has brought the vicinity some notable visitors. Both Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President of Poland Lech Wałęsa, as well as the recently deceased President Lech Kaczyński made official visits through the area. Former mayor of Warsaw and current Member of the European Parliament Paweł Piskorski while sampling the wares at Kurowski’s, one of the numerous Polish delicatessens in the area, declared that the sausage shop’s kielbasa was better than any he’d had in his own home city. Future Pope John Paul II trekked to St. Hyacinth’s several times as the Archbishop of Cracow and referred to his gatherings there during his 1979 pilgrimage to Chicago. Avondale once served as the place for the political elites to publicly cavort for the support of the Polish American electorate with politicians both local and national visiting the district. A picture of Hillary Clinton still hangs in Pasieka Bakery from when the former First Lady came to peruse some of the store’s Eastern European pastries. No less a figure than former President George H. W. Bush attended mass at St. Hyacinth’s as well as a meal at the former Orbit restaurant during his 1988 campaign. Purportedly violence almost broke out as supporters of Lyndon La Rouche protesting outside the basilica were not looked at very kindly by local Poles, who had a reverence for the candidate they saw as the best hope against the loathed Communist regime in Poland.
Today much of the Polish diaspora has moved out of Avondale to outlying neighborhoods while other immigrant groups from Latin America or from the former Soviet Bloc, such as Ukrainians, Belarusians and Czechs have moved in. The area however still retains much of its Polish character, with Polish bakeries, restaurants, businesses and even a department store visible in its landscape. Like neighboring Logan Square, the neighborhood is also experiencing gentrification as artists and Yuppies like the Poles and Latinos before them move their way northwest along Milwaukee Avenue. As with other Chicago neighborhoods, change is sure to be the one constant in Avondale’s history.