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Chicago Celebrates Its Ethnic Heritage  - 2004-09-13

Virtually every city in the United States has been transformed by waves of immigrants over the past two centuries, but perhaps no other American metropolis represents its ethnic diversity as clearly as does Chicago. The Midwestern giant is a hodgepodge of ethnicity, where old, well-rooted communities thrive side-by-side with new immigrant neighborhoods.

Customers and shopkeepers converse in a mixture of Polish and English on Chicago's north Milwaukee Avenue.

Here, there are dozens of stores, restaurants, barber shops and other establishments with signs in Polish. Some now mix in Spanish as the Mexican population in the area is growing fast. In a community hall named for the famous Polish astronomer Copernicus, 73-year-old Ludwig Zagorsky visits with friends.

He says he has no problem finding people who can speak his native tongue.

Zagorsky: Probably 99 percent speak Polish. Sometimes people born in this country speak only a little Polish, not too much, but almost everybody speaks Polish in this place.

Flakus: Is there also a radio station in Polish here? Do you listen to Polish on the radio?

Zagorsky: I listen to the Polish station in the morning. When I get up, I make coffee and I listen to the weather, what happened in the war, what happened in Iraq.

As recently as a few decades ago, Chicago had many neighborhoods where residents spoke German, Czech, Hungarian and other central European languages. Today, Chicago Historical Society archivist and researcher Ralph Pugh says, many ethnic groups that were once distinct have melted into the general population. The exceptions, he says, are groups like the Poles whose community benefits from a steady stream of new arrivals.

"Someone of German-American ancestry here, they can study the language, but they are not likely to find very many opportunities to use it here in the city anymore," he said. "For the Poles, on the other hand, even if you have been here for several generations in terms of your family's ancestry, it is more of an encouragement to you to go out and learn that language and speak with your immigrant kin who have just come in. There are Polish organizations and Polish activities where you can use that language and where you can practice it."

Most large cities in the United States boast a good mix of race and ethnicity, but few can claim the ethnic heritage of Chicago. The place where the city now stands, near the southwest tip of Lake Michigan, was first occupied in the late 18th century by a black man who is believed to have come from Haiti - Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.

Later, as traders and merchants established themselves along the Chicago river and lakefront, immigrants from many lands, who may have initially arrived in Boston, Philadelphia or New York, traveled overland to the new city of opportunity. Historian Ralph Pugh says they came for the opportunity to work hard and make a better life.

"Immigrants are attracted to areas where there is lots of work, lots of activity and commerce," he said. "Chicago was an explosive city in the 19th century. Its rise from basically nothing to a huge metropolis occurred in just a few short decades, much faster than the rise of any other American city, really. Once these patterns were established, then the word went overseas: 'Yes, come to Chicago, join us here. There are enough of us here. We support our own language newspaper, our language schools. We have professionals and businesses entirely within our own communities.' So the replenishment of those groups would continue after that."

Mr. Pugh says the first big wave of immigrants came in the 1830s and 1840's to work on a canal and other big infrastructure projects. Mostly, he says, these were people from Germany and Ireland who formed distinct communities separate from the city elites, who thought of themselves as the "real Americans."

Later, immigrants poured into Chicago from eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Mr. Pugh says many of the divisions between various communities were bridged by political machines, whose leaders saw the advantage in mobilizing disparate ethnic groups around common interests. Inter-marriage between people from different groups and the overwhelming desire for immigrants to be more "American" also broke down some of the barriers.

In recent decades new ethnic identities have come to find their place in Chicago. Mexicans, for example, now constitute a large part of the population. There are also south Asians - Indians and Pakistanis - whose communities are growing stronger all the time, says Mr. Pugh, because of the advantage of modern transportation and communications.

"Communications are so easy that there is no difficulty in maintaining a truly vibrant and recognizably Indian community here, which is, in a way, very Indian and not necessarily Indian-American," he said. "There is a much more direct connection to the home country that is possible now."

Some Chicago residents worry that the new immigrants may not fully embrace American culture and values because it is now so easy to travel back to their homeland. Very few Irish, Germans or Poles who left home in the 19th century were ever able to return. But Ralph Pugh says the new immigrants are like the old in one important aspect: They appreciate the opportunities they have here and their success helps them build a strong bond to their city and their new country.