What are you? Being Ethnic in Chicago

by Carol A Westbrook

Green river"What are you? You're Polish, aren't you?" I asked a friend, whose blonde hair, blue eyes and broad face gave her away.

Only in Chicago would this question not be taken as an insult, but as an invitation to discuss one's ethnicity. Most everywhere else, " What are you?" would be met with a puzzled expression, and answered, "I'm an American."

Being "ethnic" has a specific meaning in Chicago. It refers to Americans descended from a limited group of nationalities who immigrated to the US during the late 19th to early 20th century. Their cheap labor was needed to work the mines, steel mills, and factories during the period of rapid industrial growth. They were white Europeans, mostly Catholics, primarily from Eastern Europe, the Balkans or the Mediterranean. There are only a few other similarly ethnic cities that were settled at the same time, primarily in the rust belt around the Great Lakes, or in the mines of Pennsylvania.

Chicago ethnics have stronger bonds with each other than with their home country. Most of us will never visit that home country, and know only a few words of the language. What we have kept, though, is a sense of tradition, including some of the unique customs, foods, and religious holidays–and our unpronounceable names.

That ethnic name is the best way to get elected to office in Chicago. Some aspiring political candidates were known to change their names, or add an "i" to their surnames to make them Polish! Or take the example of Rod Blagojevich, a shady politician whose Serbian name helped him get elected to local Chicago office, and eventually to governor of Illinois. He is now in prison for corruption, but would be probably be re-elected if he ran today.

Christmas trees 2Chicago is noted for its small storefront ethnic restaurants, where the tradition continues with newer immigrants from South America and Asia. And it celebrates its diverse ethnic identify with many festivals, parades, monuments, giving ethnic names to streets and public parks. As a child I played in Kosciusko Park, near Pulaski Avenue. The Chicago River is dyed green for St. Patrick's Day, as shown above. The world-renowned Museum of Science and Industry has a yearly display of Christmas trees from around the world, on the left.

Christmas is a favorite holiday, but spring is the best time to celebrate your (and everyone else's) heritage because of its many religious holiday with their ethnic traditions. There is Paçzki day (pronounced "poonch My eggs – key") on Shrove Tuesday, when you enjoy these jam-filled Polish pastries before starting your Lenten fast. This is followed by St. Patrick's Day (Irish), when the Chicago River is dyed green and, and the day is spent drinking. There's St. Joseph's Day (Italian), Passover (Jewish), Easter (Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, Irish, Italian, etc.), Orthodox Easter (Ukrainian, Greek), Polish Constitution Day, Cinco de Mayo.

Polish foodAnd the food! Bring on the potato pancakes, pierogi, cabbage rolls and Polish sausage; bring out the homemade ravioli, and the corned beef and cabbage, serve up some bratwurst and beer and borscht. Bring on the memories of childhood and grandmothers.

Delightful? Yes. But there is a downside to this strong sense of ethnic community, as it promoted segregation by nationality and racial group, to the exclusion of others. It helps to explain why Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country.

The Catholic Church was a major factor in maintaining this sense of separate ethnic community. In the early 1900's the Church established national parishes in areas that were heavily settled by Catholic immigrants, so they could have services conducted in their native language, with priests from their home country, and schools staffed by ethnic nuns, many exported from abroad. In 1915, there were over 200 designated national parishes in the city for 16 different groups, including 89 Irish, 33 Polish, 30 German, 10 each Italian and Lithuanian; the rest included other groups. There was even one Black parish. The churches are architectural masterpieces in the old European tradition, and many were built by contributions and labor donated by poor parishioners.

A devout Catholic could join their national parish anywhere in the city, though most immigrants chose to settle nearby. The working-class areas of the city had hundreds of churches, often spaced within just a few blocks of each other. This led to strong ethnic communities. Many neighborhoods disappeared after desegregation in the 60's, but Chicagoans can still tell you where they were located, and which parishes anchored them. Still, these parishes still exist, and a few maintain their ethnic identity, with a strong congregation who may travel miles from the suburbs for services and parish functions. Shown below is the interior of St. Hyacinth's church, my local Polish parish, not much different than it looks today.

When I was a child in '50's Chicago, I lived in a working-class neighborhood where Polish was spoken in the St.Hyacinthstores and on street corners, where the churches were ethnic, and schools were Catholic. There were half a dozen different national churches and ethnic neighborhoods nearby. We tended to marry people of similar national origin, and avoided playing with children who didn't go to parochial schools — we were Catholics and they were "Publics." Homeowners would sell through local realtors, who would steer prospective buyers into–or out of–the right house in the correct parish with the correct national origin. Many deeds contained legal covenants that specifically forbid sale to a nonwhite. Others areas restricted racial access by tradition, or conducting sales privately. Our America was full of diversity, but that diversity was white, European, and Christian.

These real estate practices were outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1968, but desegregation continued to be strongly opposed in Chicago neighborhoods. White flight began as ethnic residents sold their homes at a loss to move out to the suburbs, and ethnic neighborhoods dwindled. 1966, Marquette Park was 99.9% white and middle-class, mostly Germans, Poles, Irish and Lithuanians; today it is now primarily Black and Hispanic, and one of the poorest areas of the City. When Martin Luther King marched for civil rights in Marquette Park in 1966, he was met with so much violence that he was prompted to say, "I think people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate."

I am proud of my ethnic heritage, but I am ashamed of its consequences. Many Chicagoans still live in a world of white, European and Christian Americans, and prefer to keep it that way. Ironically, it wasn't that long ago that our forbears were on the outside, hated and excluded because they were different from other Americans at the time. Our grandparents may have had dark Mediterranean skin, or ate smelly or strange food, did not speak English, and they even had church services in Latin! Yet they survived and thrived. They went through so much to get here, fleeing wars, poverty, starvation, military conscription, harsh regimes, and religious persecution in order to give their family a better life. Their experience is remarkably similar to today's immigrants seeking asylum in the US. I am saddened that we don't welcome them.

"I'm not Polish, " my friend answered. " I'm Slovak. I grew up in St. Simon the Apostle Parish, the Slovak Church, near Marquette Park. Ever hear of it?"