Vanishing America: Euro-Am Neighborhoods

Unless you’re prowling the Arizona border with the minutemen militia or cashing paychecks from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, you don’t often get the chance to watch ethnic migration playing out in this country in all its Dobbsian glory. Which is why the Podhale Tavern is such a worthwhile side trip if you happen to be in the vicinity of Jackowo—alternately known as Avondale, and occasionally Polonia—the largest Polish-American neighborhood in Chicago, itself the city with the most Poles outside of Warsaw.

Yet here on a Friday night, amid the mounting empties of Zywiec and Okocim beer and mid-Soviet-era, wild-and-crazy-guy bar aesthetic (twinkly Christmas lights, wood-paneling, nude pinups) only half the regulars are of the classic, square-jawed, Polish-speaking variety. The other half, with their baseball caps and unswerving loyalty to Miller Lite and Norteño hits, are shooting games of bola ocho on the pool table. The Podhale’s Pol-Mex diaspora—perhaps the strangest collision of cultures since Cuban-Chinese—is a sociologist’s dream. But Jackowo itself commands attention as arguably the last traditional European-American neighborhood left in the United States.

“The old, identifiable ethnic European neighborhood has pretty much died out across the country,” says Rob Paral, a Chicago demographer I’ve recruited to guide me through America’s waning avenues of Euro influence. “Chicago has most of what’s left and Jackowo is pretty much it.”

There are, of course, plenty of ethnic-pride-minded types who’ll speak up for Little Italys from Baltimore to San Francisco; for Columbus, Ohio’s German Village; Detroit’s Greektown; and dozens of other once-prominent bastions of continental culture. But what European neighborhoods remain in this country are largely vestigial artifices maintained by under-funded museums and a handful of restaurateurs still trying to wring a buck from the historical remnants of our collective mythology. Usually this is accomplished by tricking out of towners into consuming $14 plates of pasta and subsequently drifting into cheap Chianti comas.

One feels an inevitable sense of regret in the face of cultural loss, and if you’re the type who gets choked up at the thought of steam engines, coats and ties at the ballpark, and Irish ghettoes fading into the mists of history you may turn to the likes of PBS The NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez who once wrote a book called The Old Neighborhood, which bemoaned the societal cohesion forfeited in the great migration of Euro spawn away from our packed cities. Dig beneath the sentiment and lousy Little Italy dinners, however, and you begin to wonder what all the whining is about. Old neighborhoods are easy to romanticize, but the fact is that life in ethnic communities is almost always measurably shittier for the ethnics who do the actual living in them.

As immigrant density increases, socioeconomic conditions become lower. Poverty levels increase. High school graduation rates decrease. Communal housing devolves into slums. Not only that, but left in a vacuum cultural enclaves are prone to abscess. Mormon communities that integrated, for example, gave us Mitt Romney. Those that didn’t gave us Warren Jeffs.

Jackowo has remained the exception due to a wave of Polish immigrants who came in the 1990s, an atypical influx facilitated by relaxed restrictions in Europe, changes in U.S. immigration laws, and Chicago’s traditional status as a Polish beacon. Five- to ten-thousand Poles a year are still arriving in Chicago.

Even so, the neighborhood represents a last gasp, not a proud continuation. Given that Latino immigrants to the city outnumber Poles six to one, Chicago Poles couldn’t keep pace with other groups even if they wanted. Which, increasingly, they don’t. Poland’s 2004 entry into the EU coupled with the plummeting dollar makes London and Berlin logistically easier and more lucrative places for outward-bound Poles to earn money. These days the truly ethnic communities in Chicago are Mexican. As Paral says, “There are parts of Chicago that look more like East L.A. than East L.A. does.”

During the Podhale’s “happy hour” (the ruminative nature of the Slavic crowd makes quantifying such offhand descriptions a necessity), the reaction to all of this is mixed. Behind the bar, Lucy—who’s lived in the neighborhood twenty-five years—tells me that if I’m looking for the real Polonia experience I’ve arrived twenty years late.

“Before here every restaurant Polish,” she tells me. “Every person, all houses, business, everything Polish. Now half is Mexican.” Lucy’s expression seems to indicate that the changes she’s seen aren’t necessarily for the better, but just to be sure I put the question to her directly. She angles a shoulder toward the Mexicans at the pool table and offers one of those dour, struggle-of-the-steppe expressions that’s always made the culture feel so impenetrable to me.

Two stools over, Eddie is more fatalistic: “All life, everything change, all the time, it is impossible to stop, why bother to try?”

Eddie came to Chicago from a small Polish town in 1973. He worked construction, then ran a bar, then owned a bar. He looks like a retired left tackle—head chiseled from a block of stone, shoulders like shanks of beef. I imagine a football coach shoving him onto a field shouting, “Kowalski, get in there and knock some sorry sonofabitch on his ass!” and Eddie running out and doing it.

I tell Eddie I’m looking for the best Polish food in the neighborhood and on his advice my buddy Donovan and I end up at the Staropolska restaurant. Brightly lit. Vinyl booths. Disinterested wait staff. Friday night, eight o’ clock, and quiet as John Paul II’s tomb. The kind of place you know you should leave the second you walk in, but before you can pull your thoughts together you’ve got a booth, menus, a couple beers, and a commitment.

The bottom-feeder of the dumpling world, the pierogies are at least decent (not counting the ones filled with beets), but even while eating the pork goulash I can feel the intestinal blockage setting in. I’m not kidding. I’m going to live with this meal for the next three days. After Lucy’s vague petulance, Eddie mumbling about his 82-year-old mother wanting to return to the home country to die, and the Eastern Front gaiety of the Staropolska, the evening is in danger of falling apart.

Dono and I settle up and finally leave Jackowo behind for a bar in Andersonville called Hopleaf. Two dozen beers on tap. A menu with Montreal-style brisket, a duck Reuben, and mac-and-Stilton-cheese. The place is filled with good-looking, young people. Very good-looking. Especially after Lucy.

After a weekend of earnest sociological contemplation, heady discussion with demographers, and boozy chats with locals, it’s the Hopleaf that winds up offering the most articulate explanation of the demise of Euro-America. Surrounded by exotic food, drink, and well-dressed crowd, I hear an imaginary son of Eddie saying, This is what it’s all about. This is what my ancestors, who had no time for nostalgia and no love of long faces, would have wanted for themselves. What possible reason could there be to not leave the old neighborhood behind for good?

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