Skip to main content

Curious City

Can Chicago Brag about the Size of its Polish Population?

Chicago is a proud city. We have a lot to brag about: amazing architecture, an expansive lakefront park system, and distinctive cuisine, to name a few. This year, we even had opportunities to brag about the Chicago Cubs.

Sometimes, though, we brag about things that may not actually be true. Questioner Todd Leiter-Weintraub wonders about one such boasting point.

“It was something my father told me,” he says. “He’s a smart guy, but he likes to remind people how smart he is so he was like ‘You know, Todd, Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. I bet you didn’t know that.’”

Todd does know, because he’s heard it a half-dozen times already. But recently, he’s been wondering if it’s actually true. After all, Chicago has changed a lot since the 1980s, when his dad enjoyed trotting out that impressive “fact.” His question for Curious City:

Is it really true that the Chicago is the largest Polish City outside of Warsaw?

Todd’s dad, Jay Weintraub, is not the only one who thinks so. Curious City has six other queries about whether or not we are actually No. 1 outside of Warsaw. We thought it would be simple: Just find a demographer who knows the answer. Bam. Done. But the question of who is No. 1 outside of Poland turns out to be surprisingly complex. For one thing, the answer changes over time, and it depends on what you mean by “Chicago.” There are also different metrics for measuring “Polish” in different time periods, and in other countries.

In taking it on comprehensively, we’re breaking new ground: As far as we can find, nobody has conducted a study that compares the leading candidate cities and metropolitan areas over the decades. Read on for an evaluation of who gets bragging rights in the contest for demographic “Polishness” between cities, and the separate and perhaps more relevant contest between metropolitan regions.

Ancestry, city to city

Questioner Todd Leiter-Weintraub says he’s sure his father was referring to the city of Chicago, not the Chicago region, when he repeated his claim, so we’ll start there.

Right away, we can say Chicago is not the largest Polish city outside of Warsaw because there are two cities, Łódź and Wroclaw, that at any given time, appear to have a larger population (by definition Polish) than Chicago’s Polish ancestry. But if we reframe the question to find the largest Polish city outside of Poland, that sets up a nice rivalry between Chicago and a couple of other major cities you’ve probably heard of. In this contest, sticking to the city limits is, well, limiting, but Chicago is still a strong contender. After all, Chicago is famous for welcoming tens of thousands of Polish immigrants in the 19th century. According to Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga, Poles saw Chicago as a land of opportunity.
(WBEZ/Logan Jaffe)

“If you can’t make it in Chicago, you can’t make it anywhere,” he says. “You had the stock yards, you had the tanneries, you had the steel mills, tremendous industrial growth in the 19th century just attracted people.”

By 1920 there were 151,260 Polish-born people living in Chicago, and by 1930 — six years after the federal government drastically limited the number of Poles who could immigrate — there were about 400,000 people of Polish “stock” as measured by the census. In the 1950s, Chicago got a boost as tens of thousands of Poles displaced by WWII settled here. And we got yet another boost in the 1980s, when Chicago welcomed Polish political refugees during the tumultuous Solidarity period in Poland.

However, as early as the 1950s, successful well-established Polish-Chicagoans have done what other immigrant groups in Chicago do: move out to the suburbs. And while Chicago certainly received many Poles over the years, other American cities also saw their share of Polish immigrants during all of those migrations, particularly Detroit, Pittsburgh and New York. When immigration to Chicago started to taper off back in 2007, newspaper accounts reported that Chicago had been passed by New York City. Unfortunately, these accounts were only half-right.

New York City surpassed Chicago's Polish population sometime before 1940. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau)
Based on the best information we can find, New York has been ahead of Chicago for at least 35 years, and possibly much longer than that. Currently, a quick search of the U.S. Census American Factfinder reveals that, as of 2014, the city of Chicago is behind New York in its Polish ancestry population. That survey puts Chicago at about 150,000 and New York at about 205,000. But when you look at the historic census data, it’s clear that if New York “passed” Chicago, it was much earlier than 2007.
Source: American Community Survey 2014 estimates
The U.S. Census Bureau provides reliable “Polish-Ancestry” data back to 1980, and New York was ahead then. Before that, the U.S.Census Bureau measured “foreign stock,” which includes immigrants and second-generation Polish-Americans. According to the data we could find, New York’s Polish “stock” was ahead of Chicago’s at least as far back as 1940. Chicago may have been ahead of New York around the turn of the century, but New York has definitely been No. 1 since 1980 — and likely decades earlier.
How could this be true? Joseph Salvo, a demographer in New York’s Department of City Planning, says it’s not so surprising.
“I want to be fair to Chicago here. New York is three times the size of Chicago. Our sheer size gives us a large volume of people,” he says. “For that reason, we can surprise people when it comes to the size of groups.”

Salvo points out that while there may be more people of Polish ancestry in New York, they’ve always been more diffuse and spread out than in Chicago. And, because it is a smaller city, Chicago has a much higher percentage of people with Polish ancestry — 20 percent compared to just over two percent in New York. While New York has always had a handful of predominantly Polish neighborhoods, it has never had anything like Chicago’s “Polish Downtown," which has twice the area of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York’s biggest historically Polish neighborhood.

Salvo also thinks the long misperception might have something to do with other differences between the Polish populations in New York and Chicago. He observes some of the largest Polish ancestry neighborhoods in New York tend to be heavily Jewish and believes New York’s Polish population probably includes large numbers of Jews of Polish descent. Chicago also has Jews with Polish ancestry, but not as many as New York.

Salvo says when comparing New York to Chicago, Chicagoans may not take into account Jews of Polish ancestry, because of the historical significance of the Polish Catholics: “My wife works at a school that is run by the Sisters of the Resurrection, a Polish order with very very deep roots in Chicago. I’m always hearing stories about the nuns and how they [visit] Chicago. So I want to give Chicago some credit, the Polish Catholic population in Chicago is quite legendary in some ways.”

(WBEZ/Logan Jaffe)

But what about Europe?

Legendary or not, it’s a bit hard to accept we’re No. 2 to New York. And there may be worse news. We’ve been focusing on the U.S., but immigration from Poland to the U.S. has declined in the last 10 years. Poland, on the other hand, is still losing many young, talented workers to other countries. If they’re not coming here, where are they going?

Pick up any European newspaper for the answer. You can read about Poles migrating all over Europe: Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and most of all, the United Kingdom. Because of that, we estimate London passed New York and Chicago as the biggest Polish city outside of Poland sometime between 2011 and 2014.

Here’s why we think that’s the case. In 2004 the U.K. opened its borders and labor markets to the European Union, and hundreds of thousands of Poles took the opportunity to migrate. Since the 1990s, Poles have learned English in school, and the wages and standard of living in the U.K. are much higher than those in Poland. Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski, a Polish-Briton and a Professor of Polish-Lithuanian History at University College London says that Poles were initially quite welcome, but over time, things changed. “Reaction to Polish migration has become more hostile in the last few years,” he says, pointing to pressures put on education, social and health services.

Butterwick-Pawlikowski says Poles are scapegoats — studies show they pay more in taxes than they receive in social benefits. And despite complaints from British-born workers, he says, Polish migrants remain welcome in the eyes of employers. 

“If you’re a British employer and you’ve got the choice between an educated polite immigrant from Poland, with really very good English, and a great work ethic, and a local born person who is uneducated, unqualified, unwilling, unable to treat customers properly, then it’s a no-brainer: You’re going to go for the immigrant,” he says.

Whether they’re welcome or unwelcome, most of the Polish migrants have stayed, and many have become citizens.

Does London actually have more Poles than New York and Chicago? The most recent reliable numbers come from the 2011 British census, which indicated there were about 150,000 people in London who were born in Poland, still fewer than New York or Chicago. But since then, the total number of Polish people in the U.K. has grown by 75 percent or more. If you assume that London has maintained its share of the overall growth, then London’s Polish population would be over 250,000, nearly 50,000 more than New York. Again, no expert we encountered knows the exact number, but Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski agrees our estimate is plausible.

Which means, Chicago is the city with the third largest Polish population outside of Poland. Bad news for anybody who wants to boast about Chicago.

If you’ve ever succumbed to buying the urban legend yourself, you shouldn’t feel too bad. According to Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer, it’s easy for a city to love the legend of identifying with a group and then exaggerate the numbers — and that goes for Polish-Americans as well as much smaller groups.

“There are a number of groups where people will tell you ‘There are about a hundred thousand of us in Chicago,’” he says. “Unfortunately, if you added up all the 100,000 groups, we’d be a city of 10 million or something.”

(WBEZ/Logan Jaffe)

Let’s compare metros for a change

We may not be a city of ten million, but our metropolitan area is almost that big. And if you think about it, “Chicago” has come to mean more than “the city of Chicago” to most people in the area. The city might be the economic heart of the region, but hundreds of thousands of people commute into the city from the suburbs. And if you look at Polish ancestry census figures, provided by demographer Rob Paral, you see that the number of Chicago residents with Polish ancestry began to decline in the 1980s, all the while growing in the suburbs. Dominic Pacyga says Polish-Americans in the region are now “mostly suburban.”

The Chicago metro is actually more suburban than the New York metro. About half of the people in the New York metro live outside of New York City. In our metro, it’s more like two-thirds, and people of Polish ancestry are five times more likely to live in the suburbs than the city.

Which means, that when it comes to comparing Polish ancestry of metropolitan areas, we win! The Chicago area has a Polish ancestry population of just less than 900,000. New York’s is closer to 800,000, and London’s is much smaller. Translation: The Chicago metropolitan area is the largest Polish metropolitan area outside of Poland.

That large Polish and Polish-American population has had a real impact. You can register to vote in Polish. You can get a Polish interpreter if you go to the right hospital. There are fifty-two Catholic Churches in the Archdiocese of Chicago that offer Mass in Polish, and there are 104 priests who speak Polish. We have Polish radio and Polish TV.

For a more personal spin, take the story of Kasia McCormick and her family, the Krynskis. She came with her parents as a baby in the 1980s, political refugees from the Soviet-controlled Polish government. Her father worked construction at first, and her mother taught pre-school, but now the family has a business importing goods from Poland to sell in Chicago. They bring in Polish clothing, China, and Christmas ornaments, among other goods. She says there are so many Poles and Polish-Americans that one of their best-selling imports is an appliance only used to make potato pancakes.

“If you ever grated potatoes by hand,” she says, “you would probably look for an electric potato grater your second time because it’s so much work. I think we’re one of the only places in the states that actual carry that.” The Krynskis rely on a large Polish community here for their livelihood.

That Polish community has also influenced Chicago’s sense of itself. Paral says Chicago likes to identify with Polish working-class culture. He cites a phrase used by Mike Ditka, the legendary Polish-American football coach.

“Ditka used to say the Chicago Bears were a ‘Grabowski team’,” referring to a typical-sounding Polish name. “It was his way of saying we don’t finesse things. We’re not fancy. We’re just kind of tough and we get the job done. Chicago was always kind of proud of that and reveled in it.”

According to historian Dominic Pacyga, Chicago’s Polishness is legendary in Poland itself, and it doesn’t matter whether Chicago’s is the largest Polish city or not.

“It is the Polish home in America. And it’s a symbol of opportunity for most people, a place where you know where you go and talk to people and people will understand you. I’m not just talking about language here,” he says. “That will remain for the foreseeable future. Unless the next wave of immigrants are from Mars.”

Questioner Todd Leiter-Weintraub with his wife, Sharon.

More about Todd “I know, Dad, because you already told me six or seven times” Leiter-Weintraub

Our questioner Todd Leiter-Weintraub grew up in Highland Park and now lives in the suburb of Western Springs. As far as he knows, he is not Polish-American, but he claims to be an “Eastern-European mongrel” with Czech, Russian, and German ancestry. He writes catalog copy for WW Grainger, and uses the Oxford comma in his descriptions of compressed air treatment solutions. He says his father, Jay Weintraub, will get a kick out of this story, even if it means he’s only half right.

Notes and citations for demographic data

FN 1 Whenever possible, we use Polish "Ancestry" as documented in the U.S. Census Bureau since 1980. “Ancestry” is self-reported, which means anybody who claims they have Polish ancestry —immediate or quite distant — counts. For periods before 1980, or cities outside the US, we use different metrics, which we explain in the relevant sections

FN2: “Stock” is a different measurement than ancestry. It refers to anybody who was born in Poland, or who has a parent born in Poland. As such, it excludes third generation Polish-Americans or people whose ancestry goes back even farther.

FN3 Since "foreign stock" only includes first and second generation Polish-Americans, it's possible Chicago's Polish “ancestry” population — as measured in today’s terms — might have been higher than New York's from 1940 to 1980 if Chicago had more third or fourth generation Polish-Americans in that period.

FN4 FN: The UK census doesn't measure ancestry, but it does measure both Polish language speakers, and the number of people born in Poland. These are both tools we can use to obtain a conservative estimate of the number of Britons of Polish heritage. Anecdotally, we understand that there are tens of thousands of Polish-Britons who emigrated in earlier periods, including following World War II. This would suggest the "ancestry" population in 2011 would be higher than 150,000 but we can't say how much higher.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story misstated the point of comparison between the Chicago metropolitan area and areas within Poland. The most appropriate comparison is: The Chicago metro area is the largest Polish metropolitan area (Polish immigrants and people of Polish ancestry) outside of Poland. 

We regret we misspelled Kasia McCormick's maiden name. The proper spelling is Krynski. 

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.