From 1840 to 1900, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world.
The Irish came early, spilling into the city to escape the genocide of the famine back home. The Irish dug the canals and settled one of the first neighborhoods, Bridgeport. As the city became the transportation hub of what was then known as the Northwest, skilled workers from Holland, England, Sweden, Denmark and Germany came in droves, taking positions in the railroads, the canals, the stockyards, slaughterhouses, and the other heavy industry that came to characterize the United States “second city”.
Germantown was born. Polish village, Ukrainian village and the Swedish area of Andersonville sprang to life. In the years around the turn of the century, largely unskilled workers from Eastern and Southern Europe flooded into the economically thriving city. They came from Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Czech, Slovakia and Italy.
A large percentage of these were Jews. These groups gave rise to Greek Town, Brinzeville, Pilsen and Little Italy. As black American abandoned the Jim Crow South between World War I and World War II, Chicago was a main destination for those escaping the racism and economic limitations of the former Confederacy. Since the 1980s, it has been Asians, Indians, Puerto Ricans and Central and South Americans who have comprised the largest percentage of immigrants the city.
As each successive wave of immigrants arrived they tended to group with people of similar languages and customs for the first generation or two thus creating unique and rich ethnic enclaves that made Chicago fabulous cultural mosaic of world-wide urbanity.
While these areas have evolved over the years (consider the Persian eateries near the Swedish-American museum or the Spanish language, unavoidable in the Pilsen area), today, Chicago boasts over 200 diverse neighborhoods each with its own unique character. For the traveler, this creates a wealth of opportunity.
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The Polish Triangle
Centered on the intersections of Milwaukee Avenue and Damen and Division Streets, this is the place to fatten up on some classic Polish food at places like the Podhalanka or the Red Apple Buffet. Consider buying your own ingredients from one of the Polish bakeries and grocery stores around the Milwaukee Avenue and Belmont Avenue area. The Polish Museum of America is close by.
You’ll know you’ve stumbled onto the Greek section of town when many of the signs suddenly appear all Greek to you. Because they are. Running along Halsted Street in the West Loop neighborhood, Greektown takes off from the intersection with Van Buren Street and goes north to the intersection with Washington Street. Here is where you’ll find your spanakopita and saganaki and take-out gyros. Greek-style bakeries and candle shops are all around. Be sure to head over to the National Hellenic Museum on Adams Street for exhibits on textiles and folk art. The museum is also home to an oral history center where you can listen to stories from Greek immigrants of days gone by. If you come in August be sure to drop by for the Taste of Greece Festival.
Italian food galore can be found by walking Taylor Street from Halsted Street to Ashland Avenue. Al’s Italian Beef specializes in huge sandwiches Francesca’s on Taylor boasts northern Italian cuisine while RoSal’s Italian Cucina has an awesome filet mignon.
Although the Devon Avenue section of Chicago’s north Side was originally a thriving Jewish area, South Asian immigrants began moving into the area in the 1980s. This is a pretty popular tourist destination with restaurants serving tandoori dishes and naan breads such as Hema’s Kitchen, the Udupi Palace or Sabri Nehari, A wide variety of ethnic grocery stores pack the area and The Indo-American Museum sits close by.
This is a section that even boasts its own website. Tea stores, herb stores, endless trinket shops, take out and sit down restaurants all crowd this neighborhood on the South Side near Wentworth Avenue and Cermak Road. Every year the famous Chinese Lunar New Year parade takes place here with elaborate floats and loud marching bands. The Chinese Museum of Chicago is the place to start.
This Southeast Asian neighborhood on the North Side is mainly made up of Vietnamese immigrants but extensive numbers of Cambodian and Thai residents can also be found here. For some reason, this area gets labled “Little Chinatown” for some reason. Centered on Argyle Street to the east of Broadway. Southeast Asian food stores and lots of restaurants are all over the place. Other little stores sell a wide range of Asian products. Pho Xe Lua, on west Argyle will overwhelm you with more than 200 dishes on the menu. BUT…they allow you to bring your own beer or wine.
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Chicago can be seen as a bunch of small cities that are joined together by co-location to make one giant city. The traveler can pass block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood through different religions, cultures, foods and histories. Chicago is pretty unique. The Not for Tourists Guide to Chicago is available online and is an excellent resource for planning a tour of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods. This guide to the ethnic neighborhood festivals in Chicago.