How the Archer Avenue Custody Changed – Chicago Magazine
Archer Avenue, the diagonal street that runs through Chicago’s southwest side from Chinatown to Garfield Ridge, is perhaps the city’s most historic thoroughfare. There is a marker, in front of the 35th/Archer Orange Line station, commemorating the journey of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, who realized that a canal on the brief portage between the Des Plaines River and Lake Michigan would allow a canoeist to paddle from Canada to Florida, making “Checagou” the kingpin of transportation on the continent.
“This marker, the orange line, and all of the businesses on Archer Avenue rest on an ancient Native American trail that dates back thousands of years,” Kelly High School teacher Mark Kinsella wrote in the McKinley Park News. “It is the route parallel to the route of the Illinois-Michigan Canal, which brought many Irish immigrants to the area.”
The Irish mostly departed from the southwest side. So did the Germans, Poles and Lithuanians who emigrated to Chicago to work in the Union Stockyards, which closed in 1971. (Jurgis Rudkus, the hero of Upton Sinclair’s film The junglewas Lithuanian.) As Kinsella wrote, “They were the harbingers of more recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia”.
These immigrants make Archer Avenue the scene of another historic movement in Chicago’s history: Latinos and, to a lesser extent, Asians are replacing once-dominant white ethnicities as an important demographic group in culture and city politics. In 1980 Brighton Park was 83% white, mostly Polish and Lithuanian. Now it’s 81% Latino. In 40 years, the neighborhood’s white population has grown from 25,000 to 3,000. Archer Heights has undergone an even more dramatic transformation, going from 95% white to 80% Latino.
Andrea Ortiz’s family moved to Brighton Park from Pilsen in 1995, looking for cheaper accommodation and a safer neighborhood. They bought a house from a Polish family moving to the suburbs.
“There was also a Polish family across the street,” said Ortiz, who is now the organizing director of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “They are gone now. You could definitely tell there were a lot of white flights. Over time it has become the neighborhood of many Latinos. There was a movie theater. It offered a lot of resources. Lots of affordable family homes. It was much safer. Back of the Yards offered jobs in the meat industry. My father worked as a mechanic and there were a lot of mechanic shops.
From top to bottom of Archer, a visitor to the neighborhood can see the remnants of Polonia: the banquet hall of the Polish Highlanders of America and the Polish National Catholic Church in St. John’s Parish. The Archer Heights Library has a Polish Book Club for those who have hung out in the Old Quarter. But Szykowsky’s Funeral Home is around the corner from Garcia Tax Service, and most of the restaurants are taquerias: Carnita Don Rafa, Paco’s Tacos. Bobak Sausage Co., once the premier Polish caterer in the Midwest, closed in 2015; the building is now occupied by El Cubano Wholesale Meats.
Latinos live in the same homes, pray in the same churches, work in the same jobs and shop in the same stores as Poles and Lithuanians did a generation ago. (Zemsky’s, which has dressed blue-collar Southwest Siders since 1958, sells Dickies pants and nurses’ smocks, and advertises boys’ school shoes with the handwritten inscription “Zapato Escolar Para Ninos.” ) Like the white ethnicities that preceded them, they are blue-collar Catholics with close ties to the Old Country.
“There were a lot of white ethnicities — Poles, Lithuanians, Irish, Slovaks, Germans — in Back of the Yards,” said Dominic Pacyga, a Polish Chicago historian who grew up in the neighborhood. “After 1965, when immigration reform was passed, the Latin American population began to grow quite rapidly.”
Increasingly, Latinos are also occupying political positions once held by white ethnicities. Inside the windows of U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia’s campaign headquarters on Archer Avenue are signs showing a list of candidates with Spanish names: Celina Villanueva for state senate, Aaron Ortiz for state rep. State, Alma Anaya for Cook County Council, Iris Y. Chavira for Judge. Garcia’s congressional district covers a lot of territory once represented by U.S. Representative Bill Lipinksi. As the new boss of the Southwest Side, Garcia builds a powerful political organization.
“He’s done an incredible job developing talent at every level,” said Jorge Neri, a political consultant who grew up in Little Village. “It really transformed what politics looks like there.”
Garcia slowly dismantled the power base of the 14th Ward Ald. Edward M. Burke, last of the South Side Irish Machine politicians. Garcia’s protege Aaron Ortiz beat Burke’s brother Dan for state rep and then beat Burke himself for neighborhood committee. In 2019, Burke defeated a Latino challenger, but even his brother is encouraging him to retire next year, now that his neighborhood – which spans Brighton Park and Archer Heights – is more Latino than ever.
“The writing is on the wall in a lot of these areas where you can see the growth of the Latino community,” Neri said. “With each election cycle, it frays and gets closer and closer. I hope it will happen next time. I think [Burke] will show up again and he will likely have a Latino challenger. I think it will be close.
Elsewhere on the southwest side, when the 23rd Ward Ald. Michael Zalewski retired, he was replaced by State Representative Silvana Tabares. When Michael Madigan left the State House, after losing the presidency, he appointed Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar to her old seat. (Madigan is still a member of the 13th Precinct committee, allowing him to keep Marty Quinn, his hand-picked alderman, in place. Could these offices be next?) Patrick Daley Thompson was forced to give up his post of alderman of the 11th arrondissement after being found guilty of lying. to federal investigators regarding a bank loan. Mayor Lori Lightfoot ceded the seat to Nicole Lee, the first Chinese-American alderman, since Asians are now Bridgeport’s largest ethnic group.
Thompson’s grandfather, Richard J. Daley, presided over a political machine built by the children and grandchildren of European immigrants: Irish, Poles, Italians, Bohemians, Germans, Jews. These communities have moved out of town or assimilated and no longer see politics as an important vehicle for advancing the fortunes of their communities. As the Irish were in 20th century Chicago, Latinos can be in the 21st. (If Garcia runs for mayor, he would be a very strong candidate against the unpopular and inexperienced field currently vying for the position.) You can see him perform on Archer Avenue. Or you can ask Ed Burke.