From his office window Zygmunt Dyrkacz can see everything that happens at the Polish Triangle. It's a bleak, brick-paved island at the intersection of Ashland, Division, and Milwaukee, three graffiti-covered bus shelters and a Blue Line entrance sharing space with some honey locusts and a fountain. A Polish emigre, Dyrkacz owns the Chopin Theatre, across from the Triangle on the south side of Division. He lives above the theater with his wife and their two children, and the little plaza is the closest thing they have to a front yard. For the second time now, he's caught up in a fight over its future.
"Aha!" he shouts, pointing to a corner of the Triangle where three young guys stand toe to toe, looking over their shoulders. "Selling drugs! I know this because I go down there, I hear them talking. These same people I have seen like, 20, 30 times."
An older man naps on a bench, a backpack under his head and his shopping cart secured to a lamppost with bungee cord. The lampposts in the Triangle, got a paint job early in the summer but the painter reached only halfway up. "He came out for, like, one day, then, pfft! Disappears." The job wasn't finished until mid-August.
Dyrkacz has seen kids from the three nearby high schools brawling at the bus stops, and he's seen people wash their clothes in the fountain. He sees empty chip bags and Wendy's wrappers pile up inside the low grilles that circle the locusts lining the Triangle. He sweeps the sidewalk in front of his box office every morning, and when the Triangle looks especially gritty he takes his broom across the street.
In the 40s Division was dense with polka clubs and Polish bars from Ashland to Western, and when Dyrkacz moved in 20 years ago the stretch was still called Polish Broadway. There were three Polish-owned banks on the Triangle, he remembers, and a handful of pierogi spots. The Polish daily newspaper Zgoda was his biggest neighbor. Now the theater and the tiny Podhalanka Polksa Restauracja next door are the only Polish holdouts, surrounded by national banks, fast food joints, discount retail, and the La Pasadita taquerias.
Ten years ago some fans of Nelson Algren approached the city with the idea of naming the intersection after the writer--who lived a few blocks west on Evergreen until he left town in the 70s. His characters, many of them working-class Poles, drank and fought in the bars along Division. Dyrkacz campaigned against the idea, urging the city to instead make the triangle's vernacular name official, preserving the Polish history of the area.
"The Polish will see this as an unresolved issue," Dyrkacz told Jeff Huebner for a Reader story at the time. "It'd be like going to an Indian reservation and naming it for a white author who wrote about the Indians and not naming it for the Indians themselves." He got local churches, neighborhood groups, and a hospital on his side, and in the end the plaza was christened the Polish Triangle. A fountain named after Algren was erected in its center.
When the fountain--a nine-foot-wide iron basin surrounded by a concrete pool--was dedicated in 1997, flower bushes ringed its base. The flowers were trampled by people reaching into the water and sitting on the fountain's rim long ago, and four years ago the Chicago Department of Transportation, which maintains the island, replaced the bushes. The ones that weren't stolen were trampled again. The concrete is badly chipped. Metal plates that girdle the fountain offer an inscription from Algren's Chicago, City on the Make: "For the masses who do the city's labor also keep the city's heart." It's caked with pigeon droppings. Dyrkacz cradles his bald head in his long fingers, dragging his eyelids down. "Does this look like gateway to Wicker Park? Like destination for artist from around the world? It looks like barnyard."
Neighborhood groups say the Triangle belongs to Wicker Park, but the Triangle seems worlds away from the boutiques and bars a few blocks north and west. The hipsters, bikers, and shoppers who clog the corners of Damen, North, and Milwaukee don't make it this far down Milwaukee, and Dyrkacz says that unless the Triangle gets a face-lift they never will. Even before the Algren controversy, he felt it should serve as the southeast gateway to Wicker Park. When the fountain was new, Huebner asked Dyrkacz what he thought of it. "My vision was different," he said. "The fountain could be artistic instead of looking manufactured. The gateway to Wicker Park should have something better, more artistic."
A year ago, hoping it would lead to support for their dream of an overhauled Triangle, Dyrkacz and his wife Lela Headd got involved with the newly formed Wicker Park & Bucktown Special Service Area. SSAs are city-approved neighborhood groups that can tax residences and businesses along a neighborhood's commercial corridor. They fund projects like streetscaping, festivals, and graffiti cleanup, trying to draw more (and more desirable) foot traffic to the corridor. Headd is a commissioner on the SSA board, and Dyrkacz attends almost every public meeting. He's more vocal than some of the board members, loudly snorting disapproval of budgetary proposals and bursting into passionate, long-winded objections.
In its first year, the Wicker Park & Bucktown SSA budgeted $144,000 to clean and power wash all the sidewalks within its boundaries; that's the only SSA money that's directly touched the Triangle so far. Some of the commissioners thought it was a lot of money for so little improvement, and power washing got cut from the next year's budget. Dyrkacz and Headd have suggested the SSA could pay residents to clean up their own sidewalks far more cheaply. And they're irritated that the 2007 budget set aside $20,000 to create a logo for the SSA and $200,000 to hire outside consultants to make a "master plan" and do a "cultural audit" of the area. "Everyone wants to do studies to find out what do people in the neighborhood want. You have two people right here who have lived on the Triangle for 20 years," says Dyrkacz.
"I think some members, they don't have much imagination of what could be. They don't travel, they don't dream," he says. "'Let's put a flower box here, let's clean up the graffiti, and that's enough.' It's like my mother, who'd like me to have a normal job, just sit at my nice desk, be safe." He and Headd haven't sketched out a design for a new Triangle, but Dyrkacz can rattle off ideas. "We could hang paintings of Ed Paschke, famous Polish and Chicago painter. We can have sculpture from Dessa Kirk, Chicago artist who made 'flower lady' sculpture in Grant Park. Maybe we have plaques saying, this is where Nelson Algren lived and wrote 'Man With Golden Arm.' Here is plaque for Saul Bellow, famous Chicago writer. Here is plaque for French lady who lived with Nelson Algren. We could put roof over Triangle, and make statue of little old lady praying, to show Polish history, and have beautiful lampposts like in French Quarter, and ornamental tiles in the fountain. Everything shining and colorful. This could be postcard place for Chicago."
Head and Dyrkacz say they try to discuss the Triangle at board meetings of the Wicker Park & Bucktown SSA, but the meetings run according to Robert's Rules of Order and the couple's zeal often doesn't. "They always give me ten minutes at the end of the agenda, and we always run late with all the other stuff on the list, and by the time they get to me, it's like, 'OK, we have to clear the room in five minutes 'cause they're kicking us out,'" Headd says. She and Dyrkacz say other commissioners tell them to be more patient.
Last summer Dyrkacz wrote a letter to the SSA board. "I'm sorry if some of you feel that this letter is intrusive and out of place," he wrote, "but the development of Wicker Park is something I've devoted the last 20 years of my life to . . . because I think this is my last hurrah." He presented his ideas for making the Triangle a Wicker Park "destination" by cleaning it up. "There are 7-10 Polish immigrant alcoholics living on the triangle. . . . If I had the power, I'd buy 1 way tickets to Poland $300/ea and $2000/ea stipend to be received in Warsaw. I'm sure they have much better chances to recover if they are in their native countries with their families." He also suggested erecting a 100-space parking garage on an existing lot at Division and Bosworth, half a block from the Chopin.
"I can't speak for different peoples' tolerances for different processes," says Jan Metzger, a staffer at the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the board's president, "but I work in the field of transportation policy and I've seen that it takes years and decades to get things done on this scale." Metzger calls the Triangle "gritty"--she passes it nearly every day--but she says a stand-alone project for this intersection isn't on the SSA's agenda. Three Blue Line stations lie within the SSA's boundaries, and Metzger says the SSA wants to overhaul all three with a uniform theme, but it's "nowhere near" the stage of locking down what that will be. She says the master plan will shape the project. "We haven't moved as fast as some would like," she says, "but really, we are officially not a year old yet. A lot of this first year has been consumed in . . . understanding what the community wants. We can't take the ideas of one or two people and spend a significant amount of public funds to please them. We need to make sure we're doing what's good for the whole SSA."
This spring Dyrkacz and Headd discovered that Studio Gang, the inventive architectural firm behind the McCormick-Tribune Welcome Center and the upcoming Aqua tower, has its offices above an empty storefront facing the Triangle on the west side of Ashland. Its architects have looked though their own windows and wondered, what if? Better yet, Dyrkacz and Headd learned, each year Studio Gang takes on some community-oriented projects pro bono. So they dragged tables and chairs out to the Nelson Algren Fountain and met with Studio Gang architects. Mark Schendel, a principal with the firm, sized up the space as it stands. "Some of the bones are in place," he said later. "There's circulation from the buses and trains. I like people constantly moving through. The fountain brings the sound of water, and a very local passive cooling effect. It has a low wall to sit on. There's circular benches around the trees. I love benches around trees."
Unlike Dyrkacz, Schendel's not interested in kicking out the Triangle's regulars. "There's a huge variety of people who use this park, which I like. People who've been in this neighborhood for a long time may have a different opinion about this, but I believe public space is for everyone. As an urban person you have to accept that." He does want to add newcomers to the mix, mostly by introducing "programming," an architect's term for giving people with something productive to do a place to congregate, like a cafe or a newsstand. To create different kinds of shade he'd replace some of the honey locusts with other varieties. He'd widen the island and make the street traffic around it one way, move the bus shelters, and give the Blue Line entrance a roof to keep rainwater out.
But like Janice Metzger, Schendel doesn't see a Triangle face-lift happening quickly. "Ziggy would love to just go in there guerrilla-style and put something up, but Ed Paschke is not where I would start. We would start with the boring stuff--determine noise levels, sun, shade. Who's moving through the space? Who works here, who lives here? What kind of retail is there? We would get CTA ridership numbers and traffic counts per hour. I love Ziggy's energy, but this is going to be a slow, measured process. I know it annoys him to no end, but it should be. This is public domain, and safety is of the utmost importance. That doesn't mean we can't do something beautiful and amazing."
On the sidewalk in front of the Chopin Theatre box office stands a trash bin that Dyrkacz says he first asked Streets and Sanitation for early last year. It took months, he says, for someone to respond to his requests. When a trash bin finally showed up it wasn't what Dyrkacz had asked for. It wasn't red, like the ones installed farther west in Wicker Park. It was plain black. "All the letters I send, all this time I spend, all this headache, and finally when it comes it's this ugly thing. I wish so much I could do it myself."
Two weeks ago he and Headd placed four planters around the Nelson Algren Fountain--they wanted them there for the Around the Coyote Festival. They spent less than $300 on the pots, flowers, mulch, and soil. The frugality shows, and there's no telling how long the flowers will last, but they do help pull the eye from the piles of old rice left for the Triangle's pigeons.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Leslie Schwartz.