Archer Avenue, the diagonal street that traverses the Southwest Side of Chicago, from Chinatown to Garfield Ridge, may be the city’s most historic thoroughfare. There’s a marker, across the street from 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 enable a canoeist to paddle from Canada to Florida, making “Checagou” the transportation linchpin of the continent.

“This marker, the Orange Line and all the businesses on Archer Avenue rest on an ancient Native American trail that dates back thousands of years,” wrote Kelly High School teacher Mark Kinsella in the McKinley Park News. “It is the road that paralleled the route of the Illinois-Michigan Canal, which brought many Irish immigrants to the area.”

The Irish are mostly gone from the Southwest Side. So are the Germans, the Poles, and the Lithuanians who emigrated to Chicago to work in the Union Stockyards, which closed in 1971. (Jurgis Rudkus, the hero of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was Lithuanian.) As Kinsella wrote, “They were the forerunners of more recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia.”

Those immigrants are making Archer Avenue the scene of another historic movement in Chicago history: Latinos and — to a lesser extent — Asians are replacing once-dominant white ethnics as a significant demographic in the city’s culture and politics. In 1980, Brighton Park was 83 percent white, mostly Polish and Lithuanian. Now, it’s 81 percent Latino. In 40 years, the neighborhood’s white population has declined from 25,000 to 3,000. Archer Heights has undergone an even more dramatic transformation, from 95 percent white to 80 percent Latino.

Andrea Ortiz’s family moved to Brighton Park from Pilsen in 1995, seeking cheaper housing and a safer neighborhood. They bought a house from a Polish family leaving for suburbia.

“There was also a Polish family across the street,” said Ortiz, who is now director of organizing for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “They’re gone now. You could definitely tell there was a lot of white flight going on. It over time became the neighborhood for a lot of Latinos. There was a movie theater. It offered a lot of resources. A lot of family homes that were affordable. It was a lot safer. Back of the Yards offered jobs in the meatpacking industry. My father worked as a mechanic, and there were a lot of mechanic shops.”

Up and down Archer, a visitor to the neighborhood can see remnants of Polonia: the Polish Highlanders of America Banquet Hall, and the St. John’s Parish Polish National Catholic Church. The Archer Heights Library has a Polish Book Club for those who’ve hung on in the old neighborhood. But the Szykowsky Funeral Home is catty corner from Garcia Tax Service, and most of the restaurants are taquerias: Carnita Don Rafa, Paco’s Tacos. Bobak Sausage Co., once the Midwest’s premier Polish deli, closed in 2015; the building is now occupied by El Cubano Wholesale Meats.

Latinos are living in the same houses, worshiping in the same churches, working the same jobs and shopping in the same stores that Poles and Lithuanians did a generation ago. (Zemsky’s, which has clothed blue-collar Southwest Siders since 1958, sells Dickies pants and nurses’ scrubs, and advertises boys’ school shoes with the hand-lettered sign “Zapato Escolar Para Ninos.”) Like the white ethnics who preceded them, they are blue-collar Catholics with close ties to the Old Country.

“There were a lot of white ethnics — Poles, Lithuanians, Irish, Slovaks, Germans — in Back of the Yards,” said Dominic Pacyga, a historian of Polish Chicago who grew up in that neighborhood. “After 1965, when immigration reform was passed, the Latino population started to grow pretty rapidly.”

Increasingly, Latinos are also occupying political offices once held by white ethnics. Taped inside the windows of U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia’s campaign headquarters on Archer Avenue are signs for a slate of candidates with Spanish names: Celina Villanueva for state senate, Aaron Ortiz for state representative, Alma Anaya for Cook County Board, Iris Y. Chavira for judge. Garcia’s congressional district covers a lot of turf once represented by U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski. As the new boss of the Southwest Side, Garcia is building a powerful political organization.

“He’s done an incredible job of building talent at all different levels,” said Jorge Neri, a political consultant who grew up in Little Village. “It’s really transformed what the politics look like there.”

Garcia has slowly been dismantling the power base of 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 representative, then beat Burke himself for ward committeeman. In 2019, Burke defeated a Latino challenger, but even his brother is encouraging him to retire next year, now that his ward — which covers Brighton Park and Archer Heights — is more Latino than ever.

“The writing’s on the wall in a lot of these areas where you can see the growth of the Latino community,” Neri said. “Every election cycle, it chips away and gets closer and closer. I hope that will happen next time. I think [Burke] will run again and he will probably have a Latino challenger. I think it will be close.”

Elsewhere on the Southwest Side, when 23rd Ward Ald. Michael Zalewski retired, he was replaced by state Rep. Silvana Tabares. When Michael Madigan quit the state House, after losing the speakership, he appointed Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar to his old seat. (Madigan is still 13rd Ward committeeman, which allows him to keep Marty Quinn, his handpicked alderman, in office. Could those offices be next?) Patrick Daley Thompson was forced to give up his job as 11th Ward alderman after he was convicted of lying to federal investigators over a bank loan. Mayor Lori Lightfoot handed the seat to Nicole Lee, the first Chinese-American alderwoman, since Asians are now the largest ethnic group in Bridgeport.

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. Those communities are either gone from the city  or have assimilated, and no longer see politics as an important vehicle for advancing their communities’ fortunes. As the Irish were to 20th Century Chicago, Latinos may be to the 21st. (If Garcia runs for mayor, he would be a very strong candidate against the unpopular and inexperienced field now contending for the office.) You can see it happening on Archer Avenue. Or you can ask Ed Burke.

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