It took Chicago firefighters nearly four hours to fight a blaze that destroyed the Pasieka Bakery in the Polish community of Avondale earlier in the morning, requiring them to tear down the rear of the business in search of smoldering remnants. On the street outside, many people who had frequented the bakery for years stood on the street and watched, some wiping tears from their eyes.
“I’m very upset, I have a heaviness in my heart,” said Maria Wojcik, who moved to the United States from southern Poland 26 years ago and has been going to Pasieka ever since. “It made me feel like I would when I was in my native town.”
The fire broke out at 9:24 a.m. in the building at 3056 North Milwaukee Avenue and when firefighters arrived, heavy smoke was billowing from the basement and the ceiling appeared to be involved in the fire, according to fire department spokesman Larry Langford.
No one was in the two story building, which housed the bakery on the first floor and apartments on the second, Langford said.
Still, about 150 firefighters and paramedics responded, fighting the fire from the outside and eventually bulldozing the rear of the building to attack any smoldering remnants.
“It will probably have to be (completely) demolished,” Langford said, of the structure.
John Ligas, the current owner of Pasieka Bakery, said he was at home Monday morning when he received a call around 9am from an employee, who said that smoke had started coming out of one of the revolving ovens.
Ligas, 60, said he rushed to the bakery but by the time he arrived the building was engulfed.
“I’m just devastated,” Ligas said, staring across Milwaukee Avenue at the charred building. “It’s history lost.”
Ligas, who moved to Chicago from south Poland in 1964, took over the bakery with his family in 1998. He kept the name Pasieka, which was the last name of a former owner, because it was already an institution in the community.
For more than 75 years, Pasieka Bakery offered a taste of Poland to longtime Chicago residents and recent immigrants, seeking memories of their home land.
Fresh challah bread, kolacky, paczkis, and babkas could be found daily, starting at 6 a.m.
Friends and family often gathered over the wood cabinets and curved glass display cases, catching up and gossiping, according to local residents.
This afternoon, the only evidence of a bakery was the seemingly untouched green awning and a toppled display cake, leaning against jagged pieces of broken glass.
“How could this burn, how could this happen,” exclaimed Krystyna Leonczyk in polish, standing across the street from the building and sweeping black smoke away with her hand.
Leonczyk said she smelled the smoke from her nearby home around 9:30 am and ran down to Milwaukee Avenue to see what was happening.
“Jesus Christ,” she said, staring at the burnt bakery. “I was shocked.”
The bakery, which has been around since the 1930s, has been owned by different people over the years but has always served as a symbolic gateway to the city’s polish village, according to Daniel Pogorzelski, the executive director of the greater Avondale chamber of commerce.
A two story-high painted sign on its outside brick wall reads in polish “the best baked goods bought at Pasieka.” Underneath, pictures of gigantic pastries decorate the bricks.
“This is the equivalent of the Puerto Rican flags in Humboldt Park,” Pogorzelski said. “It’s a sign that, ah, you’ve entered the polish village.”
Politicians seeking support from the Polish community would make a point to stop at Pasieka, including Hilary Clinton, he said. Polish schools and churches often ordered from the bakery. It was also known to polish people living outside of Chicago and even the state, Porgorzelski said.
“It was just a hold out from a different time,” Porgorzelski said.