Over the years, New York City has continued to foster its reputation as a lively and diverse cityscape rich in cultures and traditions from around the world. The five boroughs illustrate the melting pot phenomenon, with cultural enclaves creating strongholds in various areas in an effort to preserve unique ethnic practices. Since the 19th century, Little Ukraine has been an example of one of these cultural enclaves, serving as a spiritual and cultural epicenter for Ukrainian Americans living in the East Village. Although the area was once heavily influenced by Eastern European culture, recently the neighborhood has evolved and diversified. With younger Ukrainian Americans choosing to explore other opportunities outside of their community, older generations have become the backbone of this cultural enclave, reinforcing traditions that keep their culture’s spirit alive.
Long before the East Village was known for its vibrant nightlife and artistic influence, it was a safe haven for Eastern Europeans who were interested in living in the states while maintaining their cultural roots. In “Ukrainian Heritage in New York City,” author Millie Fiori Favorini explains that the end of the Second World War generated a massive influx of European immigrants entering the U.S., “with the Ukrainian population reaching roughly 60,000 in the East Village during this time” (Favorini). In an effort to escape both Nazi and Russian pressures that proved to be both volatile and discriminatory, Ukrainian Americans settled close to one another and attempted to recreate aspects of their home that were comforting and inclusive.
While the Village was successful in creating a space that celebrated Ukrainian customs, different generations of residents seem to have varying levels of commitment to the Manhattan blocks that had served as their home away from home for so many years. In an on-street interview, an older gentleman and local resident named James Palahnyuk explained, “when [we] moved here [from Ukraine], it was sort of a safe space. I came here during the 1950s as a young man, and these few blocks felt like to world to me. But I don’t think my [children] feel the same attachment to this place that I think I did. I’m content to stay here, but they’re off in different parts of the country now” (J. Palahnyuk). The Ukrainian Village is no stranger to stories like Palahnyuk’s. According to “Little Ukraine in the East Village,” about 26,000 Ukrainians currently live in a small section of the East Village by East 7th Street near Second Avenue, located closely to St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. The article explains that there are “roughly 80,000 Ukrainian immigrants in New York city today, indicating that a third of the population are still moving to Little Ukraine” (“Little Ukraine in the East Village”). While considerable amounts of Ukrainian Americans still choose to settle in the East Village, there is an ongoing trend of young adults like Palahnyuk’s children leaving the Village and becoming integrated into other areas of the city while older generations stay behind to maintain the shrinking but ever-present enclave.
Many locals look to the Ukrainian Museum located on 222 East Sixth Street as a great source of pride for the community, with exhibitions centered around Ukraine’s rich history and presence in Manhattan. The museum was founded in 1976 by the Ukrainian National Women’s League in America, which is a charitable and cultural organization that unites immigrant women and empowers them to create structures that honor their beliefs (The Ukrainian Museum “About Us”). While small, the museum has been hailed as one of the most comprehensive and impressive collections of Ukrainian works, with an “unparalleled array of folk art, exceptional collection of fine art, and extensive compendium of archival materials making it one of the most unique and dynamic museums in New York City” (The Ukrainian Museum “About Us”). When I entered the museum, the first thing that struck me was the level of noise and activity. Aside from the desk attendant and security guard, it seemed that the museum was empty. The security guard explained that the museum generates most of its visits from field trips taken by the Ukrainian Catholic School across the street and tourists who wander in from the popular Ukrainian restaurant Veselka just a block away. He also said that in order to work there one must be fluent in both English and Ukrainian due to the fact that such large volumes of native speakers visit. While silence is often associated with boredom, the museum was far from an uninteresting experience.
When I visited on April 18th, the main exhibition was centered around traditional styles of Ukrainian clothing. Entitled “Timeless Treasures: Recently Acquired Folk Costumes and Textiles,” the exhibition featured eighty garments from different regions of Ukraine. The collection highlighted intricately woven wrap skirts, embroidered shirts and ceremonial outfits, and gorgeously beaded outerwear pieces. The collection provides insight into the incredible craftsmanship and artistic skills that are required to create traditional Ukrainian garments, as well as aspects of the culture’s style that have become integrated into current fashion. Desk attendant and tour guide Laurie Kushnir explained that “embroidery is a very prominent feature you’ll see in handmade Ukrainian clothing. The bold colors and geometric patterns are often meant to mirror things that people observed in nature” (L. Kushnir). Kushnir said that these organic-inspired patterns are often referred to as “fair-isle,” which means to create a pattern with two different colored threads. Fair-isle prints are often very graphic and geometric, and designers who took inspiration from Ukrainian garments were able to make this style of sewing popular in the U.S. during the 1940’s and 50’s. A lot of women’s tops today will sport similar designs to the ones you see being displayed here. (L. Kushnir)
Traditional Ukrainian clothing and ceremonial pieces can still be found in production today, with the museum’s gift shop boasting a stunning collection of tops that have been sewn by members of the community (locally and internationally), who then get a commission from their merchandise that the museum moves. “Believe it or not, there are women who can still do this, and do it well. They grew up making their own clothing, and I’m happy to see the practice hasn’t been lost over the years. I think it’s smart that we make use of it, because one day these women and their talents will be gone,” said Kushnir, gesturing to a rack of white linen tops that had been stitched and beaded all by hand, now displayed in the Ukrainian Museum’s gift shop.
Clothing continues to play a prominent role in Little Ukraine’s culture, with its bold patterns and unmistakable handiwork being featured in many storefronts. Nomad Vintage, a thrift store located only a few doors down from the Ukrainian Museum, initially caught my eye when I spotted a pair of long flowing gowns that appeared similar to some of the clothing featured in the Timeless Treasures museum exhibit being displayed in the window. Owner Katie McDonald says that the store collects a diverse array of vintage finds, but that they get a great deal of donations from older Ukrainian women who live in the neighborhood. During a conversation in her store, McDonald explained that she’s “traveled all over the world to collect some of these pieces, which is why I was surprised to get such worldly donations in the East Village” (K. McDonald). McDonald explained that the vintage Ukrainian items that she has in store all appear to be quite similar, with capped sleeves, white linen, and embroidery in primary colors being some of the most distinct features. Many of the gowns and tops lining the walls used the Volynski and Lviv styles of embroidery. In the article “Ukrainian Vyshyvanka,” published by the website Proud of Ukraine, it is explained that styles of stitching are named after the regions where they originated. Volynski (pictured first) is described as a region of Ukraine that uses a unique monochromatic technique. According to this article, “patterns are made in simple red but neat geometric shapes. Floral motives are widely used in this style to decorate Ukrainian traditional costumes.” Lviv (pictured second) is known as a “folk style of embroidery, geometric with white background which makes it clear and light” (“Ukrainian Vyshyvanka”). Several of the linen tops in Nomad Vintage featured designs that were meant to look like bunches of grapes and flowers. McDonald mentioned that she believed these images hold symbolic meaning in traditional Ukrainian embroidery. According to “Ukrainian Vyshyvanka,” grapes are meant to symbolize happiness and wellbeing in families, while flowers such as poppies are meant to symbolize protection from evil spirits. The store is located directly across the street from the Ukrainian Catholic school, making it an easy stop for children and their parents on their way home from classes. In reference to her customers, McDonald said, “we get a lot of girls and their mothers coming in after school, especially when it’s warm out. The only thing is that they’ll usually speak Russian or Ukrainian to each other, so I never really know what they’re saying or thinking.” Younger generations of Ukrainian Americans can walk through the store and draw inspiration from, or even repurchase, customary clothing that once belonged to older community members. This reinforces the cycle by which elders maintain traditions and breathe life back into the cultural enclave, even inadvertently at times.
The Ukrainian Catholic school that McDonald so frequently mentioned is formally known as St George Academy. The school was founded by St George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, which has always been and continues to be the heart of Little Ukraine. In the article “Little Ukraine in the East Village” published on Off the Grid, St George’s is cited as the birthplace of Ukrainian worship in Manhattan. During the 1890s,
Father Alexander Dzubaj first led Ukrainian immigrants in prayer at St. Brigid Church on Avenue A. After moving several times, the delegation purchased a Methodist church on East 7th Street, between Second and Third Avenue, in 1911. St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church served as the home for Ukrainian worship until a new St. George’s was built in 1978. (“Little Ukraine in the East Village”)
The church dwarfs many of the surrounding businesses and brownstones, with its high brick walls and aged copper dome extending far into the skyline. Above the church’s doorway, there is a brightly colored mosaic that incorporates gold inlay and primary colors, while depicting narratives Ukrainian culture over the course of three panels. There are three sets of doors with large gold handles that have a geometric design. There is also a geometric border framing the entrance of the doors, wrapping around the mosaics and down the entrance openings. With its simple modern architecture, lack of ornate stonework, and use of geometric patterns throughout the structure, the church is unlike more traditional Catholic churches. In another on-street interview, a woman in her mid to late 30s named Lauryn Blith said that her husband grew up attending this church, and that she now accompanies him: “Although it’s Catholic, it’s like totally its own thing. The artwork feels very stylized, a lot of the songs and hymns are in Ukrainian. Most Catholic churches feel very imposing, but there’s something approachable and different about St George’s I think” (L. Blith). Once entering the church, I understood what she meant. The stone used on the inside and outside of many Catholic churches can at times feel harsh or cold. Inside St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, the floor is lined with bright red carpet, and many of the ornate details are either created in the form of woodwork or brightly colored mosaics. There is a warm and cheerful quality as a result of all the different materials and tones used. Many of the church’s followers are also older in age, which adds to the sense of friendliness and acceptance. The older community members are quick to smile and share stories, and possess a demeanor that is both peaceful and inclusive.
While St. George’s represents a uniquely Ukrainian religious organization in the Village, the family-owned restaurant Veselka is an iconic and beloved establishment that also embodies the neighborhood’s distinctive Ukrainian spirit. Specializing in Ukrainian comfort food, Veselka services the disparate circles of customers that frequent their restaurant: tourists, NYU students, and their most loyal customers, the locals. In “Spotlight on Veselka” by James and Karla Murray, the authors explain that Veselka was initially founded during the 1960’s by Mykola Darmochwal, and later taken over by his son-in-law Tom Brichard, who still runs the establishment today. What was once a small candy store and newspaper stand would later become a staple of the Ukrainian American community in the East Village. When asked about the evolution of Veselka as the community has evolved, Brichard said,
This neighborhood had a densely populated Ukrainian community but the old folks were dying off and their kids were moving away. At the same time, the neighborhood really started going to hell because of drug use. I became really close to going bankrupt but somehow managed to hold on by borrowing money. I felt pretty strongly that in the long run things would turn around and also figured out that the future of the business was in the food. I transitioned out of the candy store model into turning the business into more of a diner/luncheonette. (Murray)
Brichard attributes a large amount of his success to the restaurant’s location. Many churchgoers would walk over only a block after services, making for great business and the formation of genuine bonds within the tight-knit cultural enclave. “We’re so lucky to be within walking distance from the heart of this neighborhood. You go to church, then come here for brunch,” remarked Brichard (Murray). The sheer convenience of the restaurant’s location has made them a part of a community’s informal ritual, which is simultaneously great for business and for keeping ethnic traditions alive.
When I visited Veselka, I attempted to study the types of customers. It was a Wednesday afternoon, so the restaurant was largely empty apart from young college-aged couples, and groups of old men and women who smoked and chatted amongst themselves. There seemed to be a sharp divide, with college students confined to a corner of booths while older men and women sat where they pleased and spread out across several circular tables that they pushed together. When it came time to order, I opted to try two of their most popular traditional dishes: stuffed cabbage and handmade Varenyky pirogues. The stuffed cabbage consisted of a head of cabbage filled with beef and pork and covered in mushroom gravy, served with a side of egg noodles and shredded beets.
The cabbage and meat provided an interesting contrast, with cabbage providing a crunchiness while the pork and beef were soft and easy to tear into. The pork and beef were well seasoned and provided a much needed kick that complemented the otherwise bland cabbage casing. The mushroom gravy gave the dish a hearty feeling and tasted similar to the gravy one might have with their turkey during Thanksgiving or Christmas. The egg noodles and shredded beets provided no real distinct flavor alone and should instead be paired with the cabbage and consumed together at once. The dish was savory, very filling, and unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. The Varnyky pirogues fell on the sweeter end of the spectrum, which I found surprising considering that they were filled with meat.
Described as Ukrainian-style dumplings, the pirogues were filled with shredded short ribs and pork, fried, and served with onions and a side of sour cream. Once they arrived at the table, I noticed that there were bubbles forming in the dough from being fried, which lead me to believe they would be firm and crisp. When I bit in to them however, they were quite soft and almost doughy. The meat tasted very different from the pork-beef combo I had tried in the stuffed cabbage dish. Rather than well-seasoned, the short ribs and pork tasted sweetened or honeyed. I found the dish to be particularly interesting because it tasted completely different from the way I had anticipated it would due to its appearance. Both dishes are prepared by local women who grew up eating and preparing similar meals for their families. “All the traditional Ukrainian dishes are prepared by people who’ve grown up knowing what it should all taste like. I have four full-time ladies alone that just make pirogues,” said Brichard (Murray). Older members of the community not only make up a large amount of the restaurant’s customers, but they can also be found behind the scenes in the kitchens preparing food for both their peers and new generations of Ukrainian Americans.
Little Ukraine is home to museums, shops, religious groups, and restaurants that embody the culture’s ideals and overall spirit in various ways. The cultural enclave is largely maintained thanks to the efforts of parents and grandparents who remain in the area for the greater portion of their lives and continue to spread their love for, and knowledge, of their roots. While the Ukrainian immigrant population is not what it once was in Greenwich Village, Little Ukraine continues to draw in attention from both immigrants and eager tourists to maintain its status as a cultural enclave that is rich with a well-established history, both back home and here in New York City.
“About Us.” The Ukrainian Museum , Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, 4 Oct. 2009, www.ukrainianmuseum.org/about.html.
Favorini, Millie Fiori. “Ukrainian Heritage in New York City.” Millie Fiori Favorini, 8 June 2010, millefiorifavoriti.blogspot.com/2010/06/ukrainian-heritage-in-new-york-city.html.
“Little Ukraine in the East Village.” Off The Grid, Greenwich Village Society For Historic Preservation, 16 Apr. 2014, gvshp.org/blog/2014/04/16/little-ukraine-in-the-east-village/.
Murray, James, and Karla Murray. “Spotlight on Veselka, The Iconic Family-Run Ukrainian Restaurant in NYC’s East Village.” Untapped Cities, Untappedcities.com, 22 Aug. 2016, untappedcities.com/2016/08/18/spotlight-on-veselka-the-iconic-family-run-ukranian-restuarant-in-the-east-village/.
“Ukrainian Vyshyvanka.” Proud of Ukraine, 15 May 2015, proudofukraine.com/ukrainian-vyshyvanka/.