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Memorial at St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Litle Ukraine, East Village
by Bonnie Rosenstock
Photos: B. Rosenstock
About 140,000 Ukrainians reside in the state of New York, the largest concentration in the country, estimated at one million. About a third of the approximately 80,000 Ukrainians who live in New York City reside in my East Village neighborhood. The East Village, bounded by Houston Street to the south, 14th Street to the north, Second Avenue to the east and Third Avenue to the west, was known as “Little Ukraine” in the 1950s as a result of Ukrainian immigration (along with other Eastern European immigrants) during and after World War II, escaping both the Nazis and Russians. Another wave occurred in the 1970s when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union.
From a peak of about 60,000 after World War II to around 26,000 residents today, there remains an indelible Ukrainian cultural, religious and culinary presence in the East Village. One of my go-to restaurants is Veselka (“rainbow” in Ukrainian) at 144 Second Avenue at 9th Street, established in 1954, which is a third-generation Ukrainian-owned eatery that is popular not only with locals but also with out-of-neighborhood trendy types. In the 1960s and 70s, it was a hangout for artists, musicians and other night owls because it was cheap and open 24/7 (it’s still open all the time, but not so cheap). The fare is Ukrainian: pierogis, blintzes, borscht, beet salad, bigos, kielbasa, pork (lots of pork), cabbage, kasha, etc., as well as regular New York cuisine.
A few doors down is Ukrainian National Home, 140 East Second Avenue, which has a cozy atmosphere and pleasant décor. It offers traditional food, slow-moving waitstaff and at times music and loud, raucous patrons, much more Ukrainian than the cosmopolitan brightly lit spacious Veselka. Its outdoor awning offers shelter for rallies and protests against Ukrainian or Russian policies, such as the 2014 bloody and violent Maidan Revolution, which eventually ousted its Russian-backed president. These days, anti-Russian protests abound, with signs and flags everywhere.
The Ukrainian Museum, 222 East 6th Street between Second and Third Avenues, is a gem of a building. Designed by Ukrainian-American architect George Sawicki, it was funded by contributions largely from the Ukrainian diaspora and opened in 2005. (The museum was founded in 1976 and formerly housed in a dumpy ill-conceived space.) It is the largest museum in the U.S. devoted to the artistic and historic heritage of that country. I wrote about the opening exhibit, a marvelous retrospective of the works of Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Archipenko, and still visit from time to time.
St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church is at 30 East 7th Street between Second and Third Avenues. The church school educates children beyond the neighborhood whose parents want them to preserve the Ukrainian language and culture, either as full-time students or in Sunday school. Sometime in mid-May, the street is closed for the annual Ukrainian Festival, featuring traditional food, song, music and dance. Taras Shevchenko Place is a small sliver of street connecting East 6th and 7th Streets. Shevchenko was a renowned Ukrainian poet, artist and humanist, and the Shevchenko Scientific Society at 63 Fourth Avenue bears his name.
The other populous enclave is in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, just a stone’s throw from Coney Island. In the mid-70s, it became a popular area for Soviet immigrants, mostly Ashkenazi Jews from Russia and Ukraine. So, it is variously known as “Little Odessa,” after a Ukrainian city, or “Little Russia,” depending on your point of view. Pre-pandemic I used to take the subway to the beach to sunbathe, swim in the bay, followed by a late afternoon walk along the boardwalk to eat in one of the outdoor Tatiana-named cafés. Borscht and Russian beer always a must. Then a pilgrimage to one of the large supermarkets under the elevated subway to buy delicacies reminiscent of my Eastern European Jewish childhood, aka Russian and Ukrainian ancestry, since it’s mostly the same food. (Paternal grandparents from Skala, in the province of Galicia, pre-World War I, a Polish-Russian-Ukrainian border village now located in Ukraine and called Skole, after the breakup of the Soviet Union; maternal grandfather from Russia.) One needs patience and fortitude to get noticed or served in both the café and supermarket since I don’t speak Russian.
All over the city and the globe protests against the Russian assault abound, and more so in my neighborhood, which is united against this aggression no matter what one’s ethnic background. For me, it’s a bit more personal. And to quote a humorous eye-catching sign in Veselka, “Eat Borscht, Stand with Ukraine.” And I did. But also donate.
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