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Eastern Europeans, Latinos, artists, and aldermen have left their mark on the area real estate agents are calling “the new Lincoln Park.”

May 8, 2008

Ukrainian Village and East Village are two slices of the same pie. Both were once farmland, in the days when plank roads connected the settlements on the city’s western frontier to downtown. Both blossomed at the turn of the century as gateways for European immigrants, with soaring Catholic churches as the focal points for the long, low surrounding blocks of modest working-class homes. Both suffered through the disinvestment and blight that ravaged American cities in the 1960s and ’70s, and both are now, in a (freighted) word, revitalized. So why, when you gaze across the dividing line of Damen Avenue, is one so strikingly different from the other?

The story of Ukrainian Village is in large part the story of a 130-year struggle against assimilation. Though Ukraine itself didn’t gain lasting independence until 1991, Ukrainians in Chicago have kept a tight grip on their ethnic identity. Stand at Chicago and Oakley and the evidence is easy to see: To the north are the verdigris spires of Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral; to the south a tiny babushka pauses to cross herself as she passes the gold domes of Saints Volodymyr and Olha. Young men sprawl out and smoke at spidery tables outside the Village Cafe, yakking in the mother tongue. Across the street plates of hot vareniki (pierogi’s Ukrainian cousin) are dished up under a wall of Ukrainian folk art at Sak’s Ukrainian Village Restaurant. And on the northeast corner is . . . a hot dog stand. Can’t win ’em all.

Ukrainian Village/East Village boundaries (click to expand); map by Paul John Higgins

Gold Star, 1755 W. Division

Louis Sullivan's Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, 1121 N. Leavitt

Nelson Algren on Division Street, 1949

900 block of North Ashland

House at Damen and Haddon

Rainbo Club, 1940s

The interior of Saints Volodymyr and Olha, 2245 W. Superior

Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, 2238 W. Rice

Polish for "cold beer"

Robert Murphy (Holy Trinity, North Ashland, Saint Nicholas, sign, house); Art Shay/Stephen Daiter Gallery (Algren); Gerald Grofman (Rainbo); church interior courtesy of Ukrainians of Chicagoland by Myron Kuropas, available at arcadiapublishing.com or 888-313-2665

The first wave of Ukrainian immigrants hit Chicago between 1877 and 1914. The motherland was divided at the time between Poland and the Russian Empire, where the Ukrainian language had been banned. Peasants for the most part, seeking prosperity in the New World, these early arrivers settled in West Town, along with Russians, Czechs, and Poles. But by 1910 Ukrainians dominated the area loosely bordered by Division to the north, Damen to the east, Grand to the south, and Western to the west. These blocks were not just ethnically but also architecturally homogeneous: about a third of the neighborhood’s sturdy brick cottages and two-flats were built between 1886 and 1905 by one developer, William D. Kerfoot—who famously declared himself back in business the day after the 1871 fire by hanging out a shingle reading w.d. kerfoot: all gone but wife children and energy. His can-do spirit “did not a little toward reviving courage and drooping spirits,” wrote historian A.T. Andreas in 1886.

In 1903 Czar Nicholas II underwrote construction of the first Ukrainian Village church, Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, at Leavitt and Haddon. One of only two Chicago churches designed by Louis Sullivan, the relatively modest stucco cathedral was landmarked in 1979 and still hosts services (it’s open to the general public Saturdays from 11 AM to 4 PM), but it never quite caught on with its Ukrainian neighbors, who balked at worshipping in a Russian church. Svoboda, the national Ukrainian-language newspaper, proclaimed, “In the old country they tried to take away our nationality and to make us Poles, Hungarians, and Slovaks. Here in America they wish to take away our faith. Difficult will be the road of our adversaries. We are equal to the struggle and we are confident that our people will not sell their souls to Judas.”

Two years later, Father Victor Kovaletsky convened a meeting of 51 followers at what’s now 939 N. Damen to found an independent Ukrainian church. The 12-member board of the new Saint Nicholas Ruthenian Catholic Parish included, as secretary, Dr. Volodymyr Simenovych, a poet, scholar, and activist who envisioned the church as the cornerstone of a strong Ukrainian community and encouraged parishioners to buy land in the area. Myron Kuropas, in his pictorial history Ukrainians of Chicagoland, calls Simenovych—who had come from Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, where he edited one of the country’s first Ukrainian newspapers—“the first ethno-nationally aware Ukrainian immigrant in Chicago.” Among the parish’s bylaws was a clause stipulating that “under no conditions shall said church or its priests or pastors be ever under the jurisdiction of bishop or bishops except those of the same faith and rite.”

Saint Nicholas had humble origins in a former Lutheran church on Superior Street; a parish ridna shkola, or Ukrainian heritage school, followed in 1907. But in 1913, as potential congregants continued to stream into town, the board—again at Simenovych’s urging—bought 20 lots on Rice between Oakley and Leavitt and erected a grand new structure. Built in the Byzantine style of Kiev’s Saint Sophia Cathedral, with 13 domes symbolizing Jesus and the apostles and a capacity of 1,000, the new church held its first liturgy on January 7, 1915—Orthodox Christmas. In 1961 it became the seat of the Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy, which today has parishes in 16 states.

In 1922 Ukraine was annexed by the USSR, and in the 1930s money from Moscow funded a Ukrainian Communist Party center at Chicago and Campbell. Back home millions were dying under the forced collectivization and artificial famine of Stalin’s regime. (This Sunday, May 11, an international torch relay comes through Millennium Park to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor; a press release notes that at its height Ukrainians were expiring at a rate of 17 per minute.) Quotas limited the number of eastern European immigrants to the U.S., but in 1933 another group of Ukrainian Village movers and shakers organized to sponsor a pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair. The Soviet government protested vigorously, but the Ukrainians ultimately prevailed. The pavilion—the only one not backed by a foreign government—included folk art and dancing and an acclaimed exhibit of work by cubist sculptor Alexander Archipenko.

The end of World War II brought a flood of new Ukrainian refugees to the States—an estimated 80,000 between 1945 and 1957. This wave overwhelmingly consisted of displaced persons, or DPs: anti-Stalinist educated elites and professionals who had spent as many as five years in DP camps in Europe before being allowed to immigrate to the U.S.

DPs arriving in Chicago spent weeks, and sometimes months, on cots at the Ukrainian American Civic Center at 841 N. Western, local headquarters of the Ukrainian National Association. But according to Kuropas, a onetime UNA vice president, they never had to stay much longer than that. Jobs and housing were usually procured in short order, thanks to a booming economy, the aggressive outreach of church and community leaders, and what may be Ukrainian Village’s most influential institution of all: the Selfreliance Ukrainian American Federal Credit Union.

Downtown banks redlined West Town for much of the mid-20th century, refusing to grant loans to (among others) would-be Ukrainian Village home owners. Founded in 1951 in a second-floor apartment at 2408 W. Chicago, Selfreliance plugged the gap, providing low-interest loans to its members, who were (and more or less still are) required to be Ukrainian by birth or marriage.

For the credit union’s first two and a half years members were also the loan officers, bookkeepers, and tellers, working as volunteers in their free time. But by 1966 Selfreliance had dispensed more than $4 million in loans. Twelve hundred families bought homes; 29 doctors, vets, and dentists opened practices; more than 40 other businesses were established.

The credit union moved to larger digs at 2351 W. Chicago in 1957, and to its current massive home at 2332 W. Chicago in 2002. With the wave of immigration that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thanks to mergers with similar setups in New Jersey, membership doubled to more than 20,000, and the co-op now claims more than $433 million in assets.

East Village—the blocks between Damen on the west, Ashland on the east, Division on the north, and Grand on the south—seems at times a fun-house mirror of its neighbor to the west, a messy polyglot compared to Ukrainian Village in its tidy homogeneousness. The intersection of Chicago and Wood, for example, offers a Mexican bakery, a pizzeria, a pharmacy, a vacant storefront that once dispensed a mystifying combination of medical equipment and liquor, and, of course, a hot dog stand.

East Village was initially settled by German immigrants, but by 1890 or so it was primarily working class and Polish, organized around a network of Roman Catholic churches to the east. At its turn-of-the-century heyday, 25,000 Polish immigrants lived within half a mile of the commercial “Polish Downtown” at Ashland and Division; the priests of Saint Stanislaus Kostka, founded in 1867 at Evergreen and Noble, ministered to 40,000 parishioners, celebrating Mass a dozen times each Sunday. Saint Stanislaus was the first Polish parish in Chicago and, for a time, one of the largest Catholic parishes in the country.

Preservationist Victoria Granacki, in her recently published Chicago’s Polish Downtown, describes Saint Stanislaus’s energetic first pastor, Reverend Vincent Michael Barzynski, as “one of the greatest organizers of Polish immigrants in Chicago and America.” In his 25-year tenure he was responsible, in one way or another, for founding 23 Polish parishes in Chicago, along with six elementary schools, two high schools, a college, and orphanages, newspapers, and a hospital—not to mention the national headquarters of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, which is still going strong at the top of the Kennedy Expressway’s Augusta ramp.

East Village development began in earnest around 1890, with residential buildings springing up between Damen and Ashland to create densely packed blocks. The streetscape was more diverse than it was to the west, beautifully ornamented Queen Anne two-flats cheek by jowl with frame cottages, brick tenements, and graystone three-flats. The Logan Square branch of the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad ran along Hermitage, stopping at Chicago and Division to carry workers to and from the factories farther south along Grand and Lake.

As in Ukrainian Village, a network of fraternal and religious organizations helped new immigrants get their bearings, chief among them the Polish National Alliance at 1520 W. Division (now the College of Office Technology), an affiliate of Holy Trinity Church—a champion of Polish nationalism that ministered to its own flock of 25,000 at 1118 N. Noble, only a few blocks from Saint Stanislaus. The first home of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, a Catholic order founded by a Polish nun, was on West Division. The sisters outgrew those digs and moved to Des Plaines in 1908, but the Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital Center, founded in 1894 at 1714-22 W. Division, remains, just up the street—albeit in a 1975 poured-concrete edition that one of my colleagues has likened to something sprung from Terry Gilliam’s imagination.

Immigration accelerated during and after World War II—as many as 150,000 Poles are estimated to have arrived between 1939 and ’59. Like the Ukrainians they clustered in established ethnic enclaves that offered shops, restaurants, and banks where people spoke their language. Division Street was the Polish Broadway, teeming with flophouses and gambling dens and polka clubs and workingman’s bars like the Gold Star and Phyllis’ Musical Inn. Down the street at Division and Wolcott stood the majestic Division Street Baths; around the corner on Damen burlesque dancers shimmied on the tiny stage behind the Rainbo Club’s horseshoe bar.

The strip at midcentury was immortalized, for better or worse, by Nelson Algren, whose novels The Man With the Golden Arm and Never Come Morning told the grim story of junkies, gamblers, hookers, and drunks on the make in the Polish ghetto. Many in the Polish community took offense at the unforgiving depiction of the neighborhood, but The Man With the Golden Arm went on to win the inaugural National Book Award and remains a defining piece of local literature.

In the 1960s and ’70s both villages changed radically. To the east, construction of the Kennedy, completed in late 1960, had displaced many residents and torn holes in the sustaining network of churches, settlement houses, and neighborhood groups. And throughout West Town demographics were shifting, as Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, themselves displaced by urban renewal in Old Town and Lincoln Park, moved in. In 1960 Latinos comprised less than 1 percent of West Town’s population, but by 1970 that number was up to 39 percent; in 1990 it peaked at around 60 percent. The Puerto Rican community was (and still is) concentrated west of Ukrainian Village, along Division Street’s Paseo Boriqua, between Western and Mozart, while Mexicans clustered in East Village.

It was a tumultuous time for the villages. Real estate values plummeted as landlords neglected their buildings and speculators sat on vacant land and abandoned property. Mom-and-pop businesses along Chicago Avenue fell like dominoes. The arson rate in the area was so high that in 1976 Mayor Richard J. Daley convened a task force to address the crisis. To the original Poles and Ukrainians, the suburbs—affordable and easily accessed by the new highway system—were looking pretty good.

Founded in 1962, the Northwest Community Organization tried to stanch white flight by promoting home ownership and integration between longtime eastern European residents and the newcomers, but it was a tough sell, and not just for cultural reasons. A sweeping 1976 plan to develop affordable housing “went nowhere,” in the words of a 2001 study of gentrification in West Town conducted by the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at UIC, because “it did not give [the city] what it wanted: community support for its upscale redevelopment schemes.”

Meanwhile a different kind of crisis rocked Ukrainian Village when a tradition-minded faction of Saint Nicholas parishioners, angry at the church’s adoption of the modern Gregorian calendar, decamped to build a new church a few blocks away. Saints Volodymyr and Olha, at Oakley and Superior, opened in 1974, emblazoned with an ornate mosaic depicting the baptism of Ukraine in 988 and adhering strictly to the Julian calendar. Irene Zabytko, author of When Luba Leaves Home, a collection of short stories set in Ukrainian Village, grew up in the neighborhood and remembers the split as “a tremendous schism—it got to the point where people wouldn’t speak to each other . . . and it’s not like there are so many Ukrainians in Chicago that they can afford to do that!”

But once the wounds healed the new church turned out to be a boon. Taking up one square block at Oakley and Cortez, which Ukrainian National Museum president Jaroslaw Hankewycz remembers as once “the worst crime block in all of Chicago,” the church enticed many who had fled to the suburbs to return. An adjacent cultural center added to the music, art exhibits, and literary events already on offer at Saint Nicholas and the new Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, founded in 1971. In 1983 Mayor Jane Byrne declared Ukrainian Village an “official neighborhood” (the first of many to follow), and much of the finely crafted vintage architecture is now landmarked as part of the Ukrainian Village District, which encompasses most of the property bordered by Damen, Western, Rice, and Haddon.

By contrast, in the 70s and 80s the institutional infrastructure that held Ukrainian Village together was in short supply east of Damen. Much of the Polish population had drifted northwest, to Avondale and beyond. The Latino community organized around issues of affordable housing and other redevelopment strategies designed to stave off displacement, but came into increasing conflict with the mostly white artists and other urban-pioneer types who by the early 80s constituted a minor but significant presence. Throw in confusing zoning, aging housing stock, and cheap mortgages and you had what Preservation Chicago president Jonathan Fine describes as “a perfect storm.”

First went the vacant lots and dilapidated wood-frame cottages. Then, in the late 1990s, the brick cottages and the two-flats started getting snatched up and demolished, a process greased by the see-no-evil attitude of Alderman Jesse Granato, who, to paraphrase more than one neighborhood activist, never met a developer he didn’t like. Within a few whirlwind years the once modest neighborhood was a crazy quilt of new construction: gleaming modern cubes, terraced brick ziggurats, and cinder-block three-flats dressed up with Juliet balconies and French doors to nowhere, shoehorned in lot line to lot line.

“Neighborhoods change,” says Fine. “What concerned some of the activists in the late 90s and early part of this decade was that this 25-to-30-year cycle was being artificially compressed into a 5-to-7-year span. It was happening too fast, without any kind of oversight and without any master plan.”

When the Huntley House, at 836 N. Paulina—built in 1858 and one of the few frame structures to survive the Chicago Fire—was slated for demolition in 2002, the East Village Association barraged City Hall with phone calls. Petitions were signed, meetings were held. The house was torn down anyway, but the following year Preservation Chicago named East Village to its annual list of the city’s seven most endangered sites. Both groups were instrumental in securing, in 2006, landmark status for four clusters of blocks comprising 195 properties—a painful, acrimonious battle that for many months pitted the preservation faction against neighbors seeking to protect their own property interests.

Today both neighborhoods are more diverse than in their historic heydays. Though many second- and third-generation Ukrainian-Americans have stayed put in their parents’ community, others—like Irene Zabytko, who now lives in Florida—have moved on, and as elderly home owners pass away Ukrainian Village has become more accessible to outsiders. The enduring Mexican influence on East Village can be seen in the taquerias up and down Chicago and Ashland, in the churches that offer Mass in Polish, Spanish, and English, and in the staggering array of cowboy boots and snap-button shirts on offer at Alcala’s Western Wear, purveyors of ropas para caballeros for 36 years. But those taquerias are likely to have a record store or a vegan-friendly coffee shop as a neighbor.

The pace and scale of development remain big issues. Business owners fend off complaints about sidewalk-clogging cafes and wrestle with whether or not to lift a long-standing moratorium on liquor licenses. A shuttered Pizza Hut at the corner of Ashland and Division—formerly the site of a beloved YMCA—dominates discussion of how best to transform the historic Polish Triangle—home to an intractable transient population—into a welcoming gateway to West Town. What happens next will depend on who gets the right-of-way at the confusing six-way intersection of ethnic solidarity, pluralism, and the market.   

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