How ‘Little Ukraine’ Transformed Through the Decades

Story and media by Anastasia Medytska

Little Ukraine
A sign outside Veselka pays tribute to the neighborhood.

These days, the East Village is filled with hipsters slinging back $2 beers at Sly Fox or satisfying a 3 a.m. craving for pierogi at Veselka without any knowledge of the rich Ukrainian history behind these neighborhood hotspots.

Behind the overcrowded bar, above shelves stocked with an array of Ukrainian vodkas, hangs a sign with the words “Lys Mykyta,” or Sly Fox, in Ukrainian. The dive bar resembles a log cabin in the famed Carpathian Mountains, which is why it also goes by a second name, known only to the Ukrainians that frequent it during off-peak hours, the Karpaty Pub.

Just one building over, on the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street, sits Veselka Restaurant, open 24 hours to accommodate the merry revelers of Sly Fox and places like it. From movies like “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” where the titular characters grab a late-night meal near the end of the movie, to “Gossip Girl,” where Blair and Dan nosh on pierogi, Veselka holds a place in pop culture.

What its multitudes of visitors don’t know is that it opened as a result of the Ukrainian diaspora, when multitudes of Ukrainians fled a Soviet-controlled nation after World War II.

The neighborhood — with its unbeatable nightlife, cheap eats and Japanese markets — has a past teeming with Ukrainian culture. From retro eateries like the Stage Restaurant to kielbasa connoisseurs’ favorite meat market, Baczynsky, first-generation Ukrainians built a neighborhood to carry on their culture. Today, that heritage is sometimes easy to miss, but pockets of the past remain.

“I’m proud that they are still keeping the culture alive,” said Olha Medytska, a first-generation immigrant and teacher at St. George Ukrainian Catholic School, a K-12 school located on Sixth Street and Taras Shevchenko Place, which was developed for Ukrainian immigrants during times of mass immigration. “Although the majority of my students are not Ukrainian, they are still required to learn the language and they do it great! It’s good that it hasn’t been closed down; I’d be sad to see that.”

As the neighborhood, known as Little Ukraine in the 1950s, has changed and gentrified, its population has changed, too.

Surma Book & Music Company, a Ukrainian shop that opened in the 1800s, has weathered the changes, including several waves of Ukrainian immigration.

“At the end of World War II,” says Natalia Yezerska, a Ukrainian immigrant and active member of the Ukrainian-American community, “thousands of Ukrainians fled a country overtaken by the Soviet Union. They knew they could never come back to their motherland and so they developed their own ‘Little Ukraine’ here in New York to hold onto their culture.”

In the following decades, places like Veselka and the Baczynsky Meat Market opened. “These immigrants worked hard to ensure that the generations to come would know what it means to be Ukrainian, without ever visiting the country,” says Ms. Yezerska. They opened restaurants, shops, bars, schools and after-school activities.

Then came another wave of Ukrainian immigration. “In the 1990s, post-Soviet collapse, Ukraine finally gained independence and with it, Ukrainians earned the freedom to emigrate to America. This caused what is known as the fourth wave of immigration,” Ms. Yezerska says. Many came to Manhattan, which had everything they needed to comfortably settle into a foreign country.

Ms. Medytska, the teacher at St. George, came with her family during the fourth wave. “I was lucky because I had family here already but this community helped me be more comfortable and I know it helped so many people who didn’t know anyone or a word of English,” she says.

Wares inside Surma showcase Ukrainian heritage.

And so the Ukrainian community blossomed anew.

Ukrainians are fiercely proud of their cultural heritage, all the more so that it survived Soviet domination. Even though they may no longer flock to Manhattan, as a result of rising rent prices and falling immigration, Ukrainians still make the trip for a piece of Little Ukraine on weekends.

Every Saturday morning, throngs of Ukrainian parents come to the East Village to engrain some Ukrainian culture into their American-born children. The typical day starts with Ukrainian school in the morning. There are two such schools in the area, one housed in the St. George School building and another, a block away on Second Avenue, in the Ukrainian National Home.

Children learn the Ukrainian language, as well as history and customs in classrooms adorned with Ukrainian flags and symbols. Afterward, they go to either PLAST or CYM, two international Ukrainian Youth organizations. In khaki uniforms adorned with badges and medals, the idea is similar to scouting.

However, instead of selling cookies and tying knots, the children learn Ukrainian songs and poems and do fun activities for holidays, such as Easter egg painting. The day doesn’t stop there for some. Many children also attend dance classes, either at the Roma Pryma Bohachevska School of Dance or with a small group in St. George, where they learn Ukrainian folk dances.

Meanwhile, parents shop at Baczynsky meat market, the only remaining Ukrainian meat market in the neighborhood (once, there were three), and visit the Ukrainian National Credit Union, which has branches nationwide. They might grab a meal at the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant or go to a party in the Ukrainian National Home. Then they drive back to Connecticut, Brooklyn, New Jersey and upstate New York, only to come again for church at St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church on Sunday mornings.

The locals, many of whom are not Ukrainian, support the businesses on the days there are no Ukrainians coming in from the suburbs.

“This is a place for Lower East Side hipsters on weekends. Many of the young people here don’t even know it’s Ukrainian until they spend some time here,” said Ariel, a bartender at Sly Fox. Places like the Stage Restaurant, Veselka and Sly Fox have become culture icons for locals, a reminder of New York’s ethnic niches and of days gone by.

With the support of both visiting immigrants and local New Yorkers alike, Little Ukraine thrives on.