little ukraine

A Community’s History in Four Buildings

The key landmarks of the Ukrainian East Village.

Illustration: Misha Tyutyunik
Illustration: Misha Tyutyunik
Illustration: Misha Tyutyunik

St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church: The Heart of the Diaspora

Address: 30 East 7th Street
Completed: 1978

For almost as long as there has been a Ukrainian community in New York, St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church on East 7th Street has been its heart. It’s where hundreds gathered for a special prayer service in 1986 after news of the Chernobyl disaster reached the United States. And since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s where crowds of parishioners have been flocking — some of them old-timers from the neighborhood, others suburban expats, all looking for a little solace. “The church has always been strong,” says the Reverend Peter Shyshka, a lifelong East Villager and now St. George’s senior priest. “Our job is to preach hope.”

The roots of the church go back a lot further than the ornate, domed structure just off Cooper Triangle. St. George’s denomination, Ukrainian Greek Catholicism, was formalized in the 16th century when much of modern Ukraine was under the sovereignty of Catholic Poland. The Church began as a bid to herd Orthodox Christians back into the papal fold: In full communion with Rome but preserving the Eastern Rite and the Ukrainian language, the Church’s peculiar Ukrainianness has made it a frequent target for suppression. In the Soviet era, authorities shuttered Greek Catholic parishes all over Ukraine, driving the faith underground. The number of adherents immigrating to the United States swelled as a result. In 1990, as many as 158,000 churchgoing Ukrainian Greek Catholics lived in the U.S.

St. George was established in 1905, its services held in the now-demolished Seventh Street Methodist Episcopal Church for decades, but the current church was completed in 1978. Designed by Apollinaire Osadca, a Ukrainian émigré, it is meant to evoke what was the mother church of Ukrainian Greek Catholicism, St. George Cathedral in Lviv, though on a much smaller scale. Considered solely on its architectural merits, the building may fall a couple of pysanky short of an Easter basket — just a little too flat in detail and poky in form to pass for the genuine article. The interior is a different matter. Ugo Mazzei, an ecclesiastic artisan based in Pietrasanta, Italy, created the elaborate mosaics that now adorn the apse. The saints Cyril and Methodius stare out, their oversize eyes and elongated figures looking undeniably Byzantine.

In the soft light of the nave, with the image of Christ Pantocrator in the dome overhead, the congregation — currently numbering about 5,000 — now gathers for weekday and weekend masses. Since the invasion, the church has been open from sunup to sundown for prayers; one morning last week, Father Shyshka performed four straight hours of confession. Weekend services have been attracting the kind of turnout usually reserved for holidays, and on a recent Friday, easily a hundred attendees showed up for evening mass. It was Lenten Week, when part of the liturgy calls for the congregation to prostrate themselves: Men and women, the elderly and small children, all face forward on the aisle floors.

Oksana Ivasiv, 71, has been a parishioner since she arrived in New York from Lviv in 1995; 20 years later, she succeeded her father as the church’s custodian, replacing fading flowers with fresh, trimming the liturgical candles, and generally keeping house. “I feel so good when nobody is there but me,” she says. “All those holy faces around me and the light from the stained glass. That is the most beautiful time.” —Ian Volner

The Selfreliance Association of Ukrainian Americans: A $1.5 Billion Success Story

Address: 98 Second Avenue
Purchased: 1959

Illustration: Misha Tyutyunik

Inside the narrow ground floor of 98 Second Avenue, between 5th and 6th Streets, the walls are paneled in a dark wood reminiscent of a basement den from the 1970s. The floors are vinyl tile, and the lighting is fluorescent. An old bank-teller window remains, behind which is a tiny office that has housed various subtenants over the years, most recently an accountant.

This is the headquarters of the Self-reliance Association of Ukrainian Americans, founded in 1947 to assist the flood of Ukrainians arriving in the East Village at the beginning of the postwar immigration boom. It is a five-story brick-and-metal Greek Revival, completed in 1843 and thought to be originally owned by the Stuyvesants.

“The association formed out of a frustration of Ukrainians just not being able to find any jobs,” says Bohdan Kurczak, president and CEO of the Self Reliance New York Federal Credit Union, which was sponsored by the association in 1951. “Many of them were educated but spoke no English. So they took whatever work they could get: sweeping floors, cooking, menial work of all kinds.” In addition to helping immigrants find housing and other social services, in later years the association sponsored a Saturday Ukrainian-heritage school housed at the nearby St. George Academy on East 6th Street. The school remains a place where families can send their children to study Ukrainian language and culture.

The association’s greatest legacy, however, may be its credit union, which provided a financial pillar for an immigrant community that had no money and no credit history. The credit union opened with a mere $316 in capital assets and served only individuals who could demonstrate Ukrainian ancestry. The rule still applies today, but now the credit union has $1.5 billion and 15,000 members across branches in New York.

In 1972, the credit union moved one block over to its present location at 108 Second Avenue. The front lobby is a low-ceilinged space lined with teller windows. In contrast to the sleepy headquarters of the Selfreliance Association, the credit union is bustling with business conducted in Ukrainian and English. “This association was started by people who were already here to help, and just look what it’s grown into,” Kurczak says.

The building at 98 Second Avenue remains the association’s headquarters. The place is mainly used as a Ukrainian American community center that hosts weekly bingo games for seniors, English classes, guest speakers, and, until recently, Jazzercise sessions. It has a modest library housed in large glass-doored bookshelves. A beautiful, brightly colored map hangs on one wall depicting Ukraine, illustrated with images of native animals and agricultural and industrial regions. Lately, the association has been collecting clothes and supplies, which are sent to the motherland via courier service to help in the war effort. —Petra Bartosiewicz

The Ukrainian National Home: Where Stuffed Cabbage Meets the Dive Bar

Address: 140 Second Avenue
Purchased: 1950s

Illustration: Misha Tyutyunik

A metal-clad building emblazoned with Cyrillic characters, the Ukrainian National Home — “Ukie Nash,” as it is affectionately known to some locals — was once a pair of identical single-family rowhouses on Second Avenue. They were likely built in the early 1830s by Thomas E. Davis, a prolific but forgotten real-estate developer who designed (and named) nearby St. Marks Place. By the end of the 19th century, the houses’ tenants started to change as waves of new immigrants came to the avenue. A German YMCA opened in the buildings in 1881 (when the area was known as Kleindeutschland), to be replaced in 1909 by Stuyvesant Casino in what was then the Yiddish Theater District. The casino, which merged the houses and opened a commercial space on the ground floor, attracted guests both famous and infamous, including “the Big Yid,” a feared gangster who killed his would-be assassin in the building, and New Orleans jazz musicians, like Bunk Johnson and Hot Lips Page, who regularly performed there throughout the 1940s.

After World War II, Second Avenue became the main artery of Little Ukraine. Ivan Kedryn, a prominent journalist and Ukrainian nationalist, helped form the Committee for the Building of the Ukrainian National Home, a place where the Village’s 60,000 Ukrainians could gather. The group purchased the casino in the 1950s. Over the years, more than a dozen political and cultural organizations — the Ukrainian American Coordinating Council and the Plast Supreme Council (a Ukrainian Scouting group) among them — set up offices on the top floors. Below, there was a dance hall, Lys Mykyta bar, and the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant, a homely dining room situated at the end of a fluorescent-lit hallway, which still serves pierogi and borscht. Bohdanna Pochoday-Stelmach, who immigrated to the neighborhood in the 1960s, attended her sister’s bridal shower at the Home as well as her niece’s and nephews’ christening parties and her mother’s funeral reception. “For every party my family had there, every other Ukrainian family had one too,” she says.

On an autumn night in 1984, the building went up in flames, reducing 20-some offices to rubble and badly damaging the restaurant, bar, and dance hall (and two grand pianos). Officials believed the cause was arson. Two years later, after nearly $1 million in renovations partly fund-raised by the community, the Ukrainian National Home reopened. A bishop from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church came from Connecticut to bless the place, and renowned singer Marta Kokolska-Musijtschuk performed at a reopening banquet.

Much of the interior remains untouched since the reopening. Bucolic paintings in ornate frames and embroidered scarves adorn the wood-paneled restaurant. Next door, the dimly lit dive bar has a log-cabin feel, earning it the name Karpaty Pub (after the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine) from regulars. The patrons, though, have changed a bit. On any given night, tables of mesh-shirt-clad students can be seen seated next to old men ordering vodka. The event space, still the site of communion parties, recently hosted -Natasha Lyonne’s birthday party. The Bushwick Book Club, a tango salon, and an anti-vaccine-mandate group meet there regularly too. “We do a lot with the Ukrainian and East Village communities,” says manager Ron Kavral, “but anyone can call and reserve the space.” —Kayla Levy

Veselka: A Little Kid’s Dream

Address: 144 Second Avenue
Purchased: 1964

Illustration: Misha Tyutyunik

Before it was a 24-hour East Village icon — Veselka at 3 a.m. because you were very happy or very sad was a New York rite of passage — the plot of land that would become 144 Second Avenue belonged to New Netherland governor Petrus Stuyvesant. It stayed in the family for more than a century, then was sold in 1854. The Stuyvesants were quite specific about what it could not be: a brewery, distillery, slaughterhouse, smith shop, or forge. It could not manufacture gunpowder, matches, soap, candles, varnish, or glue. It could not house a tannery, bakery, sawmill, horse market, or cemetery. Veselka might have fit the bill, barely — it does make its own pastries — but Veselka wouldn’t come along for another hundred years.

In the interim, the place became a marble yard, then a private townhouse, once home to the city’s deputy coroner and his many deformed animals (botched experiments, suggested the New York Times). In 1914, Jewish immigrants from Austria, Philip and Benjamin Menschel, applied to replace the residence with a three-story commercial building, which at various times would house the Casino Theatre, the Greater New York Taxpayers Association, a seedy all-night restaurant, the headquarters of the communist newspaper The Militant, a dance studio, a billiard parlor, and a little newsstand and candy shop called Veselka.

Wolodymyr Darmochwal, a Ukrainian refugee, had fled Soviet oppression after World War II and opened the original Veselka storefront in 1954. A decade later, the New York chapter of Plast — of which Darmochwal was a founding member — bought the whole building for $67,500, renting out the stores. “Everything from Ukrainian jewelry to costumes to Ukrainian clothing,” recalls Jason Birchard, Darmochwal’s grandson, the third-generation owner of the business. Darmochwal expanded Veselka’s footprint, turning it from a quick-service café into a sit-down restaurant attracting an unlikely coterie of loyalists. “It was a little kid’s dream, with candies to choose from and seeing all the different characters,” says Birchard, whose father, Tom, married Darmochwal’s daughter and started working at Veselka in 1967. “St. Marks being the Haight-Ashbury of the city, you just saw a lot of different kinds of people here coming through.”

After Darmochwal died in 1974, Tom inherited the business, eventually running it with his son, who took over fully when Tom retired in 2020. They stopped selling candy sometime in the ’80s, and by the end of the decade, it was, in Birchard’s estimation, a “full-fledged” restaurant.

It has only gotten bigger since then. When longtime Plast member Taras Ferencevych was a kid, he remembers there being a Plast store called Molode Zhyttia (“young life”) on the first level and a coffee shop. Now, it’s all Veselka. In 1996, Veselka took over several storefronts on 9th Street; during the pandemic, it expanded again into the space once occupied by the toy store Dinosaur Hill. Plast still occupies those upper two floors, which are in the midst of a $1.5 million renovation. There are offices and rooms for kids to have their Scout meetings; it’s where members meet for film screenings or egg-decorating lessons; and it has played host to Plast debutante-ball rehearsals. The fact that the Plast Foundation still owns the building comes with certain advantages for Veselka, too. Birchard declined to comment on the specifics of his rent but says, “Let’s just say I have favorable terms.” —Rachel Sugar

A Community’s History in Four Buildings