A Tale of Two Villages | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

A Tale of Two Villages

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


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


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.

Gold Star, 1755 W. Division

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."

900 block of North Ashland

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.

Louis Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, 1121 N. Leavitt
  • Robert Murphy
  • Louis Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, 1121 N. Leavitt

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.

house at Damen and Haddon

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.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 


Add a comment