By Kayla Keegan
Roaming Second Avenue in the East Village, a passerby probably couldn’t tell from all the hipsters and pipe shops that they were walking through what was once a hub for World War II Ukrainian refugee immigrants between the 1950s and ‘70s. But those who called the area between 14th and Houston streets home, like Tom Birchard, co-owner of the restaurant Veselka who lived on Seventh Street in the mid ‘60s, remember being surrounded with Ukrainian culture.
“There were butcher shops, newsstands with Russian-Ukrainian papers, and store keepers that spoke in Ukrainian. It had its own identity,” said Birchard. “It’s a different kind of cohesion now.”
Besides a few remaining stores and restaurants, including Birchard’s Veselka, Julian Baczynsky Meat Market, and Surma, most Ukrainian businesses have vanished as the result of a continually shrinking Ukrainian population since the late 1970s. A 2013 report from the Department of City Planning indicates that the number of Ukrainians in New York City dropped from roughly 70,000 to 60,000 between 2000 to 2011, and that most (73 percent) now live in Brooklyn, particularly in Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay-Gerritsen Beach-Manhattan Beach, and Bensonhurst neighborhoods.
Still, members in the East Village community insist that while the Ukrainian presence has dwindled, the impending war between pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian military has made Ukrainian identity in the area stronger and more vocal than ever before.
“It may not be as visible as it once was, but there’s definitely a revival in the community, and people today are even more together and have mobilized,”said Dora Chomiak, a board member of the non-profit Ukrainian organization Razom.
Those in this neighborhood, known to many as Little Ukraine, say the renewal of pride coincided with the Euromaidan movement in January 2014, a wave of demonstrations in Kiev that led to the successful overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government.
It was when pro-Russian forces rejected the new Ukrainian interim government and, under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s command, annexed Crimea in February 2014, that tension escalated in the community and in Eastern Ukraine.
Violence between the Ukrainian military fighting for independence and pro-Russian forces has affected many of the community’s loved ones back in Ukraine. Some say their families have prepared knapsacks in case they must move into bomb shelters, while others believe their relatives live in fear that Putin is coming for them next.
“That’s the reality they live in and that’s that the reality the community lives vicariously in,” said Professor Alexander Motyl, a Ukrainian-American political scientist and native New Yorker. “They’re terrified and we’re all terrified.”
Olesia Lew, a chef at Veselka, says that the uncertainty about her family’s safety in Ukraine has made her and others in the community more connected to one another.
“I joined Facebook and started to become friends with all these people who lived here and had a Ukrainian identity,” Lew said. “It has made people want to reach out and get more involved in the community.”
Because of people like Lew, advocacy groups within Little Ukraine and around New York have expanded. Razom, located on Second Avenue in the East Village, is just one example of how Ukrainians are taking action. The organization was formed as a reaction to the Euromaidan movement and now includes a global network of over 2,000 activists.
“Razom happened because people woke up and realized that they do have roots in Ukraine,” said Mariya Soroka, a co-founder of Razom. “We have collected funds to help protests in Ukraine’s main square, provided medical supplies and proper clothing, among many other fundraiser campaigns.”
Businesses and groups all over the city, like Veselka, The Ukrainian Museum, Plast, and the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, continually contribute to Razom’s relief efforts and make monetary donations to send toys, care packages, and water filters to Ukraine. So far, organizers believe the local response has been tremendous.
“I see an unprecedented volunteer movement here and all over the world,” said Ivanna Bilych, Razom’s general counsel. “I love this community. They are doing a wonderful job supporting the infrastructure of this place and Ukraine.”
As far as the future of Ukraine and the East Village community goes, many, like 86-year-old Ukrainian immigrant Zenon Karmarchuk who has lived in the neighborhood since 1949, believe that the love for the area and the blue and gold nation will survive, no matter what happens next.
“This war has united people and put all Ukrainian backgrounds together at last,” said Karmarchuk. “We are united as one and cannot and will not be split here or over there, ever.”