Ukrainian Village: Traditions overcome ‘hottest neighborhood’ label

Ukrainian Village is a trip within Chicago that’s like visiting Eastern Europe. It is preserved, as if pulled from a hidden time capsule; though, it exists right under our noses. Homes are passed from generation to generation. Neighbors know each other by name. Crime is low. Business is good. Shop owners still speak the language, and church services are held in native tongue.

At the same time, nightlife, modern conveniences, and public transportation are nearby. Boutiques and pizza joints have woven their way between mom-and-pop shops. It is naïve to believe this would go unnoticed for too long. Old buildings have been razed to make way for new. Condominiums have found a way.

But the first-generation Ukrainian-Americans living in houses purchased by their grandparents at the turn of the century won’t let their voices go unheard. As outsiders move in, they’ve welcomed them with Ukrainian hospitality while sternly affirming: You’re as welcome as we were when we arrived, but we won’t let you override our home. This is Ukrainian Village. As long as you know that, you belong.

Today, nearly fifty percent of the neighborhood—fifteen thousand out of thirty-five thousand—is still of Ukrainian descent. That majority stands thanks to the stories passed on among families, the histories preserved in churches, and the efforts of community groups and museums. You’d be hard-pressed to find any other Chicago neighborhood where its residents can clearly, and accurately, articulate the history of their ’hood back through more than a century.

Some of those Ukrainian Village resident enthusiasts—George Matwyshyn, Maria Klimchak, Myron Lewyckyj, and Orest Hrynewych—can share the history as fluidly as they know how to spell their last names. The history of Ukrainian Village is the story of their families. The legacies of the streets, buildings, businesses, and churches are personal. It’s a history they’re proud of, excited to share, and prepared to preserve.

The history goes like this: Ukrainians came to Chicago in four discernible waves of immigration. The first, in 1870, was of a working-class people, without much education or skill. The second was in the nineteen tens, at the onset of World War I, as Ukrainians sought political freedom. The third was of a highly educated people who came to Chicago following World War II; they were doctors, lawyers, writers, and artists. The fourth came in the nineteen nineties, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Throughout the years, the community built an identity within its borders. As they struggled to obtain credit on America’s terms, they established their own service, SelfReliance Ukrainian American Federal Credit Union, still housed on Chicago Avenue. Byzantine-Slavonic-style cathedrals were erected. Ukrainian-centric schools, youth centers, restaurants, art institutes, and museums were built. Today, it is a middle-class neighborhood with a median income at about seventy thousand dollars. On the map, it’s a perfect-square in the West Town community area, bordered by the well-traveled and CTA-friendly streets of Division, Grand, Western, and Damen. The streets are lined with brick and stone housing from the late nineteenth century. Along Hoyne and Thomas streets, workers’ cottages dating back to the eighteen eighties still stand strong. The occasional bungalow-style homes remind, “this is Chicago.” While it was predominantly Ukrainian-owned and inhabited for more than a hundred years, the area wasn’t designated as Ukrainian Village until Mayor Jane Byrne made it so in January 1983.

What started out modestly, Redfin now calls the “hottest residential neighborhood,” not just in Chicago but, in the country. The 2015 median sales price for homes in the neighborhood was $472,000, and houses are typically on the market for a mere twenty-two days. It’s known for its historic, architecturally significant places of worship such as Saints Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, and Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The latter was designed by Louis Sullivan, a mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright and “father of the skyscraper.” In fact, it’s one of the few Louis Sullivan-designed churches in the country. The exterior is almost strictly white and gold, while the interior bursts with vibrant color and awe-inspiring artwork. Without preservation, without the efforts and enthusiasm of the residents who hold these icons dear, many of these landmarks would be lost.

It is people like lifelong resident George Matwyshyn who have made the difference. He serves as president of the Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Association and was born in the United States after his parents emigrated from Ukraine. In 1979, he bought his own home in the neighborhood for a modest sixty thousand dollars. Today, Matwyshyn estimates it would sell for at least one million dollars. But he’d never do it, as much as the price tag tempts.

Matwyshyn describes the neighborhood as “self-contained.” There are banks, schools, a grocery store, local shops and boutiques, and doctors and hospitals. One of its biggest draws is safety. “You can walk in the neighborhood in the evenings and feel relatively safe,” he said. “You see people taking care of their backyards and the front of their homes. You feel that the neighborhood is stable. There’s stability.”

For some residents, the taxes associated with increasing home values weakens their ability to stick around. “It’s putting a strain on the hard-core older residents with older buildings, and on top of that, rent has gone up tremendously,” said Matwyshyn, who’s been a part of the U.V.N.A. for more than thirty-five years. His dream is to see as much as the neighborhood as possible designated as a historical landmark. The U.V.N.A. has experienced great success: As of 2017, about seventy-five percent of Ukrainian Village has garnered that designation. It’s a title that preserves the exteriors of the building,  but it is often a challenge because of the materials and craftsmanship needed for the stonework, Matwyshyn said. “People are interested in the neighborhood and are paying top dollar for the property, but it’s a work in progress. You have to keep going after your goals, and our goals are to keep our landmark status.”

The appeal of the neighborhood is strong for young urban professionals who are looking for affordable rent in a transportation-friendly neighborhood, where there also happens to be low crime. Matwyshyn said he wasn’t surprised by Redfin’s naming of the neighborhood as “hottest in the country” but didn’t like it. “It made us famous, but we don’t wanna be famous,” he said. “The developers and realtors really went after us then. It increased home values and rents.”

To maintain the Ukrainian values and character, Matwyshyn said he’s working with the city and its aldermen, and keeping a close eye on neighborhood happenings. “We’re trying to get people who are coming in to partake in activities, whether they’re buying or renting,”  he said.

Flavie Rose has lived in the neighborhood on and off since January 2011, with her husband, Chris Rose. A native of south central France, Flavie said she loves Ukrainian Village for how kind, welcoming, and eclectic it is. She’s one of many who have fallen in love with the neighborhood as a newcomer not of Ukrainian descent. Still, the couple is active in helping to preserve the original culture, and voices concerns over the gentrification of the neighborhood they love and have called home for more than six years. “The neighborhood has changed a lot,” she said. “They have demolished old buildings to build new condos.”

It’s brought that “Lincoln Park” vibe that so many West-Siders say with a grimace, she said. “There are still resistant crowds of people that are not going anywhere, and the vibe is the same where everybody knows everybody. Knowing my husband and his love for our neighborhood, we will probably not go anywhere else in the city.”

Among the exhibits at The National Ukrainian Museum in Chicago is an elegant display of traditional Ukrainian women’s garb through the years. (Photo by Maksym Prokopiv)

The Ukrainian Cultural Center is a hub of education for transplants like the Roses and for tourists hoping to learn more about the neighborhood. The museum aims to tell the story of Ukrainian immigrants forced to leave their homeland and highlights its cultural achievements through an array of folk art, fine art, and archival materials.

Maria Klimchak, who came to Chicago from Ukraine in 1993 during the fourth wave of emigration, said the museum was the first door she knocked on when she arrived. Today, she’s the museum’s curator. “This is a house of history,” she said, her Ukrainian accent still thick as she searches for the right English words to express the importance. “It’s a real-life history of Ukraine, and it’s always open to those from the United States community.”

Some of the highlights of the collection include their unique folk art of elaborately decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs. They are shared with loved ones with a kind note written on a piece of paper, tucked inside. Ukrainian-style embroidery is also becoming popular, she said. When visitors come to the museum, Klimchak hopes they see the openness of the Ukrainian people. She hopes to give them a glimpse of what it was like growing up in her Ukraine community. “With an open heart I would tell them about the hospitality and the peacefulness of the Ukrainian people,” she said. “The people here are very friendly and some are from three generations of Ukrainian-Americans. When I arrived, and I spoke with people in this neighborhood, I felt like I was not talking with strangers, but like I was talking to my grandma or grandpa. They are always welcoming, and telling you suggestions of where to go and what to do. They helped me with my résumé, how I should present myself for job interviews. They were very worried about the new generations of Ukrainians, because it’s not easy to come to another country to start your future life. I got so much help from them.”

Klimchak’s children, ages eight and three when they arrived, didn’t speak English and were enrolled in one of the Ukrainian Catholic schools. “It wasn’t easy but step by step, going to the school, they began to learn,” Klimchak said. Working at the museum is part of the way Klimchak gives back to the welcome she received thirteen years ago. “You have to do something for your community, because you appreciate what they did for you,” she said. “Now you hear of the young generation and they are very lucky to come here and they learn English fast and get educated in the U.S. and are very active in the community. And this is the future of the Ukrainian immigrants in the United States.”

As much as Klimchak has seen the neighborhood change, she finds it comparable to the Ukrainian village from which she came, because of its preserved style and especially the architecture of the churches. “This is how we prosper,” she said. “I think it’s very positive that we have examples of our culture in the United States from the seventeenth century on. There are new buildings, and it has changed a lot, but most of the buildings and residents are still Ukrainian, and you can still try Ukrainian restaurants and Ukrainian businesses.”

One of those Ukrainian restaurants is Tryzub. Its owner, Myron Lewyckyj, could talk for hours about Ukrainian history, politics, food, and culture. It’s his passion, and his restaurant, Tryzub, is his passion project. An opthamologist by trade, Lewyckyj opened the spot at Chicago and Leavitt in May 2016. He describes it as a restaurant/museum/art museum, “featuring Ukrainian food with a modern twist.”

“I wanted to maintain the soul of the basic dishes but present them in a more sophisticated, appealing way,” he said. Take their colorful line of pierogies for example. Red ones are filled with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes. Green ones are made with buckwheat flour for gluten-free diners and packed with spinach, cheese, and white beans. The restaurant’s exterior greets with Ukraine’s national colors, yellow and blue, and the bathrooms are black and red to honor the Ukrainian insurgency army. At Tryzub, most everything carries historical value or meaning, even the pricing. Crêpes are eight dollars forty cents. The timeline on the opposite side of the menu informs diners that 840 A.D. marks the first mention in history of the Ukrainian Empire.

While Lewyckyj grew up in Norwood Park, Ukrainian Village was where he would make weekly visits for church, Saturday school, and Boy Scout meetings. Lewyckyj’s parents came to the United States after escaping Ukraine when it was taken over by the Russians in World War II. His wife is also Ukrainian, and Lewyckyj frequently travels back to the home country for medical missions, offering free eye care and cataract surgeries to those in need. “There’s a lot of enjoyment to be gotten out of Ukrainian food and culture,” he said. “I was so in love with the cuisine and the art and history that I wanted to fill the void of that over here. So I had to create this place where people could experience that, at least to some extent.”

Tryzub is the Ukrainian word for trident and serves as the symbol of Ukraine, like a coat of arms. The tryzub outside the restaurant is the world’s largest, Lewyckyj says, stretching four stories tall. Inside, the bar area is packed with folk art and modern ethnic art, some of which came from Lewyckyj’s family, others from private collectors and archaeologists’ collections. “This stuff is unbelievable,” he said. “We’ve got this wooden chest where every bit of it is covered with inlays. There’s hand, cross-stitched embroidery done by my mother and grandmother … axe heads that are close to one thousand years old.” The restaurant dining room is more formal, with custom-made tile and decorations covering the walls and ceilings, a large twinkling chandelier hanging down the center.

Lewyckyj  has watched the neighborhood change over the years, and echoes what other residents have said about the population shifting from predominantly Ukrainian families to outsiders taking advantage of low crimes rate and housing costs. “The old guard has been replaced somewhat,” he said. “But in some ways I think it’s done great things for the neighborhood, and my restaurant is designed to bridge that gap between old and new. The whole idea is to present Ukrainian culture and history and art to people who are not familiar with it.”

There’s another organization seeking to do the same. Forty-two years ago, a group of Ukrainian artists sought out a venue to exhibit their modern art. They found a storefront on Chicago Avenue between Western and Oakley. It started out primitive but over the years it grew, and two additional storefronts were purchased thanks to an investor. Today, it’s known as the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art and as one of the most cutting-edge, diverse local museums in the country. Over the years, the gallery has exhibited art from Ukrainians in and outside Chicago, including submissions from Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Orest Hrynewych has lived in Ukrainian Village area since the nineteen fifties, when he was eight years old. Today, he serves as managing director of the institute. “It’s a place for Ukrainian artists doing very cutting-edge stuff to exhibit their work. It’s a place where the work can be preserved and protected,” he said. “We consider ourselves fairly unique with a high standard of what we show. We do exhibits on genocide, post-Bauhaus work, local Ukrainian modern artists. We have a musical element and institute where we showcase traditional and modern Ukrainian music, art classes, and exhibits featuring children’s work.”

Hrynewych’s first family home was located in what was known as a more Polish area of the neighborhood, near the intersection of Ashland, Milwaukee, and Division. He attended elementary and high school within the same block, near Augusta and Ashland, at Elizabeth P. Peabody School (now closed) and Wells Community Academy High School (still open), respectively. The only time he lived outside of the neighborhood was in the sixties, when he was earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical and nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At school, he was part of the Ukrainian club where they held dances and meetings and kept up with what was happening in Ukraine. He married a Ukrainian girl. He spoke the language with those who knew it, and only reverted to English for those who did not.

“The thing about America is you have two options,” he said. “You can reinvent yourself to be anybody you want to or you can stay with your ethnic background. It does give you a different complexity. You have a different language, culture, traditions, and these in and of themselves have intrinsic value, and it’s good to be able to maintain those kinds of traditions and rituals of those groups. I grew up in a place where you were able to maintain the language, culture, and traditions that I think made me a more interesting person.”

When Hrynewych was in college, he took a sort of rumspringa from his Ukrainian heritage. He was working in the Wisconsin Dells and started going by the name Tony. “I dropped my Ukrainian name, started going by Tony, and reinvented myself as an American,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience, like going to another country. In the community, there were constraints on you to maintain certain things. Here, I was able to jump from one type of society to the next. I was a big Chicago boy, a tough guy from Chicago working out there with all these cheeseheads.”

When summer was over, he’d go back to school, back to his heritage. He chose his true identity to live out the rest of his life. But the neighborhood is changing, he said, just like he did those summers in the Dells.  “It’s become less and less a Ukrainian Village and more of a yuppie village,” he said. “What used to be a vibrant community has lost some of its original character.” Even his children are dropping their Ukrainian identity, he said, but he understands why. “There’s submersion happening. My three children all went to Saturday school and all spoke Ukrainian and went through all the traditions. We talk to them in English now because it’s easier to communicate, and when they have children, they’ll remember some of the tradition … but my youngest is in southern Illinois and he married an American girl and has a pickup truck. It’s more and more difficult to maintain your heritage and you do go into this melting pot called America. You were born here and you grow up here and fall in love here and get educated. And so you’re American first and Ukrainian second.”

But for Hrynewych, and Matwyshyn, Klimchak, Lewyckyj, and Rose, Ukrainian Village will always be first in their hearts. Greater Chicago, and even further widespread, American culture is second. As more generations cycle through, and gentrification rifles through, it’s unclear what Ukrainian Village’s future will be. Historical statuses will help. The passing down from generation to generation will help. Knowing how to spell the last names of your neighbors and remembering the history that hides between those consonants, that’ll help, too. The future of the neighborhood will, as it always has, remain in the hands of its residents.

Jamie Lynn Ferguson has lived on the West Side of Chicago for nearly a decade. She serves as an advocate for anti-poverty non-profits throughout the city, writes full-time for Catholic Charities, and is a freelance community reporter for DNAInfo Chicago.

About the author

Jamie Lynn Ferguson has lived on the west side of Chicago for nearly a decade. She serves as an advocate for anti-poverty nonprofits throughout the city, writes full-time for Catholic Charities Chicago, and is a freelance community reporter for DNAinfo-Chicago.

More From Chicagoly

JOIN THE DISCUSSION