Travel: January 2010 Archives

Ukranian Village: the New Country

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Submitted by Second-year Michael Carwile

The artist Andrij Kowalenko endured the chaos of the First World War, the oppression of Stalinism, and the uncertainty of a post-war displaced persons camp before making it Chicago's Ukrainian Village. In comparison, Anna and I had it easy: an hour on various CTA buses and trains to put up with and we landed at the intersection of Oakley and Chicago, where the thirteen copper domes of the St. Nicholas Cathedral met us on our right, and the one large gold dome of Sts. Volodymyr and Olha flanked us on our left. The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, holding a retrospective on Kowalenko's career, was just up the block, and all up and down the street the light posts were flying chamber of commerce banners in Ukrainian blue and gold.

Chicago's Ukrainian Village is like none you'll find in Ukraine. Its streets are as rectilinear as any in the city, and come with such names as Leavitt, Thomas, Walton or Iowa. Its housing stock is the same sturdy workers' cottages developers planted in immigrant neighborhoods throughout the city. And its main Orthodox church, St. Volodymyr, is a convert from Lutheranism and looks it. The Ukrainians were not the first group to populate this section of the city's West Side, and are no longer the largest, but somehow they've held on, and have been holding on for over a hundred years now.

If they didn't build the place, they've made it their own: in a two block stretch we passed by such establishments as the Ukrainian Self-Reliance Federal Credit Union, the Ukrainian American Club of Chicago, Ukrainian Delta Enterprise, and a few storefronts advertising only in Cyrillic. There were clusters of people on the street speaking their language among themselves, and the first thing anybody said to us in the neighborhood, at the check out counter of a convenience store where Anna and I were buying a Ukrainian chocolate bar, having passed up the Ukrainian soft drinks, Ukrainian dairy products, Ukrainian magazines and Ukrainian who knows what else, was, "Oh, you don't speak Ukrainian?"

And they did build it too--at least some of it. The thirteen domes of St. Nicholas, the neighborhood's oldest Ukrainian Catholic Church, gleam in homage to the eleventh century St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. But they could easily stand for the thirteen-day shift the church made to its calendar in 1969, a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which so outraged a group of parishioners that they crossed the street and put up a church of their own. Thus two of the 74 American parish churches of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church stand 600 feet from each other.

If you went to the Christmas liturgy at St. Nicholas on the 25th and wanted to repeat the experience at Sts. Volodymyr and Olha on the 7th of January, you could walk no slower than two feet per hour. Maybe it would be a pleasant experience, to leisurely watch the comings and goings of the neighborhood, to see the schoolchildren rush in and out of the cathedral school, and maybe even see the bishop step outside for air. You might piss off the motorists, though.

As long as there is instability in Ukraine, Ukrainian Village will survive, so believes Marta, the woman working at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art when we paid our visit. The neighborhood is not a recent phenomenon - the onion dome over Holy Trinity Cathedral was raised in 1903 - but neither is it self-sustaining. Inevitably, as children grow up, the insatiable suburbs draw them out of the urban village. Our host recounted this well-known tale with a resigned wistfulness about her, but added on an up note, "There are always special occasions that bring them back."

Fortunately, there have always been new immigrants to fill the village on ordinary occasions; like clockwork, or Halley's Comet, they pour into Chicago in waves. Every 20 years, our host reckons. She herself is a member of the immediate post-war wave, the child of one of many families of professionals, artists, or other undesirables of a workers' republic who fled the Soviet Union in the confusion surrounding the Second World War and washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan.

A new wave, coming with the fall of the Soviet Union, has yet to ebb, and our host, in trying to downplay the tension between the two groups of immigrants, managed to exposed it. "They don't really speak a different language," she defended against no one in particular,

"Well, it's not that there aren't differences, differences of time, regional differences, it's an issue of dialect, really," and as she trailed off, I could hear entrenched middle-aged Ukrainians accusing the new riffraff of russophony.

Coming to Chicago turned the earliest Ukrainians into Russians, in the same way it turned Sicilians into Italians. The oldest orthodox church in the neighborhood, Holy Trinity Cathedral, a Louis Sullivan take on the orthodox vernacular, is Russian Orthodox, and was even financed in part by Nicholas II.

Yet while the Tsar put his weight behind Russian Orthodoxy, His Apostolic Majesty in Vienna was pushing Ukrainian Catholicism, and soon Chicago's Ukrainian Catholics demanded a church of their own. In 1913, the thirteen copper onion domes of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral rose from Chicago's grid, just five blocks away. A second wave of immigrants from the region arrived in the neighborhood after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Civil War, these unequivocally Ukrainian, having tasted, briefly, Ukrainian independence in the chaos of 1917. Against Moscow's directive, these Chicago Ukrainians contributed a pavilion to Chicago 1933 Century of Progress exhibition, the only national pavilion not the work of a nation-state.

The generation of Marta's parents solidified the Ukrainian hold on the neighborhood, creating such unifying institutions as the Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union and the museum whose lobby we were standing in. Though there is also a Ukrainian National Museum, specializing in embroidery and Easter eggs and the like, this museum is full of strong lines, bold colors, and abstract expression--making it unabashedly modern. Human figures reduced themselves to arresting silhouettes, or else thick masses affected human form. A wire skeleton of a cylinder seethed with potential energy like the unbuilt Monument to the Third International. It was the kind of Ukraine not just a tradition to look back on, but a tradition to carry forward while the home territory was momentarily held back.

The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, we saw, was not just showing a retrospective on Andrij Kowalenko but also the work of a younger generation. Accompanying the icons Kowalenko fashioned from scraps of newspaper and bottle caps were pieces from the children of the St. Nicholas Cathedral School made with an even wider array of materials. Floppy magnetic disks became flying saucers over a computer's silicon innards. An empty plastic jug wore a Yankees cap.

And we got to meet one of the artists! Andrij Kowalenko is twenty years gone, but Sophia was there with her mother to look at her class's work. The two were walking around the exhibition space, pointing, taking pictures, and discussing the artwork in Ukrainian. We approached them, but only the girl responded in English when we asked if she had made anything on display. She showed us what she had, a butterfly.

The Ukrainian restaurant Marta had recommended to us for dinner has recently been ceded to the Jamaicans. Mr. Brown's Lounge had its grand opening the Tuesday before our visit, replacing Sak's Ukrainian Village Restaurant in the position opposite Sts. Volodymyr and Olha. We had another place picked out, but to pass the time before dinner, and wait for Alex and Ricardo to join us, we headed to Cafe Ballou on Western Ave. I had been to the cafe before, my only previous foray into Ukrainian Village, and two years ago I sat there almost alone in a wooden chair I couldn't quite manage to get comfortable in, under maps and black and white photographs hanging from the cream-colored walls and lamps hanging like a pearl necklace from the ceiling. Yowling swing and subdued orchestral recordings completed the milieu. It felt like Vienna in the twenties, the refuge of a culture already defeated but not quite yet departed.

Perhaps that was a prescient intimation, for today the place is under new ownership, and while not everything has changed, its double as colorful, the radio plays contemporary fare, and there were actually customers. We sipped our Moroccan mint tea, lounging on floor pillows thrown around a knee-level table, where once doilies had covered a table twice as tall. Uncertain times had turned our Viennese cafe into an opium den, or maybe this was now the palace of some Tatar khan of the Crimea. Or the hip syncretism of a 21st century American metropolis.

Dinner was served at an establishment with fewer pretensions, Old Lviv Ukrainian Buffet. Here, soup comes in clay jars that narrow at the rim and the rest of the food in trays under heating lamps. The cafeteria-style presentation is not the most appealing, but I can assure you the food is without exception delicious. Thick, heavy, meaty, gruely and delicious.

We had the spread to ourselves, being the only patrons, but we were hardly alone. Upon entering the restaurant, we were greeted by a fairy princess, or a girl dressed up as one, and when Anna tried to tell her she was the cutest little girl in the world, her mother apologized that she probably couldn't understand. There was an abortive attempt to get the girl to sing the alphabet, the Latin one, but she preferred to stick with Ukrainian, which the family spoke among themselves.

Still, she seemed as content watching a Batman cartoon as the Ukrainian children's program that followed, a Rankin/Bass-like stop-motion production, with half the frame rate and realistic lighting for winter at the north pole.

Our server was the teenage son, who says they've been living in the United States for about ten years now, first in Ukrainian Village but now in the suburbs. He'd like to return to Ukraine, at least to visit, but so far it hasn't been possible. When asked whether he thought of Chicago or Ukraine as his home, he said he didn't really know, but whether he said so out of real ambivalence or adolescent diffidence I can't say. As we left the restaurant, the little pixie blew Anna a kiss, which only confirmed her status as absolutely the cutest little girl in the world.

Maybe one day she'll become a docent at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, or be exhibited there, and maybe she will one day worry about what the next wave of Ukrainians is doing to the neighborhood. Or maybe it will all remain a childhood memory, a realm that in the early 21st century lingered half way between her parents' world and her own.