The Preservation of Home: Ukrainian Immigration in New York City

Aaron Lascano

Often hailed as an international melting pot, New York City has long been considered a gateway for immigrants entering into the United States. Perhaps the most iconic symbol associated with immigration in New York is the Statue of Liberty, as suggested by the poem engraved within a lower level of the statue’s pedestal. Written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, the sonnet “The New Colossus” humanizes the statue, referring to it as the “Mother of Exiles” (6). This stalwart figure is portrayed as welcoming all those who seek refuge, and Lazarus bestows speech upon the statue, proclaiming, “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” (10-12). These few words, meant to inspire a certain romance and idealism of the immigrant experience, naturally cannot contain the abundance of stories that have been lived in New York City. These stories are often lost, ignored, or whitewashed with sweeping generalities. In a city so rife with social, cultural, and financial changes, the populations of immigrants ebb and flow in reaction to the currents of world affairs. One population in particular, the Ukrainian-American population in New York City, has weathered many of these changes. Their experiences provide insight into how immigration, and how an ethnic populations grow and fade in response to their surroundings.

The East Village of today sometimes seems divorced from a particular culture or identity. In the time that I spent walking through the area, I did not find it distinguishable from the rest of the Village. The East Village is littered with Starbucks, frozen yogurt places, clothing stores, and generic sushi restaurants that spring up across Manhattan. To me, its appearance and composition is interchangeable with other neighborhoods of the city, lacking a defining atmosphere or style. This generic quality is reflected in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, where the East Village served as just another hangout location for NYU students experimenting with ecstasy. They walk past it and through the surrounding area as one would walk past a Pret a Manger in Midtown or a Barnes and Noble on the Upper East Side. That the East Village has few defining features surprises me, given its fabled past of punk-rock anti-conformism. If I had not known that I was in the East Village when I walked through it, I would never have considered that it was the same place.

What I did not know, and certainly could not immediately guess, was that it was one a largely Ukrainian neighborhood. I found a sign of this when I came across St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on East 7th Street and Taras Shevchenko Place. Designed for Ukrainian Catholics, the façade of the church was marked with Byzantine architectural flourishes and Cyrillic writing. With no other indicators of a Ukrainian population in the surrounding area, I grew interested in learning the history of the place.

The East Village once housed an ethnic Ukrainian neighborhood, and the story of this population reveals how their neighborhood changed. The first wave of Ukrainian immigration to America, occurring in the late 19th century, illustrates the long-standing and strongly negative relationship between immigration, social prejudice, and economics. This group of Ukrainian immigrants consisted of over 350,000 individuals, and started moving to the United States in larger numbers by 1877 (Fedunkiw). At the time, the United States had already begun to industrialize and urbanize. Advancements in technology gave rise to sprawling industries of steel production, oil exploration, and railroad construction; America’s businessmen did not hesitate to capitalize upon these advancements. Because these industries were dominated by so few businessmen, nicknamed “the robber barons” for their monopolies, they set wages extremely low. This prompted a strike movement across American industrial areas, such as in Pennsylvania, where coal miners protested against low wages. In response, businesses sought to gain the upper hand by bringing in immigrant workers. Agents of Pennsylvania anthracite mining companies undercut the demands of strikers by recruiting workers from what is now Ukraine, promising potential immigrants “earnings ten to 20 times greater than they could hope for in the Ukraine” (Procko 1). In the process, Ukrainian immigrants were exploited and vilified by the communities to which they had immigrated.

 When looking at the conditions which Ukrainian immigrants faced in the late 19th century, there are some similarities to the present. Wage manipulation created through the hiring of immigrant workers remains a practice today, as exemplified in a New York Times article written by Steven Camarota. A director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, Camarota writes specifically about the declining wages in the meat-packing industry. According to the article, “real wages for meat packers were 45 percent lower in 2007 than in 1980,” caused by employers’ “bringing in immigrants and moving to smaller communities” (Camarota). These predatory practices continue to harm the economic mobility of new immigrants.

In addition to such financial difficulties, Ukrainian immigrants were met with prejudice by those already living within the United States. Established English, Irish, and Welsh communities saw Ukrainians as “contaminating once civilized towns in Pennsylvania by forcing out those who had given stability to the area” because they were among the first non-English-speaking immigrants (Fedunkiw). These populations went so far as to pass a discriminatory ordinance that taxed non-naturalized miners and laborers in the state, specifically targeting Ukrainian immigrant workers (Fedunkiw). As time went on, the Ukrainian populations in other areas grew in spite of these obstacles. In particular, the Ukrainian community within New York City’s East Village developed rapidly.

The Ukrainian population in New York centered on religious unity and leadership, with St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church serving as a hub for devout immigrants. This population was fundamental to establishing the Ruthenian Catholic Church of America, an Eastern Catholic Church that utilizes the Byzantine rite while maintaining communion with Rome. Near the end of the 19th century, the Ukrainian population in the Northeast began to desire the establishment of their own churches to tend to their spiritual needs. As populations grew, immigrants began to send letters and petitions to Eastern Europe, beseeching old parishes for spiritual leadership (Procko 3). Priests answered this call, but as they immigrated to the United States, they found themselves in conflict with the established Latin Churches. The Latin Church ruled that Ruthenian priests would be subordinate to Latin dioceses, and that they would be expected to follow Latin traditions, including the tradition of celibacy (Procko 12). Ruthenian priests refused to heed these directives, leading to a significant split in the leadership and organization of Ruthenian religious communities. This rift began to close in 1907, when the Roman Catholic Church partially recognized the autonomy of the Ruthenian Church by appointing its first American bishop, Right Rev. Monsignor Soter Ortynsky, O.S.B.M. (Procko 18). St. George’s Church became a center of organization as a result of this appointment. Bishop Ortynsky’s first Pontifical Mass, the first Ruthenian Pontifical Mass in the United States, was held in 1907 at St. George’s first location at 332-340 East 20th Street and First Avenue (Procko 20). In September of that year, St. George’s Church hosted a convening of 76 Ruthenian priests as they centralized their American leadership (Procko 23). Through all of this, St. George’s became established as the religious hub of Ukrainian Catholics in the New York area. That status helped draw immigrants seeking familiar customs to the East Village in larger numbers.

A second wave of immigration occurred between the two World Wars, though it would not be as large as the first wave. Consisting of only 15,000 individuals, this wave primarily settled in areas where the first wave had already established itself (Fedunkiw). Though there may not be a single, direct cause of the drop off in immigration, examining the state of Ukraine at this time may help explain the change. At that time, Stalin had come to power in the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a part. In the early 1930’s, Stalin rolled out his plan to socialize and collectivize the farmlands of the Soviet Union, but much of this plan consisted of a thinly-concealed attempt to commit genocide against ethnic Ukrainians. This genocide is now known as the Holodomor, translated as the “death by starvation.” To begin the process of collectivization, Stalin deported millions of kulaks (wealthy farmers) to prison camps in Siberia, as they were seen as counterrevolutionary enemies of socialism under his ideology (Kort 173). The journeys alone killed thousands of people, but the labor camps killed the survivors by the hundreds of thousands. Then, as crops died due to the poor weather of the 1931 and 1932 growing seasons, the Soviet government continued to oppress Ukrainian farmers (Kort 174). The government took grain from the countryside to feed cities, and did its best to prevent the starving Ukrainians from recovering the food which it had been taken from them (Kort 174). Between 1932 and 1933, five million Ukrainians died from forced starvation (Kort 174). The genocide continued in other ways, including the “destruction of Ukraine’s political leadership, the resettlement of Ukraine’s depopulated areas with other ethnic groups, the prosecution of those who dared to speak of the famine publicly, and the consistent blatant denial of famine by the Soviet regime” (“Holodomor Facts and History”). The ebbing of the Ukrainian community in New York City may have partially resulted from the Holodomor, helping to explain how a once-vibrant neighborhood began to fade.

Though the flow of Ukrainian immigration was stunted by the actions of the Soviet government, it resumed at the end of World War II despite Stalin’s repeated attempts to subjugate the population. Yet, the changing nature of Stalin’s policies encouraged a different segment of Ukrainians to immigrate to the United States. Following the war, Stalin “demanded a rapid economic recovery,” setting such impossible targets that his policies depressed the standard of living in the Soviet Union (Kort 192). This was closely followed by a systematic purge designed to destroy foreign culture within the Soviet Union, including deportations of hundreds of thousands of people to the Gulag. Ukrainians were included in this massive purge, as they were seen as “socially dangerous” (Kort 192). In 1946, however, this purge began to target intellectuals, nicknamed the Zhdanovshchina, after Stalin’s apparent successor. Given that many of the Ukrainian immigrants following the war were of a higher socio-economic background than previous immigrants, it follows that this purge might have changed immigration. The new group of immigrants consisted of those with the economic means to flee the Soviet Union. These refugees included 2,000 university students, 1,200 teachers and scholars, 400 engineers, 350 lawyers, and 300 physicians (Fedunkiw). Many decided to relocate to the United States (Fedunkiw). Once again, they tended to settle in established neighborhoods.

Despite the overall decline in immigration, an influx of wealthier Ukrainians changed the Ukrainian neighborhood in the East Village. The new population seems to have spurred important developments in St. George’s history. In 1958, a three-million-dollar school building was constructed to serve as both an elementary and high school for the parish (“History of St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church”). Demand for the building was likely fostered by the new immigrants, who would have wanted their children to attend a school that connected them to Ukrainian traditions. Parents wanted this connection even though they assumed their stay in New York would be temporary (Fedunkiw). The continued use of the building as a school indicates a sort of perseverance of the community. In 1978, St. George’s current church building was constructed, built in the Ukrainian-Byzantine architectural style. The construction of the new church was even completed without St. George’s parish incurring any debt, as parishioners’ donations covered the entirety of the project (“History of St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church”). While both events may not have happened solely because of the newest wave of immigrants, their wealth likely enabled these developments. Even as the Ukrainian neighborhood in the East Village declined in population, the community established lasting edifices which would connect their troubled past to the rapidly-changing present.

Today, the East Village has lost many of its ethnic markers. Once, Ukrainian immigrants gathered in this neighborhood, proving the vitality of their community through the establishment of an autonomous church. While immigrants were drawn to the East Village as a refuge from the oppression of starvation and torture, they have been gradually displaced because of rising real estate prices.

Even though the reality of gentrification cannot be denied, I do not think that all is lost. On Friday mornings in the East Village, a “small volunteer army of elderly women” fill the street in front of St. George’s, crowding themselves into a nameless restaurant across the street from it (Ellick). Once there, they prepare varenyky, small potato dumplings buttered with an onion sauce. The volunteers prepare over 2,000 varenyky to sell throughout the weekend, along with borscht, holubsti, and apple cake, the sales of which earn them over $80,000 per year (Ellick). All that money is given to St. George’s for the maintenance of the church and its adjoining school. Though the “once-vibrant Slavic enclave…has since yielded to hipsters” (Ellick), and the surrounding area no longer houses Ukrainians as it once did, Ukrainian-Americans scattered through New York City flock to the luncheonette, demonstrating the community’s lasting loyalty. Cultural ties, though facilitated by proximity, do not end when a community is dispersed. Though the Ukrainian immigrant population may no longer call the East Village its home, that does not mean their culture or identity has been weakened by the neighborhood’s commercialization. In spite of the challenges their people have endured over the past century, Ukranians preserve the pieces of their home with quiet determination.

Works Cited

Camarota, Stephen A. “Wages and Benefits Are Vital to Hard Work.” New York Times. 1 October 2011. Web.

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Anchor Books, 2010. Print.

Ellick, Adam. “Dumplings for the Lord.” New York Times. 30 Sept. 2007. Web.

Fedunkiw, Marianne P. “Ukrainian Americans.” Everyculture. Web.

Kort, Michael. A Brief History of Russia. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Print.

Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” Libertystatepark. Web.

Procko, Bohdan P. Ukrainian Catholics in America. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1982. Print.

“History of St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church.” Brama. Web.

“Holodomor Facts and History.” Holodomorct. Web.