Sunday morning. Ukrainian Village, Chicago. A neighborhood built as a residential center for and by immigrants in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Thomas Street. Years ago, I bought a brick two flat in the height of the fix-n-flip boom. Easy profit from cosmetic repair. Quick sale to follow. My son John was project manager while I remained in Florida, making frequent weekend trips to help. Neither of us is suited to quick fixes. We obsess too much. So much for fix-n-flip. We both fell in love with the property and its many fascinating excesses. Wide golden oak woodwork begged to be removed, stored during the construction and returned newly finished but with a century of patina to its original position. Real flippers would have tossed it into the dumpster, replacing it with finger-jointed composite products from the big box stores. We lapsed into reverie over the 2 ½ inch thick pine entrance door jams most likely harvested and milled from native forest in Wisconsin. They are strong and straight with five degree drafts milled into their crisp edges, allowing slab doors to close snugly without weather stripping. We missed the market by months and became landlords. John and Lisa live in the garden level and we are blessed with excellent friendly tenants on the other floors. We travel to Chicago often to enjoy this beautiful house and neighborhood.
I walked the full length of our street in the sun. Much has changed in the 100 years since this neighborhood was built but much has stayed the same. The houses are all brick most have three or four apartments. Many are built over the half deep basements with ground level windows called garden levels here in Chicago. Multiple family configuration of these houses made it easy for the original owners to sponsor an immigrant family and help them get a start in the USA.
The Ukrainian masons were given to beautiful geometric patterns using Chicago common brick for the gangway and rear walls with dark red over fired brick for the fronts. Most of the houses have parapet walls with limestone capitals. Offset brickwork adds texture to the front of the houses in friezes often defining one floor from the next or marking the corners. Wide sidewalks make it easy to move about this neighborhood and the many boutique stores and cafes along Division street add to the pedestrian scale. The natural air conditioner of Lake Michigan thirty or so blocks to the east makes the area a great place to walk.
The Ukrainians came to this area with extensive human capital. They were masons, carpenters, plasterers, plumbers, electricians and painters. These were very important and valuable skills in a Chicago experiencing a building boom. They built both their homes and churches here. The Louis Sullivan designed Holy Trinity Cathedral, at Haddon and Leavitt streets, was opened in 1903 as St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Church. Sunday morning I was invited in by father John to see the ornate interior under the gold dome. On the corner of Oakley and Rice streets stands St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral opened in 1913. This beautiful structure with gothic arches and three soaring steeples has a cavernous interior. I ventured in attracted by the plaintive chants at the 9am mass. At 10am sharp the bells of St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral rang out calling parishioners to hasten their pace to the red brick structure at the corner of Oakley and Cortez. The churches were at the center of neighborhood life 100 years ago. They are no longer filled to over flow level but seem to survive nicely. Forty-five thousand people who identify themselves as Ukrainian still live in the Chicago area and many return to the neighborhood for church.
Today, the neighborhood holds a diverse population. Young families walk dogs and push small children in strollers. They are likely to meet both hipsters in red hair dye and tattoos and eastern European seniors aging out in their familiar surroundings. Weekday mornings reveal many young professionals hurrying off to jobs in the Chicago loop or nearby suburbs. Son John and daughter in-law Lisa live in the garden level of our building. Lisa’s great grandparents immigrated here from the Ukraine. Her grandparents were married and her father was Christened at St. Nicholas. She was aware of the neighborhood via family history. She and John moved into the newly renovated house following their wedding in 2008. When their baby arrives next winter the fifth generation following her Ukrainian great grandparents will enter this village.
Much is the same. This is still the first stop in Chicago for Russian immigrants. Eastern European languages can be heard in the cafes and coffee shops. If any type of house repair is needed (constant for century old structures) a craftsman speaking English as a second language will show up to make the quote. He will be followed by a crew who’s working language will be Ukrainian or Russian.
Much is different. Coal fired boilers and large family kitchens have been replaced by spaces designed for today’s life styles. Broadband and WiFi bring communications capabilities unimagined by the original residents. Ample floor space and sound structures of these old houses have attracted new owners who like the neighborhood tucked away between busy arterial streets. Cars line the streets and parking is by permit only.
Walking in the morning sun in Ukrainian Village I began to dream of the same scene as it may have looked a century ago. Broad brick streets would have carried horse drawn carriages as well as early automobiles. Bicycles would have been common as they are today. The trees would have been smaller adding importance to the brick structures. Many houses would have been under construction in 1911 including mine. Whole families would have been walking to the churches. The area, at that time, was the home of 25,000 people of Ukrainian descent. They would have been lounging on porches Sunday afternoon. We who live here today enjoy the benefit of their hard work and craftsmanship. I hope you enjoy the photographs of a few of the neighborhood landmarks and houses. Take a look at this neat village neighborhood when you are in Chicago.