If you’ve taken a trip to the new Cooper Union building or gone for a beer at McSorley’s, you’ve most likely noticed that small one-block street that runs between St. George’s Ukrainian Church and Cooper Union, between Seventh Street and Sixth Street. This little off-the-grid street is known as Taras Shevchenko Place, named after the Ukrainian poet, artist, and humanist. A onetime serf and an orphan at age 11, Shevchenko rose to fame in the 19th Century and became a national hero for his ability to express ideas and visions specific to Ukrainian life, something largely unheard of before. Even during a ten-year exile in Russia he continued to write. Today, Schevchenko is creditted with creating the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature.
Why, though, does this man have an East Village street named after him?
Starting in the 1890’s a large wave of Ukrainian immigrants settled in the East Village, largely between 10th to 5th Streets, 3rd Avenue and Avenue A. This population grew again, to its greatest numbers, after World War II, reportedly topping 60,000 in the 1950s. This rich culture sprinkled the neighborhood with traditional smokehouse butcher shops complete with kielbasas hanging in the window, Ukrainian restaurants serving up varenyky and Knydli, and beautiful Ukrainian Orthodox churches. Unfortunately, today many of these businesses have disappeared and many Ukrainian families have moved on to other neighborhoods. Fortunately, though, all is not lost, and a Ukrainian enclaves does still exist in the East Village.
Centered primarily around East 7th and East 6th Streets between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, there is a rich Ukrainian culture still thriving. These two blocks contain the newly renovated Ukrainian Museum (a must-see if you’ve yet to visit), St. George’s Ukrainian Church and school, one of only two Byzantine-style churches in the City, Surma bookstore, and Streecha, a grandma’s-basement-homecooking Ukrainian restaurant. Veselka and Ukrainian East Village are also nearby for some good, traditional eats.
This stretch of 2nd Avenue also has many buildings containing Ukrainian groups like the Ukrainian Sports Club. It also is home to Self Reliance, the oldest and largest Ukrainian credit union in the world. Each May, St. George’s puts on a weekend-long Ukrainian festival where children dress up in traditional Ukrainian clothes, delicious food is for sale all down the block, and cultural performances take place on a stage.
On 4th Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets is the Shevchenko Scientific Society, also named after Taras Shevchenko. SSS, as it’s known, ” is an organization of learned men and women dedicated to scholarship. It is the oldest Ukrainian academy of arts and sciences whose activities have been the mainstay of Ukrainian cultural life for over a century.” Founded in the Ukraine in 1837, the New York branch opened at 63 4th Avenue in 1947.
In 1978, the Ukrainian community mobilized to rename the little street Taras Shevchenko Place after the country’s hero. The City Council approved this name change. In 2001, however, with the plans for their new academic building next to the street, Cooper Union proposed de-mapping Taras Shevchenko place, which would have removed the name from all official City documents. The school wanted to turn the street into a park and pedestrian walkway. Thankfully, after much public opposition, this was not approved and the culturally significant street remains today.