As the owner of Veselka for the past several decades, Tom knows a thing or two about life, business, and history on the East Side. So he was an obvious choice for GVSHP’s oral history project – an ongoing campaign to record and celebrate the stories of our neighbors whose lives and work have helped shape the invaluable neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, East Village, and NoHo. (You can listen to or read transcripts of all the oral history interviews on our website.) Tom’s story is particularly interesting because, as he explains in his interview, he’s not a native New Yorker. He entered into the world of the Ukrainian East Side through marriage, but was instantly attracted to the sense of diversity and community. And oftentimes, Veselka (then owned by Tom’s father-in-law, Wolodymyr Darmochwal) felt like the epicenter of that community. I was surprised to learn from Tom’s interview that Veselka began as a small storefront functioning primarily like a Ukrainian newsstand. Darmochwal invited neighborhood women to cook a few traditional dishes at the store and he would offer them to regulars and friends. Over time, a standardized menu took shape but it was nearly inaccessible for English speakers – Veselka’s menu was more like a well-known secret among the local Ukrainians.
When Tom took ownership in the 1970s, the Ukrainian population of the East Side was already beginning to dwindle. Veselka was losing its longtime immigrant community, and seemed in danger itself. But luckily for us, Tom had a vision for a more inclusive Veselka. He formalized the menu, started listing items in English, and eventually expanded the store to allow for more sit-down customers. The increase access did the trick; his changes allowed Veselka to retain its Ukrainian heritage while developing into one of the most beloved businesses in all of New York.
Tom is passionate about more than just pierogi. His time in the eclectic East Side engendered in him an appreciation for the unique cultural heritage of the neighborhood – one with strong immigrant ties, an innovative spirit, and just the right amount of grit. While the neighborhood certainly went through some difficult times in the 70s and 80s, I have no doubt that Veselka’s dominant presence on the corner was a welcome symbol of continuity and community for many. And today, you’d be hard-pressed to see an empty table among their 2nd Avenue sidewalk seating. When we enjoy this piece of immigrant history, we have Tom to thank. And serving on the board of GVSHP, he continues to help us ensure that the East Side’s cultural heritage survives through its architecture, local businesses, and strong community involvement.
So enjoy a borscht today in honor of Tom Birchard. Happy birthday, Tom!