His black cassock billowing in the breeze, candle bearer Anthony Kit steps lightly down the steps of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral.
"Isn't it beautiful?" he asks, pausing briefly in the sun.
Kit, 80, is one of several longtime area residents who lead tours of St. Nicholas, the eye-catching onion-domed edifice that towers over Ukrainian Village. It's a good place to get a sense of the history and character of this neighborhood 10 minutes northwest of Chicago's Loop.
Bounded by the busy thoroughfares of Damen, Chicago and Western Avenues and Division Street, Ukrainian Village is a small but vibrant section in the patchwork of neighborhoods known as West Town. Named for the Eastern European immigrants who bought homes here in the 1920s and then stayed, the village still has a very strong Ukrainian presence. But the largely middle-class neighborhood has also blossomed with the influx of new businesses and a growing population of urban professionals, artists and families.
"In the last year, we've seen quite a few more younger couples moving in," said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). "And more young, fairly-affluent families are looking to buy their first home here."
You get a glimpse of the changing demographic at one of the area's newest venues, Chick Pea, a right-on-the-pulse Palestinian cafe from former nightclub impresario Jerry Suqi on Chicago Avenue. Young women dish over kibbeh and hummus under color-splashed Arab movie posters. Three guys try to top the high score at the vintage pinball machine. And Suqi's mom comes out of the kitchen to find out what everybody thought of her home-style food. Suqi said he chose Ukrainian Village for Chick Pea "because it's the right demographic: young, urban, left-leaning, but without pretense — a conscious neighborhood. Ninety percent of our business is walk-up."
Others in the area echo similar thoughts. "I love that there are still 80-year-old Ukrainian ladies peeking out of the window when I walk my dog," says Marta Kenar, owner of chic/modern A Vision, a wine and flower shop on Damen. "But there are also yuppies and arty folks and families with little kids. It's also a place from which you can get anywhere in two minutes." Depending on which "anywhere" you choose, driving will get you from Ukrainian Village to Bucktown and Wicker Park in a matter of minutes and downtown within 10. It's about a 15-minute ride to downtown from the elevated train's Blue line stop at Damen/Milwaukee/North, six blocks north of Ukrainian Village in Wicker Park.
"It is close to everything," says April Lopez, pouring coffee at the Barista Coffee shop she opened on Damen three years ago. "But people also move here because they like the community feeling — you walk down the street and can talk to everyone."
If there is one area for improvement, Lopez says it's in educational options. There is one public elementary school — Christopher Columbus — which the alderman's office reports to be right at median level compared to other ward schools. But the office says area high schools — Roberto Clemente and Wells Academy — have some crime issues, and are more of a concern.
On the upside, Ukrainian Villagers are in close proximity to the new campus of LaSalle Language Academy, which is being phased in at the former Anderson Elementary. A.N. Pritzker Elementary, a fine and performing arts school and gifted center, is four blocks north. And, Walter Payton College Prep, a math, science and world language academy, and the Oscar Mayer Magnet School are less than a 10-minute drive from the village.
Ukrainian Village also has several private parochial school options. Among them, St. Nicholas reports growing interest in its preschool through 8th grade program and St. Helen's Catholic School has seen an increase of 65 percent in enrollment in the last five years, according to principal Marianne Johnson.
Architecturally speaking, Ukrainian Village has a lot to offer, says Jonathan Fine, who lives in the neighborhood and is executive director of Preservation Chicago. Fine explains that because much of Ukrainian Village was developed by the same man, William Kerfoot, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the mix of well-built two- and three-flats and gable-topped brick "Kerfoot cottages" present a more unified look than other West Town neighborhoods. About 75 percent of Ukrainian Village is now a Chicago landmark district.
Greg and Jolanta Whipple and their three children moved into a late-1800s graystone on Hoyne Avenue this past summer. "Chicago has several streets that are just full of architectural gems and Hoyne is one of them," says Jolanta, an architect and former fine arts teacher at the School of the Art Institute. Jolanta spent the last three years restoring the home to its former single-family glory, removing a clutter of small apartments and restoring fine woodwork and built-ins.
She's done the same conversion process for other Ukrainian Village homeowners, as well.
"De-converting multi-units into single-family dwellings is the way to go here," says John Federici, owner/broker with Krain Real Estate on Damen. "This is a historic district, and there are very few empty lots to build new homes on."
According to Fine, the area's landmark status should not interfere with de-conversions. "The concern is with preserving the streetscape, so changes to the exterior of the buildings are regulated," Fine said. "But unless homeowners are going for a tax freeze, they are free to do what they wish with the interior."
The area also has many condos available in bigger, multi-unit buildings sprinkled throughout. While values are down and there have been some foreclosures in the neighborhood, Federici says, "Ukrainian Village is a very stable area, and continues to attract more affluent buyers — people who are priced out of Lincoln Park, but want more bang for their buck than they can get in Bucktown."
Lilia Kulas-Zaparaniuk of Vintage Realty, which has been in this neighborhood for 20 years, estimates prices ranging from $230,000 to $400,000 for a two-bedroom condo and $400,000 to $750,000 for a "Kerfoot cottage" single-family home. Federici puts former two-flats that have been converted into single-family dwellings in the range of $1 million to $1.75 million. Properties closer to Division and the Blue Line are more expensive.
Letting more people see what the neighborhood has to offer, the Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Association is organizing a garden walk and architectural tour this summer.
"People here are very invested in beautifying and maintaining what we have here, and showcasing the history," says Paul Matwyshyn, association president. "There are many treasures here people have yet to discover."