Oral Histories of the Lower East Side – Part 4: Reflections on Nostalgia and Change

Part 4: Reflections on Nostalgia and Change

In a recent oral history with Tom Brichard, I listened to him recount the early days of Veselka, a popular Ukrainian-American diner in the East Village. Opened in 1954 by his father-in-law who moved to the US during the Ukrainian diaspora following the First World War, Veselka has long been a meeting place for residents and visitors of the East Village. Tom, who has been at Veselka most days for the past three decades, has watched incremental change in the neighborhood accumulate.

“The way it was over here, obviously, gave people the opportunity to live very inexpensively, to be a pioneer, to kind of make a way for themselves and–with a high level of adversity in the background, but it gave people the opportunity to live really inexpensively and be creative. We have–there are a lot of artists who lived over here and could do art because they lived cheap. That opportunity now’s gone, obviously. Actually, a quick story about Ellen Stewart; I know you’re doing this. So Ellen Stewart was a friend of my father-in-law. Somehow they got friendly. And at one point when I first came, he took–this was a line of stores on 9th Street. What we occupy now, there were three or four stores here next to each other. So at one point, he rented one of those stores and combined it with the existing Veselka, but it was like his private little dining room, called it The Blue Room. And you couldn’t really get back there. It’s hard to describe, but you had to walk through a very narrow passageway to get back to this Blue Room. It had these big heavy blue curtains. So he would only invite his Ukrainian buddies to go back there but somehow he bonded with Ellen, I think because she used to–the early days, she would do theater pieces like in a basement right here on 9th Street. Then they moved at some point to Second Avenue. So she always told the story that she came one day and the place was kind of busy and he said, “Ellen, go back, go back over there.” It was like the inner sanctum where only his Ukrainian buddies could go. And she–after that, she always told the story that she was the first black lady who ever got invited into the back room at Veselka. But that’s a tiny little anecdote about, to me, how great this neighborhood was, ‘cause honestly, my father-in-law, being from Eastern Europe and not rubbing elbows with black people, he was pretty scared of black people and… How can I put it delicately? He was–I wouldn’t say he was a racist but he was scared and he didn’t inter—it wasn’t–he didn’t welcome black people or anybody different from him with open arms. He was very suspicious. But somehow, he and Ellen hit it off as fellow immigrants. And I think he had a real kind of intuition about who is a good person or who was not a good person. And they kind of bonded. She used to come in here and talk to him. And he did invite her into the back room, and she was the first black lady to go back there. And she–she always told that story and the opportunity she got. But that’s kind of an illustration of what could and did happen in this neighborhood.”

Part of Veselka’s continued existence in its original site is made possible by the Ukrainian Youth Organization, a Non-Profit next door who owns the building and offers Veselka a slightly reduced rent. Although Veselka is not struggling, the break on rent it still helpful and sets Veselka apart from other small businesses, most of which are forced to pay market-rate rent. The increase in the cost of rent has undoubtedly changed the nature of businesses and residents moving to the East Village, but Tom claims, has not been able to completely eradicate the “east village-ness” that made relationships like the one between his father-in-law and Ellen Stewart possible.

As this project comes to a close I think it’s important to acknowledge the persistent tension between a certain nostalgia for small business and their operative role. Through this series of oral histories, it became increasingly obvious to me that my original interest in the subject was in many ways motivated by a naive wistfulness for a New York I had never known. Although now I am somewhat cured of this, the conversations did remind me of the importance of collective history. In an increasingly globalized, hipsterized, and commercialized world, small businesses might represent a dying breed of consumerism; one less branded, more local and varied.

I don’t want to objectify or sterilize these histories as retro throwbacks to simpler times. But in light of many things – the recent election of Donald Trump and our technologically-induced isolation come to mind – I think it’s crucial to document, in part as remembrance and in part as inspiration, former ways of being and interacting. These spaces, which were home to these pasts, might not be where commercial growth is headed, but should not be forgotten. They may serve as important models in an uncertain future.

This post is part of FABnyc’s summer-fall oral history project undertaken by former FAB intern Molly Taylor, an NYU student from California, who has worked with FAB numerous times over the years. You can see the her complete blog series here.

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