World War II brought profound changes to Birmingham. Some of these were part of a natural evolutionary cultural process in which the first American-born generation breaks away from the ways of their parents, while their children, reconciled to the past but fully "Americanized," move more smoothly into mainstream, Anglo society. More of Birmingham's citizens began to go through the procedure of naturalization during the war years. In 1941, the year of America's entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, the number of Birmingham residents becoming citizens doubled from the previous year. The numbers remained high throughout the war years. While the old Hungarian traditions did not die out, a marked community reaction against 'old country' ethnic consciousness did set in. This was no doubt due in part to Hungary's status once again as an enemy country, but also by the general groundswell of American patriotism generated by the war. This attitude is apparent in a series of articles in Toledo. They were sponsored by the Common Council for American Unity and designed to give guidelines on raising children who would not be hindered by local, parochial attitudes, but who viewed issues globally. The articles warned against being "hamstrung by ethnic or neighborhood loyalties."
The socioeconomics of the war years also played a part in Birmingham's changes. Young women, housewives, and mothers moved out of the home for the first time to "man" the war industries while their boyfriends and husbands were drafted into the armed forces and were shipped to far-off locales. These experiences re-oriented both groups, giving them connections to different ethnic peer groups in the military and in the workplace. The family and the local community were no longer their only social influences, and a wider view of the world inevitably resulted.
This broadened horizon and the attitudinal changes accompanying it were accelerated by the general technological transformation of American life in the post-war period. Like most Americans, Birmingham residents were moving up and out, and the automobile and the television were the major spurs to the move. Cars were the means by which people could leave their neighborhoods and shop elsewhere, or even move to other parts of the city. This newly found mobility facilitated a migration to the suburbs, particularly to nearby Oregon and Rossford. The June 15, 1945, headline of Toledo proclaimed the departure of one of Birmingham's foremost citizens: "Strick János kiköltözik a magyar negyedünkböl" [John Strick is moving out of our Hungarian neighborhood].
Television's effect was more subtle. Its premiere in the neighborhood was a communal event. Toledo's August 13, 1948, headline read "Television a Monoky-Arvai üzletben" [The Monoky-Arvai bar now boasts a television]. At this juncture, TV was still a novelty and was viewed in a community context. Although TV switched public discourse from Hungarian (or Hunglish) to English, it still brought people in the neighborhood together. Only as television moved into individual homes did its full force begin to be felt in the erosion of Birmingham's sense of community. Television began to replace grandmothers as babysitters and thereby lessened the Hungarian-language link between the generations. It also provided free entertainment at home, which lessened the importance of group activities in the community.
The cumulative effect of the war, mobility, and the rise of a television culture was a decline in Hungarian consciousness in Birmingham between 1945 and 1965. This is apparent in the increasing number of English language articles appearing in Toledo, the extensive coverage given to campaigns such as "Loyalty Day" and "I am an American" celebrations, and the Anglicization of many first and last names. Kigyossy's Funeral Home became Kinsey's. Tony Paczko's Restaurant dropped the "z," becoming Tony Packo's. Another telling example is Toledo's dropping of advertisements for the summer Hungarian language school at St. Stephen's Church. In 1948, the only summer notice was for a New York school offering training in "democratic citizenship."
The gradual fading of ethnic consciousness in Birmingham came to a sudden end with the 1956 Hungarian rebellion against Soviet occupation and repression. Hungarian-Americans, who had twice in the twentieth century been characterized as relatives of "the enemy," overnight became relatives of the fearless freedom fighters who had defied the Communists and fought for democracy against overwhelming odds. In Birmingham, self-effacement was replaced by obvious pride. The community pulled together to support the wave of refugees who escaped and made their way to Toledo after the Soviet Union crushed their revolution. 1956 had a distinct revitalizing effect on Birmingham, even though relatively few Hungarian 1956-ers settled there. Community cooperation was enhanced as the newcomers were greeted and efforts were made to settle them in. Only about 300 individuals came to Toledo, and only approximately one-fourth of them settled directly in Birmingham, but general awareness and pride in ethnicity increased in greater proportions. The infusion provided new leaders for the community, too, since a majority of the refugees were well-educated engineers, businesspeople, and professionals.
This transfusion came at an important moment in the neighborhood's history, since its economic base was beginning to fail. One after another, the major riverfront industries had been closing down. While many of Birmingham's residents were already at retirement age, others were laid off involuntarily as Malleable Casting, Unitcast, and Craig Shipyard closed their doors. For the younger generation, this often meant that they were forced to leave the neighborhood for jobs elsewhere. The process was exacerbated by the red-lining policies of real estate agencies and banks that were eager to sacrifice Birmingham for the newly developing suburbs.
The new leadership and ethnic pride the 1956-ers brought with them, although it had significant impact, was not enough to reverse the overall trend of Birmingham's decline. As the 1960s began, the dissolution of Birmingham as a vital neighborhood was increasingly apparent as the younger generation continued to drift toward the suburbs. A telling indication of the changing times was the renaming of the "Hungarian Reformed Church;" it became the Calvin United Church of Christ in 1962. In explaining the name change the minister said that a new era had arrived in which "nationalistic [sic] labels were becoming less applicable."
It is possible that, despite the influx of 56-ers, Birmingham's slow slide into non-existence might have run its course, as the German ethnic enclave known as Link's Hill had decades earlier. But two events occurred in 1974 that brought Birmingham back from the brink, both as an ethnic community and as a political force in the city of Toledo. The first was the proposed closing of the Birmingham branch of the Toledo Lucas County Library. Birmingham residents organized a group called "Save Our Library" out of the churches and the 20th Ward Democratic Party Club, and, after several reversals, convinced the library board to keep the neighborhood branch open.
The other significant event in 1974 was an attempt by the city planners to widen Consaul Street and build an overpass which would have split Birmingham into two parts. St. Stephen's Father Martin Hernady, Nancy Packo, Oscar Kinsey, and other Birmingham civic leaders organized a response. They mobilized a protest and blocked traffic in front of St. Stephen's church along Consaul Street, the main thoroughfare to the Maumee River. Teachers and their students together streamed out of St. Stephen's school and stopped the cars and trucks. These demonstrations, sympathetic coverage in Toledo's major daily newspaper, The Blade, and some effective lobbying enabled Birmingham to "beat City Hall." Father Hernady, as spokesman for the newly formed "Birmingham Neighborhood Coalition," addressed Toledo City Council and in April convinced the members to postpone the Consaul Street project for ninety days for further study. That summer the issue was voted down unanimously in Council, and The Blade trumpeted, "Residents Triumphant in Birmingham Area." The bells of all three of Birmingham's churches were rung simultaneously for the first time since the end of World War II.
These two civic successes revived Birmingham's sense of community. Furthermore, the energy and political power unleashed by the events had numerous ripple effects. They launched the successful political careers of current Toledo City Councilman Peter Ujvagi and two-term County Commissioner Francis Szollosi. They led to the formation of the Birmingham Neighborhood Coalition and the East Toledo Community Organization (ETCO). They also inaugurated the Birmingham Ethnic Festival, which was originally a victory celebration, but has since become an annual occurrence. Held continually since 1974 on St. Stephen's Day in August, the event is considered one of Toledo's best summer ethnic festivals. Proceeds go to Birmingham's "self-defense fund."
The 1976 presidential campaign brought Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter to Birmingham, a traditional Democratic Party stronghold, where he and Walter Mondale dutifully autographed Tony Packo's Hungarian hot dog buns, in the tradition of the establishment. Packo's was becoming known nationally during this time through frequent mentions by the character Max Clinger on the popular television show "M*A*S*H." In 1977, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Birmingham Neighborhood Coalition produced a professional documentary film of the Abauj Bethlehemes Christmas folk play. The neighborhood has also been the subject of a video documentary. Titled "Urban Turf and Ethnic Soul," this video was made in 1985 with support from the Ohio Humanities Council. The Birmingham Cultural Center was established in 1983 through the Urban Affairs Center of The University of Toledo, and over the years has spearheaded numerous projects to collect and preserve the history and culture of the neighborhood. The present volume, in fact, is one of the Cultural Center's projects.
The main effect of Birmingham's revitalization in the 1970s was the rekindling of the idea of Birmingham as a cohesive unit. Birmingham came to be viewed not as a random sprawl of streets and houses with a curious past, but a group entity capable of thinking in terms of "self-defense." It was a community. Today, if you drive into Birmingham from the south along Front Street, you cross an overpass and cloverleaf that shunts traffic on and off of Interstate 280, Toledo's connecting point to Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. Over the road, there is a large green highway marker that reads "Welcome to the Birmingham Ethnic Neighborhood." The sign marks the beginning of physical Birmingham, but the actual community is larger than the neighborhood per se. Former Birminghamers return from the suburbs or across the Maumee River on a regular basis--to buy bread at the National Bakery, to get sausage at Takacs' Market [or from Calvin United, which makes traditional Hungarian-style sausage every autumn, winter, and spring], to eat at St. Stephen's chicken paprikash dinners, or to attend church.
In an interview for a documentary videotape, City Councilman Ujvagi, himself a 1956 refugee, commented that there is a large contingent all over the city with an affinity for Birmingham. "Many people have been surprised," he said, "that we have been able to get people who live far, far away--union leaders, teachers, corporate leaders--to come to the rescue of Birmingham. This is because they still come back, to baptize their children, to bury their dead. They may not live in Birmingham anymore, but there is a life-blood in this community that serves not just the people who physically live in it, but involves people throughout the city."
Perhaps it was the arrival of the 1956-ers, or maybe the crises of 1974, or both--but whatever the causes, Birmingham has come to be the most visible and politically powerful ethnic community in Toledo. Writing in 1975, just after the library and Consaul Street civic actions, University of Toledo graduate history student John Hrivnyak commented in his master's thesis that "if the Birmingham community suffered from any serious problem in its history, it [was] a lack of political initiative...Birmingham has never had any of its sons or daughters elected to City Council." Ironically, this was written just as Birmingham was about to elect both a councilman and a county commissioner. Few Toledoans in the 1990s would accuse Birmingham of lacking political clout.
By the time a neighborhood puts up a sign to announce its ethnicity or boasts a large-attendance annual ethnic festival, it may well be that its real period as an ethnic community is over. Tony Packo's pickles, sauces, and sausages are sold from kiosks in suburban malls, suitable for mailing around the country. And a book like this one attempts to capture the special essence of a time and place that no longer exists. But visitors, even in the last few years of the twentieth century, still come away agreeing with the residents, the scholars, and the politicians, that Birmingham remains an extraordinary American neighborhood.
The European immigrant experience in America, of which the Birmingham story is a core example, is receding into memory. Nostalgia for it grips those who lived through it, and, to an extent, all Americans who have lived contemporaneously with it. But nostalgia alone is not enough to keep it from fading. Those with shared experiences and common memory of Birmingham's days must speak of their experiences and bring their memories to life in narrations. And those of us who care about the American experience must take those narratives down and preserve them. The novelist Willa Cather, herself a great documenter of the American immigrant experience, called tradition "the story of a group's experience." The people who speak to you across the pages of this book are the sources of that story for the Birmingham community. As they talk about their lives--their work, play, births, marriages, friendships, deaths, customs and rituals, education, and politics--its tradition emerges. Their voices are the pluribus out of which Birmingham's unum was fashioned over the period of a spectacular and eventful American century.
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