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.