Birmingham: reflections on community

Title:Birmingham: reflections on community
Author:Britton, Diane F.; Ahern, John F.
Publication date:1992
Publisher:Department of History and the Urban Affairs Center at the University of Toledo, and the Toledo Lucas County Public Library
Digitizing Sponsor:InternetArchive
Contributor:Toledo Lucas County Public Library
Birmingham - reflections on community
Birmingham: reflections on community

This book is the second volume of a collaborative project called “Birmingham Remembers” Residents of the Birmingham neighborhood had been interviewed in the 1980s. With this project the participants comments are organized by topic. Topics include heritage, education, religion, work, recreation, neighborhood, rituals, holidays, the Great Depression, military service, the Hungarian Revolution, activism and reminiscences.”


The story of Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood is one that reflects the larger themes of American urban development—immigration, industrialization and community growth. That story is told here in the words of those who actually experienced it, the long-time residents of Birmingham who shared their memories through an oral history project. The value of these reminiscences is that they reveal the intangibles of the past. One gains a great deal of historical insight into the Birmingham community by paying close attention to the emphasis each narrator places upon certain subjects, events or traditions. These aspects of community life cannot be gleaned from traditional written records. While such documents offer objective data and evidence from the past, personal memories provide a sense of being there and of participation. This history of Birmingham is unique because it recaptures the mood and the spirit of the people and their times.

Birmingham was established at the end of the nineteenth century when the United States was undergoing a profound change due to industrialization. rapid urbanization and the influx of millions of immigrants. The book is organized around themes that reflect both change and continuity in Birmingham in relation to internal and external forces. Section I examines immigration and the process of acculturation, major themes which influenced the development of the Birmingham community. People from Hungary and other European countries came to America to escape depressed economies and to make a better life for their familes and future generations. This first section illustrates the importance neighborhood residents gave to preserving their ethnic heritage. Most of those persons interviewed could name the towns from which their grandparents or parents had emigrated. They understood the reasons for leaving and the poignancy of the journey to such a faraway land.

The effort to retain an ethnic identity coincided with a larger movement in the United States for new immigrants to become acculturated. This is aptly demonstrated in the educational experience of many Birmingham residents. As children learned to speak English and to recite the names of American presidents, they also often continued to speak their native language at home and participate in traditional European activities. Some residents recall family hardships which necessitated missing school. Other narrators remember the disciplinary process, which was often reinforced at home, demonstrating the consolidation of older European traditions with American culture.

Work, recreation and religion, the focus of Section II, contributed a sense of meaning to the lives of Birmingham residents. The workplace was the heart of the Birmingham community. In 1893, when the Malleable Castings Company moved to Toledo, one hundred Hungarian families followed the factory. These families —along with others who emigrated from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Italy, as well as African-Americans from the South— quickly opened grocery stores, bakeries, dry goods shops, saloons and other businesses. Birmingham became a self-sufficient entity where residents could buy everything they needed within the community. Like so many immigrants at the turn of the century, the Birmingham residents had to learn to adjust to long, grueling hours in the factories, without any benefits or job security. Husbands, wives and children often pitched in to make ends meet.

Recreation became an important part of the community, with leisure activities and sports of all kinds offering an important diversion during non-working hours for all members of the neighborhood. The variety of activities further enhanced the closeness of the community. Organized sports included gymnastics, boxing and baseball, often providing the occasion for neighborhood get-togethers. In addition to sports, religion occupied a prominent and continuing role in the lives of Birmingham families. Holy Rosary, St. Stephen’s, St. Michael’s Byzantine Catholic and Calvin United (formerly the Hungarian Reformed) shaped and in turn reflected their congregations. As gathering places, they continue to keep traditions and customs alive, creating a strong bond among church members.

Work, play and prayer served to bind the community as the people of Birmingham developed a shared sense of values, tradition and togetherness. These neighborhood attributes are clearly illustrated in the oral histories. The cohesiveness of the Birmingham residents has long been a hallmark of the district. Eager to continue old world traditions while assimilating into American society, the men, women and children of Birmingham developed a community which exhibits the best charateristics of both. The memories of Birmingham’s residents illustrate the process of bonding and community building with the growth of shared traditions, mutual dependence and stability.

Section III explores the process of neighborhood development through rituals and holidays. Important family rituals—marriages, baptisms and funerals—were shared events that drew the community together. Holiday traditions continue to rely on a rich ethnic heritage, as Hungarian and Czechoslovakian immigrants pass old world customs on to younger generations. Christmas plays, Easter food blessings and Corpus Christi processions are activities that combine new friendships with old-world customs. These traditions remain an important part of the community and participation preserves the history of the neighborhood.

As Birmingham residents went about their daily lives, national and world events affected them and influenced their existence. Despite the cohesiveness and self-sufficiency of the neighborhood, these larger events shaped the destiny of the people. Section IV examines the effects of the Great Depression. World War II and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit industrial cities especially hard, with Toledo having one of the highest unemployment rates. Memories focus on coping during hard times. Following the depression. World War II saw a generation of young men serve on faraway battlefields to preserve American values. No neighborhood, including Birmingham, remained untouched by the war. During the 1950s community residents, many with relatives still in the old country, carefully followed the events of the Hungarian Revolution.

History has been important in the neighborhood for reasons other than preserving heritage. History has also empowered the community, as revealed in Section V. From the threatened widening of Consaul Street to the yearly Birmingham Festival, the community has drawn on its past in order to guide itself into the future. Many members of the younger generation have moved away from Birmingham, largely for economic reasons. Even so, they continue to feel a connection to the heritage of their youth, ethnicity and the good things that long-time residents remember about their neighborhood.

Those interviewed:

Mary Bence, John Bistayi, Elizabeth Borics, Margaret Brezvai, Mike Dandar, Frank Drlik, Anna Galambos Gall, Mary Garand, John Hornyak, Lucy Romano Hornyak, Nancy Packo Horvath, Ann Cherko, William Kertesz, J. Oscar Kinsey, Louis Kovacs, Velma Jambor Lengel, Mary Lenkay, Ann Lucas, Elmer Lucas, Mary R. Mahler, Agnes Gadus McDaniel, Eleanor Weizer Mesteller, Helen Georgoff Munson, Frank Nagy, Victoria Oravecz, William Pasztor, Andrew pocse, Anne pocse, William Szabo, Joseph Szegedi, Francis Szollosi, Priscilla Taylor, Wilma Thomas, Alberta Traylor, Joel Vargo, Ann Wagner, and Joseph “Fudgie” Wlodarz.


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