From Life and Times in Toledo’s Birmingham Neighborhood by Thomas E. Barden and John Ahern
From the beginning, Birmingham’s strategic location near the mouth of the Maumee River made it naturally attractive to settlers in northwest Ohio. Even before the first Europeans arrived, Native American tribes were drawn to the area by its easy access to Lake Erie, its abundant fresh fish, and its location under a major migratory bird route. What would become the Birmingham neighborhood was settled early on by French, German and Irish farmers impressed with the area’s rich loamy soil. Streets and park names such as Collins, Valentine and Paine commemorate these early farming settlers.
Birmingham’s economic shift from agriculture to industry happened suddenly, beginning with the establishment of a foundry by the National Malleable Castings Company. In 1890, the company transferred approximately two hundred Hungarian workers from its home plant in Cleveland to its new East Toledo site on Front Street. Birmingham quickly became a working-class Hungarian enclave.
Birmingham’s name was meant to invoke a thriving iron and steel manufacturing center. And by the time of World War I, it did resemble its English namesake, as National Malleable had been joined by United States Malleable, Maumee Malleable Castings, two coal yards, a cement-block manufactory, and the Rail Light Company (later Toledo Edison). The population of East Toledo was growing rapidly, too, going from 17,935 in the 1900 census to 39,836 in 1920. With this increase came civic amenities such as sidewalks, paved streets, grocery and dry good stores, banks, bakeries, and saloons. Birmingham’s own neighborhood school came early in its history. The first public-record mention is in 1894, in the annual report of the Toledo Public Shools
The ethnicity of East Toledo and Birmingham in particular continued as the total population increased. The main ethnic group in Birmingham remained Hungarian, but others were present as well. Immigrant Slovaks, Czechs, Germans, Poles, Bulgarians, and Italians all appear in the World War I-era census records.
World War II brought profound changes to Birmingham. The number of Birmingham residents becoming citizens in 1941 doubled from the previous year. The numbers remained high throughout World War II. The socio-economic upheaval of the war years also changed Birmingham. Young women, housewives, and mothers left the home for the first time to staff the war industries while their boyfriends and husbands were drafted and shipped to far-off locales. These experiences re-oriented both groups, connecting them to different ethnic peer groups in the military and in the work place. The family and local community were no longer their only social influences, and a wider view of the world inevitably resulted.
While a gradual fading of ethnic consciousness in Birmingham occurred following the second World War, it came to an abrupt end in 1956 when the Hungarians openly rebelled against Soviet occupation and repression. Community cooperation grew as the newcomers were greeted and efforts were made to settle them in homes and jobs. About three hundred individuals came to Toledo; approximately one-fourth settled in Birmingham. The infusion provided new leaders for the community since a majority of the refugees were well-educated engineers, business people, and professionals.
Although the new leadership and ethnic pride the 56ers brought with them had significant impact, it was not enough to reverse the overall trend of Birmingham’s decline. As the 1960s began, the eventual dissolution of Birmingham as a vital neighborhood became increasingly apparent as the younger generation began to drift toward the suburbs. But in 1974, two events occurred 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 Public Library. 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 to keep the neighborhood branch open. The other significant event was an attempt by city and county planners to widen Consaul Street and build an overpass that would have split Birmingham into two parts. Birmingham civic leaders organized to respond. They mobilized a protest and blocked traffic in front of St. Stephen’s along Consaul Street, the main thoroughfare to the Maumee River. Teachers and their students together streamed out of St. Stephen’s School, stopping trucks and cars. These demonstrations enabled Birmingham to “beat city hall.” That summer the issue was voted down unanimously by City Council, and the bells of all three of Birmingham’s churches were rung simultaneously for the first time since the end of World War II.
The Birmingham Ethnic Festival, originally a victory celebration, has become an annual event – held continually since 1974 on the third Sunday in August, close to St. Stephen’s Day. The main effect of Birmingham’s 1970s revitalization was the rekindling of Birmingham as a cohesive unit. Birmingham was seen not as a random sprawl of streets and houses with a curious past, but a community capable of thinking in terms of “self-defense.”
Today, if you drive into Birmingham from the south along Front Street, you pass a large green highway marker hanging over the road, announcing “Welcome to the Birmingham Ethnic Neighborhood.” The sign marks the physical beginning of Birmingham, but the actual community remains larger than the neighborhood itself.