Can a Poem Help Revitalize Buckeye?
A poem etched on a park bench in Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood is an attempt to connect a largely African-American community with its Hungarian past. It’s part of a new park on the city’s east side that’s due to debut Friday.
The park sits on one end of the abandoned lot of a former car dealership at the intersection of Buckeye Road and Shaker Boulevard. The poem is stenciled in English on one-half of the circular stone bench. The same verse is transcribed in Hungarian on the other half.
On a recent visit to the site, Dawn Arrington ran her fingers across the words that she helped write: Culture enriches a trusting community, each soul rebuilding.
The English version [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
Arrington says this community could use some rebuilding.
“I didn't really understand it until I moved here, and then I started getting curious about the history of the neighborhood,” she said.
The neighborhood’s changed a lot through the decades. A century ago, thousands of Hungarians arrived on these streets, drawn by a surplus of manufacturing jobs in the Cleveland region. Ernie Mihaly knows this community well.
“All my life,” he said. “93 years.”
Ernie Mihaly [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
He recalled that the Buckeye neighborhood used to be like a city within the city.
“You didn't have to go anywhere for anything,” he said. “You had six or seven bakery shops, you had butcher shops, doctors, lawyers - you name it.”
But, he said all that commerce started to decline in the 1950s and '60s, as the children of many of those immigrants shifted to the suburbs, looking for bigger houses. Then, an influx of African American families started moving into the Buckeye community. As a child, Dawn Arrington lived in the nearby Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, but she recalled visiting her grandmother here in Buckeye.
“I just knew that the white people were moving out and, as a kid, it seemed like, you know, they were just afraid of us,” she said.
The Arringtons of Buckeye: Michael Jr., Michael Sr., Dawn and Michaela [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
In 2003, Dawn Arrington and her husband decided to buy a house in Buckeye. A poet and a community activist, Arrington has worked to bring residents together in this once thriving neighborhood. One exercise was a series of poetry workshops with people contributing words about the meaning of community.
“It wasn't all, you know, beautiful and bubbles and butterflies,” she said. “It was everything, it was every viewpoint. You had people who literally walked in and said: ‘Ain’t nothing gonna change, and I just wanted to say that,’ and stormed out of the room.”
But, after some back-and-forth, the poem about the rebuilding of community was born. Arrington submitted it as a piece of public art for the new neighborhood park being created by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.
And, as an added touch, she turned to a friend with Hungarian roots to have the poem translated. But, that didn’t exactly work out.
“There was this intent for me to honor something, and I didn't get it right,” Arrington said.
In preparing this story, I took a picture of the poem on the finished park bench and sent it to WCPN’s Hungarian program host Andrea Lazar.
Andrea Lazar [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
“When you sent me the original poem and the translation, I noticed that there was a word that really didn't exist and that perhaps the content wasn't a fair representation of the original poem which Dawn had written,” Lazar said. “And it became a back and forth in trying to translate it more correctly.”
“At first I was like, is the sewer district going to say, ‘well screw it; these stones are in now. You know, it is what it is,’” said Arrington. “But, they responded: ‘No, we’ve got to get this right.’”
Correct Hungarian translation [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
The new translation was created and the park bench was redone. Dawn Arrington loves this green space, sprouting from the grave of an old parking lot.
“I think this is gorgeous,” she said. “Every day, I'm driving past this place, and to see it go from abandoned buildings across the street to this, like, I can hear the birds singing, literally, right now.”
Ernie Mihaly’s happy, too.
“This should have been put in here 25-30 years ago,” he said. “It's a beautiful park. It's very nice. Maybe it would have saved the neighborhood.”
Maybe this is a sign of hope.