Six Decades In Buckeye: Through The Eyes Of One Long-Time Resident
By ideastream contributor Justin Glanville
Back in the 1950s and 60s, the saying was that Buckeye had the largest concentration of Hungarians in the world outside Budapest.
Ernest Mihaly was one of them. His parents emigrated to Buckeye in the 1910s, and when he was a kid the neighborhood was full of Hungarian stores. “We had about 8 butcher shops, and we had about six or seven bakeries. It was a city within a city,” he said.
But Mihaly is different from most of his neighbors from back then. He stayed. At 91, he still lives in the same house off Buckeye Road that he’s owned for 60 years. As the neighborhood has changed to almost entirely African-American, he’s one of a few dozen Hungarians who remain. “I stayed because I felt it’s going to come back, not to a Hungarian neighborhood but an integrated neighborhood,” he said.
In the 1940s and 1950s, he said, the idea of integration seemed possible. His father was friends with a black coworker who lived down the street. The mailman was black, and even spoke some Hungarian.
Mihaly said things started to change after World War II. “Some of the fellows in the service came home and they were looking for a place to live after they got married. There wasn’t anything for sale in the neighborhood, so they went out in the suburbs,” said Mihaly.
That wasn’t an option for black families. At the time, banks wouldn’t lend to African-Americans who wanted to live in the suburbs, and covenants and deed restrictions barred white homeowners from selling to blacks. So as Hungarian churches and businesses moved out of Buckeye, plenty of houses came up for sale and African Americans moved in. “I would say in the 1970s, early 1970s it started to change more rapidly. It was like overnight,” said Mihaly.
Neighbors no longer felt the same sense of community. And Mihaly said there were some people who were only too happy to fan the flames of fear and distrust.
He owned a building on Buckeye, and there was a realty office inside. Sometimes when he’d drop by to do repair work, he’d overhear phone calls. “I heard things that weren’t illegal, but it wasn’t ethical,” said Mihaly. “They’d scare some of the older people by saying ‘Well, you better sell because you’re not going to get anything for your building.’”
It was called “blockbusting for profit,” a practice which would eventually become illegal. But for decades, realtors and investors would tell white people the neighborhood was becoming all black, that property values were falling and they should sell while they could. Then the realtors would turn around and sell to black families at above-market prices.
There were times when Mihaly and his late wife thought about selling themselves. But they wanted to live close to their parents, who also stayed. And they never had kids, so more space wasn’t a concern.
Buckeye neighbor Grant Johnson has lived on the same block as Mihaly for the last 25 years. “Yeah, that’s my rappie. We rap and talk all the time,” said Johnson. The two men bond over things like car repairs and the Hungarian nut rolls Mihaly brings him from his favorite bakery.
Today, Mihaly is the only white person on his block, and he was precinct committeeman for the Republican Party in a neighborhood that’s nearly 100 percent Democratic. But Johnson said Mihaly is a welcome part of the community. “Everybody respects Ernie. He’s been here, and he’s just one of the people in the neighborhood. That’s the way we look at him,” said Johnson.
Mihaly said it’s people he meets in the suburbs who are the most confused by his decision to stay in Buckeye. “I tell ’em where I live, then they change their attitude, [saying] ‘aren’t you afraid?’ and I say no. I can live with black people, Spanish people, as long they respect me and I respect them.”
Mihaly thinks Buckeye has a bright future. University Circle and all its jobs are just down the hill, and he thinks the Opportunity Corridor road project will make the neighborhood easier to reach.
He said when neighborhoods are too homogenous, they get insular. People become suspicious of outsiders. Which is why he doesn’t pine for Buckeye’s Hungarian past: “Like any other ethnic neighborhood in the city of Cleveland, it was clannish. We have our own little island and we want to keep it. I think you should keep your own identity, at the same time be able to communicate with other people,” he said.
For Mihaly, that’s pretty much the meaning of integration: Different people learning to talk to each other. It didn’t happen way back when, but he still hopes it’s possible in the future.
ideastream contributor Justin Glanville has been telling neighborhood-based stories from the Buckeye community on Cleveland’s east side for the past several years for the Watershed podcast.