ETHNICITY AND POLITICS: THE HUNGARIAN EXPERIENCE IN CLEVELAND
The Hungarians, who call themselves "Magyars" colonized the Buckeye Road area on the east side of Cleveland in the late 1800's and built the proverbial "Little Hungary" that was to be a political force in Cleveland and Ohio politics for the next century. Buckeye Road's Little Hungary was to produce university educators, Hollywood stars and producers, celebrity athletes, judges and legislators. Cleveland was for Hungarians, what Brooklyn was to the Jews and Boston was to the Irish.
Little Hungary was the complete community from the cradle to the grave. Its sons and daughters were literally baptized in its many churches and buried from its several funeral homes. There they found the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, the lawyer, doctor, dentist and accountant, the realtor, grocer, travel agent and insurance man.
Politically the area was potent. By the outbreak of World War I, the Hungarian neighborhood was the equivalent of an entire city ward, the basic subdivision of municipal politics. By the end of World War II, it had grown to two of the city's 33 wards: the old "16th" and the "29th".
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The twenty-five years that followed World War II, from 1945 to 1970, were Little Hungary's Golden Era. The Old Settler's, bolstered by the new refugees escaping the national devastations of the War, and the Revolution of 1956, solidified a powerful bloc in the political composite of Cleveland.
The bloc had one party. They were Democrats. The bloc had one newspaper, the "Szabadság." The bloc had three Hungarian language radio programs, and the three broadcasters were the best of friends.
With this type of solidarity, the Buckeye Road political machinery elected Hungarian councilmen, one of whom was to be Cleveland City Council President for eleven years. In the early 1960's, five Hungarian-American judges sat on the various benches of the area courts. The representative to the Ohio General Assembly, was of course, a Hungarian-American.
Non-Hungarian politicians seeking election at the city or county level recognized the importance of the neighborhood's support and made exceptional efforts to garner the endorsement of the "Neighborhood Fathers." In time, Buckeye Road became a "de riguer" stop for statewide candidates seeking the gubernatorial or the senatorial nod. Even the late president, John F. Kennedy, amidst the whirlwind campaign blitz of 1960, thought it essential to stump for votes at the annual Moreland Park rally.
The Golden Era spawned the "Night in Budapest" galas which for over a decade were the sparkling cultural extravaganzas drawing stars from Hollywood and political leaders from all levels of government. In its final years, the Night in Budapest was moved from Buckeye Road to the downtown Sheraton Hotel Ballroom, Cleveland's largest, to accommodate the 2000 guests who came to see Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jimmy Durante, Ilona Massey and Bill Dana, among others.
The overwhelming splendor of the Night in Budapest, and the warmth of the attendees, won many powerful friends for Little Hungary. Its guests included Mayors Anthony J. Celebrezze and Ralph Locher, Congressman Charles Vanik, Governor Michael DiSalle and Governor/Senator Frank Lausche.
During the Golden Era, Little Hungary was a community that worked like a miniature version of Richard Daley's Chicago. The neighborhood was stable and cohesive, and was rewarded with the finest city services.
Its people were patriotic. They were true-blue Americans. The long honor rolls of Buckeye-boys who died in American uniform in World War II, Korea and Vietnam proved that. At the same time, its citizens were proud of a 1000 year heritage that was exemplified in the parades, processions and feasts, of Buckeye Road. They marched and danced in the streets bedecked with red, white and green bunting, observing the special days of the Hungarian calendar.
The mystique and power of Little Hungary was not the result of chance, however. It was the accomplishment of dutiful neighborhood Fathers and industrious citizens.
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The "Fathers" of Little Hungary were quite unlike the titans of Cleveland industry. They were not the heirs of vast fortunes nor the end products of aristocratic social breeding. They were not sent to select schools nor groomed in management training programs. By and large, they were poor boys (and girls) who grew up in the small frame houses and narrow streets of the Buckeye Road neighborhood.
As grades schoolers, they played baseball or soccer in bare feet, in the backlots off the side streets. In junior high school they hawked newspapers, and in high school they made deliveries for the shopkeepers for pennies a day.
They were ridiculed as "Hunkies" by their classmates, passed over for the good jobs by the "establishment" boys from Wade Park, and snubbed by the society girls of neighboring Shaker Heights.
Like the Blacks, they felt a cultural void. "Their kind" was not depicted favorably in the motion pictures, their events were not noted in the daily newspapers, and in general, the mainstream of culture passed them by.
After all, they too were members of minorities and had to try that much harder to attain respectability. They had to be tough to succeed, but had to remain gentle to not lose the common touch. They developed a serious, purposeful demeanor that enabled them to forge ahead at Saturday's political caucus, but they retained a warm, lovable mischief that enabled them to dance a "csardas" with a six year old niece at the Sunday afternoon church dance. It was this blend of traits, evolving through a unique environment that made the Neighborhood Fathers leaders, and it was the natural talents and abilities of these leaders that built the Buckeye Road political tradition.
Zoltán Gombos. Called upon for political and policy counsel by Presidents, and advisor to Ohio Governors and Senators, and a confidante of Cleveland Mayors and area Congressmen, Gombos has been a prime Hungarian voice toward the American establishment. As editor of the Szabadság, America's oldest and largest Hungarian language newspaper, as well as through his many cultural and civic involvements, he has been a consultant for Hungarian affairs, called upon by the Federal government, political candidates at all levels, as well as the local television and newspaper media.
The Szabadság, was for decades a daily newspaper. It has been a source of world news for the new immigrant, a community calendar for parishes and fraternal groups, and of course, a political forum at election time. Gombos through the Szabadság has played a decisive role in municipal, county and state elections for the last quarter of a century. In spite of the firm hand he wielded in electoral politics Zoli Gombis was also the understanding benefactor who could commiserate with the newly arrived "Zoltáns" who needed jobs and housing.
Andrew Dono. Andy has been the proverbial "Mayor of Buckeye Road." For most of the Golden Era, he was the president of the United Hungarian Societies (UHS) the umbrella organization that coordinated the work of Greater Cleveland's Hungarian parishes, clubs and fraternal associations.
Dono ran the UHS like a town council and was able to give it direction and purpose. His programs ranged from folk culture to solemn observances of Hungarian holidays. In politics he was tough. His organization worked the Buckeye Road wards with an efficiency that made him the kingmaker who could deliver the votes. The tough kingmaker had a very human side. The plight of the refugees fleeing the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was so moving to Andy, that he stopped his daily business to organize the fund-raising efforts to benefit them. He personally knocked on doors and sought out contributors to donate toward the food and the medical aid for the "56-ers."
Many political appointees grow rigid and bureaucratic with time. Dono, however, served as a City Commissioner, and later, a Special Assistant to Mayor Carl Stokes, and through those terms he maintained a boyish humor that disarmed even his critics.
Jack P. Russell was born, Paul Ruschak. He built a career in politics that spanned 29 years in Cleveland city government. He was the longest
running councilman of Ward 16, and served 11 years as President of City Council. In his early campaigns he displayed a rare quality of showmanship that blended the local Hungarian pride with the hard truths of ballot box victory. He could stage a dancehall entry to befit a European prince. His advance crew would arrange it with the house band that when the doors flew open, Jack's entrance would be timed with a flourish of music. The band pumped the stirring strains of the "Rakoczy March" as the young Russell glided in amidst goose bumps and applause.
Russell was a newspaper reporter's eternal source of news. He was brash, intimidating, but jovial and warm. His ten gallon hats, Havana cigars and black Fleetwood Cadillac gave him an aura and a style. For campaign literature he used the broadsides of four-story buildings. For the Buckeye boy with little higher education, he was called to Harvard University to lecture on urban politics. The ethnic from the wrong side of the tracks was selected by CBS as the subject of a nationally televised documentary on big city politics. Other Hungarian Councilmen to serve the area were Jack's brother, William Russell, as well as Stephen Gobozy and Stephen Gaspar.
The Hungarian judges were widely acclaimed throughout their jurisdiction for their strong sense of human compassion coupled with their positive stands on law and order. In sheer number they were surpassed only by the Irish in their strong representation on the bench.
Louis Petrash, affectionately called "Mr. Magyar;" Joseph Stearns, the Kovachy brothers, Blanche and Robert Krupansky, all were to achieve distinction as exemplary judges and respected community leaders.
Pokorny family patriarch, Frank Sr., served as the district representative to the Ohio General Assembly. His son, Frank Jr. also served as State Representative and Cuyahoga County Commissioner. The Legislative district was also spoken for by State Representatives Joseph J. Horvath, Julius J. Petrash and Julius Krupansky. John Nagy was appointed Cleveland's Commissioner of Recreation, an influential post he has held through seven mayors' administrations.
Behind the elected officials were those community leaders who were not politicians themselves, but were responsible for keeping vital and cohesive a community that was the base for the political leaders. These included radio personalities such as the late Frank Szappanos as well as Ernie Hudak and Andy Dono, whose radio programs are still running strong into the 1980's. Their programs have provided folk music, birthday announcements, community news and fresh entertainment. Alex and Betty Galgany typified the contributions of the strong support team behind the scenes in Little Hungary. A separate essay would be needed to list the many members that served on this team.
In all, each of these personalities shared a common characteristic of human warmth. Even in displaying anger, heavy handedness or assertiveness, their constituents knew that underneath the tough exterior was a neighbor with whom they have shared drinks and family yarns, and life went on on Buckeye Road.
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The first 100 years of Hungarians in Cleveland was drawing to a close by 1970, and faster yet, the curtain was coming down on the Golden Era.
The grim reaper took his toll on a great many of the personalities. By the end of the 1970's, the judges Petrash, Stearns, and Andrew Kovachy, as well as Jack P. Russell, Frank Szappanos and Alex Galgany were all to pass away.
The neighborhood base was fast eroding as the second generation Buckeye Roaders and their newly-arrived immigrant contemporaries followed the citywide trend of flight to the suburbs.
Those who left Buckeye Road failed to establish a successor neighborhood in the suburbs as the Slovenians had done in Euclid or as the Poles had done in Garfield Heights. Without a base, there was little hope for electing representatives.
The fabric of cultural identity and political cooperation was further torn by the fact that the sons and daughters of Little Hungary who moved out, rarely learned the Hungarian language and seldom patronized the Hungarian newspapers or radio programs.
Much of the Hungarian-American political stir in the 1970's was caused by an entirely different group of Hungarians, the post-war arrivals. Coming to Cleveland after the Second World War and the Revolution of 1956, these immigrants largely settled on Cleveland's west side and established their own organizations. Their political activity was limited to campaign year dinners for Republican officials such as Ralph J. Perk and George V. Voinovich. No one from the ranks of these Hungarians has been thus far elected to public office.
In its proper perspective, the Hungarian-American political experience in Cleveland, Ohio, is a story that deserves a special telling. It is a story that needs to be told to fill in a missing piece in the oft-told tale of the American mosaic.
Volumes of literature have been written and read on the brilliant rise of such earlier arrivals as the Irish, the Italians, the Jews and the Blacks. Their stories have been memorialized in textbooks, fiction, television and the movies. Little has been said yet about the invisible minority, the Eastern and Southern European ethnics who in their individual groups, are smaller, and began their rise later. They too had obstacles to overcome.
The Cleveland Hungarians triumphed over the immigrant syndrome. Drawn here in the 1870's to walk streets paved with gold, they found themselves strangers to the language and customs. They began the American Dream in factories, mines and railroad yards. In two generations they were a leading political force in Cleveland.
Their success formula was nothing new, it was evident in the old Boston and New York wards decades before. It was the neighborhood. The neighborhood was held together by the language, the parishes, the newspapers and the radio programs. So long as the neighborhood held firm, the political base was potent.
When the neighborhood fell, the power eroded. In the early, 1970's, with the death of many leaders and the exodus of the Hungarian population, the Buckeye Community disintegrated. When the base crumbled, it could no longer support political leadership.
Those who left Buckeye Road never recreated the old glories. Many children of the early settlers wanted to forget, and the Post-War Hungarians never knew where to begin. By 1980, politics became the past-time of a few.
Some will argue, that the political collapse was actually just the beginning of the American Dream. The young and middle aged Hungarians of the 1980's are living in Greater Cleveland's finest suburbs and are holding a disproportionately high number of gainful positions in the professions, the arts and business. In 1979, there were over a dozen Hungarian-American millionaires in the area.
Others will argue that the political demise is not in fact a collapse, but a lull during which the substance will survive and only the form will change. Just as the mainstream of American politics is moving rapidly from bossism and neighborhood machines, so too the new generation of Hungarian-American leaders in Cleveland is adapting to the new reorganization.
It is unlikely that a group that offered so much talent to Cleveland in the 1960's will go unheard in the 1980's. Carrying the accumulated lessons of a 1000-year history and a tradition of independence, thrift and family values, the contribution may serve the city well.