BIRDTOWN (also known as the Bird’s Nest) is a nationally registered historical district in the Cleveland streetcar suburb of LAKEWOOD. Bordered by Madison Ave. on the north, W. 117th on the east, the Rapid Transit tracks on the south, and Madison Park on the west, Birdtown acquired its name from its streets, which were named for birds: Thrush, Lark, Robin, Quail, and Plover. The densely-populated neighborhood was originally home to a large and diverse group of working-class East European immigrants, among them SLOVAKS, CARPATHO-RUSSIANS, POLES, and UKRAINIANS, of various Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran). Their languages were commonly spoken throughout the neighborhood, especially Slovak and Carpatho-Russian. Over the years, the descendants of Birdtown’s original Slavic denizens gradually left the neighborhood and today a large number of Asian immigrants have settled in their place.
Birdtown emerged as a distinctive neighborhood in 1892 when the National Carbon Co. (merged into Union Carbide in 1917, today GrafTech) laid out eight narrow streets of 424 lots for factory housing. To accommodate the labor needs of Union Carbide and other neighborhood businesses, foremen, often Slovak, hired friends and relatives. By 1910, Slovaks constituted 70% of the population, with other Slavic immigrants, such as Carpatho-Russians and Poles, making up the difference. Immigrants, who walked to work, sought housing in cold-water flats two and three stories high. Duplex houses accommodated several families, and single-family lots often had a house at the front of the lot and another in the rear that the owner would rent out to other immigrants. The various Slavic groups of Birdtown overcame confessional and linguistic divides to work together to improve their shared community. In 1911, community members began the Oral Savings and Loan Company to help residents start businesses and purchase new homes. Much of the housing, which was built by the settlers and their friends, features architecture unique to Birdtown.
The neighborhood was solidified by various church communities and its skyline, dotted by onion domes, boasts some of the most magnificent examples of church architecture in Lakewood and Greater Cleveland. The oldest church in Birdtown was SS. Peter and Paul Lutheran Church, built by Slovak Lutherans on the corner of Quail and Thrush in 1901. Soon after, in 1903, the SS. CYRIL AND METHODIUS PARISH on Madison Ave. was established by the Slovak Catholic community. It was named for the brother saints who evangelized the Slavs and invented the first Slavic writing system, Glagolitic (the contemporary Cyrillic alphabet is named in their honor). On Quail Ave., in September 1905, the Byzantine Catholic Carpatho-Russian community established the St. Gregory the Theologian Byzantine Catholic Church. That same year, the growing Polish community of Birdtown organized the St. Hedwig Catholic Parish, and in August 1914, as WORLD WAR I erupted in Europe, the parish built a church to house their congregation across from SS. Cyril and Methodius on Madison. Two years later, in December 1916, the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church was established by Ukrainian immigrants from Austria-Hungary on Quail. Finally, the SS. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church was established in July 1917 by Orthodox Carpatho-Russian community and a handful of White RUSSIAN émigrés. These parishes reached their zenith in the years immediately following WORLD WAR II and they remained a magnet for former residents who moved out of Birdtown for several years thereafter.
Since then, many of these historic parishes have recently fallen into difficult times. In the early 21st century, following the arrival of both a new bishop and a nationwide trend to consolidate Catholic parishes, SS. Cyril and Methodius was slated by the Diocese of Cleveland to be merged with nearby parishes, despite its strong Mass attendance and healthy finances. Its pastor, Fr. Jerome J. Duke, was a community pillar in Birdtown. With his Stetson hat, thick white beard, booming voice, and easygoing humor, he embodied the Slavic and working-class character of the neighborhood. His stirring homilies in opposition to economic inequality attracted Catholics from all over Lakewood and the West Side of Cleveland. However, in 2010, as a result of the church merger by the Diocese, SS. Cyril and Methodius became Transfiguration Parish. The Diocese transferred Fr. Duke to Our Lady of Angels parish in WEST PARK, where he served as pastor until his retirement in 2013. The building of the former St. Hedwig’s Church, which had been included in the Transfiguration merger, became the Museum of Divine Statues in 2011, featuring artwork from various closed Catholic parishes in Greater Cleveland. Over on Quail, St. Gregory’s Byzantine Catholic sold its church building in 2011 due to declining parish membership and removed its iconic onion dome. As of 2019, its building is slated to become the Birdtown Brewery. Next door, SS. Peter and Paul Lutheran merged with the Pentecost Lutheran Church to form the Grace Lutheran Church on Madison. Its building is now occupied by the Coast Baptist Church.
Meanwhile, the demographic profile of the neighborhood continues to change. Although contemporary Birdtown is still home to many residents of Slavic background, their numbers have greatly decreased over the years as original residents and their descendants have moved elsewhere. The district is now increasingly home to a growing number of Asian immigrants, especially from Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar (Burma), who bring with them new businesses and institutions. 2018 US census estimates indicate that approximately 20% of Birdtown’s population was born in an Asian country. Today it is home to one of the highest concentrations of Asian-born immigrants in Cuyahoga County, outside of Cleveland’s traditional ASIATOWN. By contrast, recent Eastern European immigrants in Lakewood (notably from ALBANIA AND THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA as well as ROMANIA) live in much greater numbers west of Halstead Ave. and Madison Park and north of Madison. Alongside them are significant numbers of Middle Eastern immigrants (notably from the ARAB WORLD and TURKEY) and, in recent years, they have been joined by immigrants from the former USSR, a new phenomenon (as of 2019) on the West Side of Greater Cleveland (see: SOVIET AND POST-SOVIET IMMIGRATION). However, as new immigrants arrive, Lakewoodites have worked to preserve the heritage of Birdtown’s original Slavic inhabitants. In May 2015, Transfiguration, Grace Lutheran, St. Nicholas, and SS. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox came together to host the first annual Birdtown Church Walk, offering visitors a unique opportunity to explore of the rich history of the neighborhood. This annual event is just the most recent example of Birdtown’s long tradition of community collaboration across ethnic and confessional lines.
Pietro A. Shakarian
The Ohio State University
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