15: Blockbusting Buckeye

This post is an expanded version of my second collaboration with ideastream, Cleveland’s public media company. First, the story itself, and then I’ll spend some time afterward exploring some of the side questions it raised for me.

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 says.

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 says.

In the 1940s and 1950s, he says 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 says 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,” Mihaly says. "There wasn’t anything for sale in the neighborhood, so they went out in the suburbs.”

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,” says 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,” says 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. The two men bond over things like car repairs and the Hungarian nut rolls Mihaly brings him from his favorite bakery.

“Yeah, that’s my rappie. We rap and talk all the time,” says Johnson.

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 says 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,” says Johnson.

Mihaly says 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,” he says.

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 says 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 says.

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.


Blockbusting from the black perspective

Probably my biggest takeaway from working on this story was just how many factors played into the way Buckeye changed. I mean, we look back at the history and the data, and the change seems to have happened so fast - 1960, almost entirely white, 1980, mostly black - that it seems like the explanation should also be quick and easy.

But in reality the changes started way before 1960, and there was a lot more going on than just individual people making individual decisions. I don’t have time to get into all of them here, but if you want a really comprehensive history of how banks shut black people out of getting mortgages - first at all, later in the suburbs - check out a book that came out this year, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

But one practice I do want to dive into further here is the whole phenomemon of blockbusting, which I touched on in the story. That’s where realtors used racial scare tactics to get whites to sell their houses, then sold them to blacks for inflated prices. Ernie Mihaly told me about what he heard in his building, but I also wanted to hear about a black family’s experience.

For that, I talked to Barbara Price. She’s a lifelong Clevelander who runs the food pantry program at the Thea Bowman Center in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, just south of Buckeye.

She has strong recollections of when her parents bought a house in Mount Pleasant in the late 1950s.

"My dad had a lot of problems with the realtors," she says.

The house gave them a lot more space than they’d had before, in their small, overcrowded rental unit in the Central neighborhood close to downtown Cleveland. That’s one of the neighborhoods where blacks had been confined before World War II, despite the fact that the city’s African-American population was booming - from 85,000 to a quarter million between 1940 and 1960.

She was only in eighth grade at the time, so she doesn’t remember all the details, but the move was hard-won.

"My dad had a market price that he wanted to pay for the house and it was almost like the realtor my dad first went to didn’t think he had any idea about purchasing a house," she says.

He thought the realtor was trying to overcharge him.

"My dad argued with the realtor back and forth back and forth before he actually decided to buy the house," she says.

He decided to buy anyway, to make a better life for the family. But the experience was humiliating for him, and he never forgot it.

At the time the family moved in, the neighborhood was becoming integrated, but was still majority white.

"On one side there was an italian family and on the other side I think they were Polish," she says. "Oh my gosh, the realtors almost ran them off the street."

Constant visits, phone calls, letters. But the Italian neighbors in particular stuck it out for a while.

"They were an older couple," she says. "Their children were grown and they had all intentions of staying there until they died. But because the neighborhood was changing so fast, I think the real estate people scared them into moving."

By the time Price graduated from high school, a few years later?

"I think there might have been two white families left," she says.

She says, of course she doesn’t blame only the realtors. There had to be some seed of fear for them to exploit in the first place.

"There’s still that fear of having a black person live next door to you," she says. "There is that fear with some people."

It's still the case today, though she believes tolerance for diversity is increasing.

"I think times are changing. Some people are less afraid than they used to be," she says. "Before, people were just running."


A realtor's memories

I wondered what a realtor would have to say about all this. I mean, someone whose job was selling houses back then - would they admit that this stuff was going on?

"You do something that in your mind is very innocent, and boom, someone else has misinterpreted what you’ve done and here you are," says Gary Zeid.

Zeid is a lawyer with the firm of Sternberg & Zeid, in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor. But in the early 1970s, he was a brand new real estate agent, working for his dad’s company, paying his way through law school.

Sometime right around then, he sold a house in a part of the inner-ring suburb of Cleveland Heights that was still mostly white, but becoming uneasily integrated.

"I sent out a postcard to that general area advising them that I had sold a house in that area and if they needed a real estate agent, they should please call me," he says.

That postcard did not go over well.

"I got I believe it was two letters from I don’t remember who exactly from, I believe they were from street organizations, accusing me of blockbusting," she says. "And I don’t remember the exact wordings but I certainly took it as a threat that I better not do this again."

He says he doesn’t remember if he sold the house in question to a black family or a white. To him, it didn’t matter - Zeid says he was just a realtor doing what realtors do: selling houses.

"I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked. I was looking to sell houses," he says. "And I wasn’t overly concerned as to who I was selling to, whatever color or nationality they were. I was looking to match up a house with the buyer."

The neighborhood never followed up on its threat of legal action against him, but Zeid says he did learn his lesson about one thing.

"I didn’t send out any more of those cards to the neighborhood," he says. "To any neighborhood."

Gary Zeid’s story made me wonder if, at least by the 1970s, blockbusting was more of a spectre than a reality, a term thrown around by white people who were scared of blacks moving into their neighborhoods. After all, the practice was officially outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It might have still happened after that, but any realtor using blockbusting tactics in the 1970s would’ve been taking a big career risk.

And then there’s this: in the 1950s and 1960s, some white blocks, somewhere, needed to change. As I said, the city’s African American population almost tripled between 1940 and 1960, mostly as part of the Great Migration from the South, black people looking for jobs and greater equality up North. It just wasn’t possible — let alone ethical — to try to keep African Americans confined to a couple of already crowded neighborhoods close to downtown.

It’s just unfortunate that at the time that critical point was reached, we as a nation, especially our institutions, felt such a need to keep black and white people separate. The territories that ended up being established back then have in many ways kept us frozen in time, thinking of each other as - well, other. Because our paths so seldom have a chance to cross.

Thanks to everyone featured in this piece for being willing to share their stories so honestly, and to the teams at ideastream and NPR’s Code Switch for pushing me to dig into subjects that at first seemed way too complicated to cover.

Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time!