Czechs in the City: The Czech-American Experience in Cleveland

A Little Bohemia in Cleveland | March 24, 2009

 

Bohemian National Hall, Cleveland, Ohio

Bohemian National Hall, Cleveland, Ohio

March 2009

 

Broadway Avenue has substance. The purpose of a cultural landscape survey is to seek out, by a basic visual approach, the amount of potentially historic cultural resources. Sweeping the landscape affectionately dubbed “Little Bohemia”, one can see remaining structures that compose this once primarily Czech ethnic neighborhood. Church buildings and schools with etched Czech language show the concrete embodiment of this area, while the Bohemian National Hall located at 4939 Broadway Avenue currently promotes the Czech heritage, and these centers remain active places for local community. Whereas there is a notion that the city of Cleveland lacks culture and distinction, Little Bohemia showcases continued strength in the social fabric of this historic city.

Firstly, the Bohemian National Hall is a building on the National Register of Historic Places, which speaking from the perspective of the built environment holds certain prestige. It was constructed during Cleveland’s Industrial Age, and the building is a fine example of significant time period architecture. The exterior is Italianesque, and some architectural elements that represent this specific style are its “townhouse” shape with overwhelming sense of order. Its romantic sensibilities serve the purpose of uniting European influence with elements of the early American cityscape. Its steel framework presents an innovative technological advancement for its period of build while deepening its intent… fortifying the Czech communities place in Cleveland.

What does Czech American really mean? Well, spending time at the Bohemian National Hall and Czech Cultural Center of Sokol Greater Cleveland one can begin to gather some sentiment of the culture. From the building’s exterior to the interiors old world charm, the echo of Czech motherland moves throughout the structure, and an emersion experience occurs. One can start to feel the spirit of these people, and their unique characteristics compound with all those we share. American certainly conjures images of the very first flag sewn together to the most current flag. The American flag, a symbolic gesture of the American identity, displays the expansion of the United States in its growth of stars, and its thirteen stripes serve as a reminder of America’s first European colonies. So, just as the flag acts as a symbolic explanation of the past, the Bohemian National Hall is a living entity that allows the Czech identity to exist in a land of difference. The inside becomes an educational center to continue a heritage: family, cooking, activity, art, song, dance, spirituality, politics, language, and all the other similarities that make up “Czech”. These are a people with a history of being foreign in their own homeland… living in occupied lands, forced into servitude of other’s nations. It is not difficult to understand why it was so imperative to the early Czech community in Cleveland to create a gathering place of familiarity.

Imagine your hometown with all of its neighborhoods, and take note of your native language streaming throughout its streets. Now picture your hometown, but erase your language from all the signs. Replace all of the sounds with unfamiliar words you can’t understand, and pretend that you still have to carry out all of your normal activities. Are you a student? If so, can you complete your assignment? What about buying diner? How can you purchase your food at the local market when your local language is no longer your own? Better yet, imagine yourself in a world where you are living under feudalism, and you are not able to even to freely venture into the marketplace.

Clarity was reached by early immigrants by forming neighborhoods featuring their specific needs and wants. By creating a network of businesses that understood the Czech language and culture, they were able to better adapt into the American culture through making connections within their own community, and then branching out into the larger American system. For example, carrying on the cultural fondness of beer, their capability to make wooden beer barrels turned into manufacturing wooden oil barrels for Rockefeller’s black gold legacy. They were able to adapt their ancestral specialty into an American commodity.

Entering Little Bohemia’s cultural landscape, the visible references to the Czech community remain, but the presence of an active interest only exists within the halls of the Bohemian National Hall and the Sokol organization. The local churches, such as Our Lady of Lourdes, which once held Czech congregations, now serve other ethnic majorities. Even though the schools cornerstones are engraved with “Skola”, the school most likely does not teach the Czech language. Venturing away from the Hall, franchises are situated in strip malls and other business structures. They most certainly do not provide the ethnic costumes of Czech regions, or cuisine like dumplings and duck. What does remain are some structures that provide a historic link to the era of Slavic enclaves in Cleveland—Czech neighborhoods.

Across the street from the Bohemian National Hall is Cleveland Fire Department Number 13. Its location is interesting as it supports the importance of the Hall within the neighborhood. An empty green space, although strewn with litter, offers a communal space aside the Bohemian National Hall. Since the street signs are in English, as well as businesses, the era of Czech domain has long since past, but the memory lingers within the strength of Sokol.

In the end, a cultural landscape survey of Little Bohemia relieves how quickly urban sprawl can affect the longevity of a neighborhood, and the imperative nature of preservation. Keeping history alive, even if its not necessarily our own heritage, provides us with numerous tools to process our identity, and the potential loss of what makes uniquely unified—American.

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About author

Jessica R. Wobig is currently a graduate student at Ursuline College in Historic Preservation. Her undergraduate studies was in Film and Video from the University of Toledo. She spent time in Russia, and finds great interest in the culture of western and eastern Europe.

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