Birdtown

A Company Town in Lakewood

In the southeast corner of Lakewood, the National Carbon Company charted a novel alternative to the more common, rigidly top-down approach to company towns. Unlike industrial firms that built, maintained, and regulated residential compounds to encourage or even compel worker adherence to their prescribed expectations for productivity, loyalty, and even morality, National Carbon collaborated with its workers to fashion a diminutive "village within the city" close to work but free from company control. The small, self-contained, and well-bounded neighborhood made its original nickname — the Bird’s Nest — fitting indeed.

In 1891 the National Carbon Company (now GrafTech) occupied the corner of Madison Avenue and West 117th Street at the Cleveland-Lakewood border. It manufactured batteries and developed the carbon filtered gas mask. The company employed recent immigrants, primarily Slovaks and eastern Europeans in its growing manufacturing business. Often workers were encouraged to bring family members to work to join the force. Most of the employees lived in Cleveland neighborhoods and would travel muddy and icy roads to the site. The lack of any public transportation made the trip challenging to arrive to work on time. In 1892, National Carbon sought a solution to the problem.

The company acquired 155 acres to the west of the factory to Halstead Avenue and developed over 400 residential parcels to accommodate factory employees and their families. The Pleasant Hill Land Company worked with company employees to develop homes in the area by offering reduced down payments and favorable financing. Many families built their homes personally during their time away from the factories. By 1910, nearly 2200 residents called this area home. The neighborhood was reminiscent of company towns like Pullman, Illinois and Homestead, Pennsylvania. Pullman was entirely company-owned and provided housing, markets, a library, churches and entertainment for employees who were required to live there. Homestead, was a steel town which grew among workers around the burgeoning steel industry along the Monongahela river in the late 1800s. Birdtown, a neighborhood within Lakewood, represented a community fostered by the company but built and owned by the residents.

The names 'Bird's Nest' and 'Birdtown' were derived from several streets named for birds believed to be indigenous to the area including robin, plover, lark, and thrush among others. The district was also referred to as "the village" by its original residents. A facet of Birdtown is evident when one walks along the tree-lined streets. Multiple uses of land and buildings for homes, stores, churches, domestic farm gardens, animals, and dairies provided a self sustaining village within Lakewood. Several properties reflect the ingenuity of the early residents who built or added to their structures. The residents completed and maintained their properties meticulously, a feature which remains visible today.

A visit to the area today reveals a very tidy neighborhood bounded by factories: Graftech at the 117th end and Lake Erie Screw Corporation on the west end (site of the former Templar Motor Corporation) on Halstead Avenue. Madison Avenue on the north and railroad tracks to the south enclose the community. Harrison Elementary School sits in the middle of the neighborhood which also is home to several ethnically connected churches and schools. More than eight churches within the district served the Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, and Carpatho-Rusyn people in the neighborhood. Two churches, both named Sts. Peter and Paul (one Russian Orthodox and the other Lutheran) illustrate the ethnic and religious varieties in the neighborhood. Immigrant families kept their language, worship, and traditions preserved through parish and school programs well into the 1900s. Birdtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Images

The Robin Tavern
The Robin Tavern The renovated Robin Tavern on the east side of Robin St. between Thrush and Plover Streets in Lakewood's "Birdtown" neighborhood. The building is an example of resident ingenuity to add businesses to their homes to serve 'the village". Source: The Cleveland Memory Project, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University .
Harrison School
Harrison School Harrison School is located centrally in the Birdtown neighborhood and has served the community along with three parochial schools since the early 1900s. The school has been rebuilt and includes a recreation center. Source: Lakewood Historical Society,
Corner of Lark and Thrush Streets
Corner of Lark and Thrush Streets Birdtown acquired its nickname from the variety of streets named after birds indigenous to the area. Lark and Thrush are among five streets with bird names. The private residence represents a common design of homes in Birdtown built as part of the Pleasant Hill development sponsored by National Carbon Company, the primary employer in the area. Many eastern European immigrants sought jobs and property in this development. Creator: Photo by James Lanese Date: June, 2011
A private home in Birdtown
A private home in Birdtown Developed with support from the National Carbon Company, over 400 homes were built in the Birdtown neighborhood in the early 1900s. Homeowners often built and expanded their homes to accommodate businesses and tenants to supplement their factory wages. The pride and tradition of owner residences remains today. Image courtesy of the Lakewood Historical Society.
Double lot
Double lot The quick growth of the community (population doubled from 2000 to 4000 from 1910 to 1920) demanded more living space. One solution, pictured here, was to build a second house on one's original lot. Image courtesy of the Lakewood Historical Society.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Birdtown Neighborhood, Lakewood, Ohio
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Birdtown Neighborhood, Lakewood, Ohio This fire insurance map illustrates part of the Birdtown community during the first half of the 20th century. Several churches are evident as well as many properties with multiple structures depicting the multiple land uses by the residents to supplement their factory incomes. Source: Cleveland Public Library Research Database Creator: Sanborn Map Company
Birdtown Backyard, Circa 1945
Birdtown Backyard, Circa 1945 The Dubelko family resided at 2077 Robin Street in Birdtown. Visible in this photo is a two story pigeon coop in the background, more evidence of neighborhood resourcefulness and activity among the residents. Source: Image courtesy of James Dubelko. Date: 1945
Birdtown Residents, Circa 1945
Birdtown Residents, Circa 1945 The Dubelko family members in their backyard at 2077 Robin Street. In the background you can see one of the buildings of Slavik dairy, the local neighborhood dairy for Birdtown--just 2 doors away on Robin Street. Most residents of the Pleasant Hill Land Development were employees of The National Carbon Company. However, many families added business facilities to thier homes to provide goods and services for fellow neighborhood residents as this dairy exemplifies. Source: Image courtesy of James Dubelko.

Location

Lakewood, OH | The Birdtown neighborhood is situated on the southeast side of Lakewood.

Metadata

Jim Lanese, “Birdtown,” Cleveland Historical, accessed April 18, 2024, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/219.