Cleveland Cultural Gardens Showcase Nationalities That Formed NE Ohio

by | Nov 2, 2016 | Arts & Culture, Public Spaces, Parks & Recreation

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Sheila Crawford (2nd from right) shares info with EA team.


Monday, October 17, 2016 – This morning, the EA staff took a walking tour through the Cleveland Cultural Gardens with board president, Sheila Crawford (who remembers her parents taking her to the gardens when she was a kid). The Cultural Gardens are a legacy of John D. Rockefeller, who donated 250 acres to the City of Cleveland in 1896. The gardens flank either side of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and (up above on) East Boulevard. The 1.5 mile stretch of roadway connects University Circle and Lake Erie, creating beautiful green corridor for drivers and,  increasingly, for bikers and runners as well.
Many Clevelanders merely use MLK as an urban shortcut. It’s a scenic route with few traffic lights that provides drivers easy access to and from I-90 gardens-5and University Circle. We discovered there’s so much more to this tree-lined street than meets the eye. Owned by the city of Cleveland, the gardens are maintained entirely by volunteers who plant, weed, rake, and care for the dozens of plaques, statues, and fountains. The gardens celebrated their centennial this year (2016) and held a fundraiser to create the beginnings of an endowment fund so that the gardens are protected for another 100 years. Take about 10 minutes to watch this wonderful short documentary, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” by Cleveland Heights filmmaker Luke Frazier to understand the history of the gardens.

The British garden kicked it all off in 1916 with a garden created to celebrate the 300th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. It was followed soon after by a Hebrew Garden, and then additional nationalities began claiming plots and creating gardens to celebrate their ethnic heritages. Many of the first volunteers were either immigrants or just a generation or two removed from their home countries and wanted to share their national pride. Most of the Garden’s volunteers truly embrace their families’ heritages. For example, Sheila is the owner of Murphy Irish Arts Center (her maiden name), which, for years, has been home to many world champion Irish dancers.

Many gardens have two entrances: one on MLK and one above on East Boulevard. Once a plot of land has been assigned, the volunteers have five years to make something happen or they relinquish the space (but the city/gardens have let this deadline slip in the past with no repercussions).

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There are 29 existing gardens:

  • African American (started in 1977 and dedicated in 2016 – 39 years later)
  • Albanian (2012)
  • American  (1935)
  • American Legion Peace Nations & States (1936) – contains a vault in the ground that holds soil from the country of every garden
  • Armenian (2010)
  • Azerbaijani (2008)
  • British (1916)
  • Chinese (1985) – a bit isolated at the far northern end of MLK but is in the University Circle, Inc. service area footprint so it created the opportunity for the gardens to partner with this dynamic organization
  • Croatian (2011)
  • Czech (1935)
  • Estonian (1966)
  • Finnish (1958)
  • German (1929)
  • Greek (1940)
  • Hebrew (1926)
  • Hungarian (1934)
  • Indian (1934)
  • Irish (1939)
  • Italian (1930) – typically hosts Opera in the Italian Garden party every summer that attracts thousands of people
  • Latvian (2006)
  • Lithuanian (1936)
  • Polish (1934)
  • Romanian (1967)
  • Rusin (1939)
  • Serbian (1932)
  • Slovak (1932)
  • Slovenian (1932)
  • Syrian (2011)
  • Ukrainian (1940)

Land has been set aside for additional gardens that are in various stages of development including:

  • Ethiopian
  • Korean
  • Lebanese
  • Native American
  • Scottish
  • Turkish
  • Vietnamese

gardens-6-ea-staffIt is a monumental feat to create a garden from scratch. The cost starts at roughly $250,000, and it often takes years to find enough volunteers to commit to this kind of project and then raise enough funds. These challenges may explain why some countries that you might think should be no-brainers are not a part of the gardens (France, Australia, Mexico and Spain for example). And curiously, while there are less than a 100 Clevelanders who claim Estonian roots, they have a full garden.
The gardens also reflect our constantly changing world. The Yugoslavian garden sign came down after the 1990’s war, and two new gardens, Serbia and Croatia, popped up. Who knows what will happen to the countries that currently make up the UK with the recent Brexit vote and how that might impact our gardens.
One sign reads Rusin which prompted and EA staffer to ask, “What country is/was that?” That garden is dedicated to the descendants of the Eastern Slavic ethnic group who speak a dialect known as Rusyn or Lemko. Rusins descend from Ruthenians and came from the Carpathian Mountain region.

We’ve all seen the bumper sticker that reads “Coexist” and incorporates a half dozen religious icons into the word, right? Well, the gardens have had that saying as their mantra for 100 years! Sheila emphasized that the gardens are dedicated to “peace through mutual understanding.”

Most of the gardens pay tribute to cultural icons, although the African American garden chose to install the Door of No Return to reflect the slave ships that brought many to America. The gardens’ monuments must reflect icons who are/were dedicated to arts, culture and/or humanity (no politicians or war heroes are allowed). They inspire, educate, and share the country’s heritage. Think Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian garden and Mother Theresa in the Albanian Garden.

Seven of the gardens have water features (the Irish gardens have an exact copy of the fountain outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin), and, with a few exceptions, every garden flies their country’s flag overhead which provides a quick visual find. A few exceptions include the African American garden (since it’s a continent with many countries, one flag couldn’t be selected) and China (which flag? Chinese or Taiwanese? Since it’s politically sensitive, neither flag is flown). Sometimes, the design of a garden represents an important cultural shape (the Hebrew garden has a Star of David layout while the Irish garden is shaped like a Celtic cross).

An info kiosk with a map to help visitors is located between the Hungarian and German gardens on MLK. Suggestion: A great way to find a nice patch of the gardens is to park up top on East Boulevard. Plug the German garden’s address into your GPS (1036 East Boulevard),  park on a side street, and then walk a few blocks in each direction. Make sure you go down one of the grand staircases to see the gardens from the MLK level as well.

The City of Cleveland has dedicated over a million dollars to improvements in the Cultural Gardens including updating the signage with larger letters and paint that glows even after dusk, making it easier for drivers to read the names of the gardens.

Unfortunately, during the 1970’s, vandalism was rampant, but the gardens learned from that rough patch. All of the monuments now installed were designed to be too tall or too heavy to steal. Most of the monuments were created by artisans in the home country and then shipped to the US, and many have an irreplaceable price tag at this point.

One World Day, the annual celebration in the gardens, has been happening for more than 70 years. MLK becomes a pedestrian walkway in the heart of the gardens. Typically, it happens one of the last Sundays in August and includes free trolley rides, live entertainment (dancers, opera, music), and food and beverage for sale. This year’s centennial celebration attracted 20,000 visitors.

If your organization would like to benefit from all of EA’s knowledge of NE Ohio so you can attract and retain top talent from all over the world, call us and we’ll share how we create highly customized orientations for Cleveland, Akron, or Canton for job candidates and new hires (and their families). 216.231.9311.