A century of celebration: Ever-expanding Cleveland Cultural Gardens embraces city’s diversity

At age 108, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens keep growing.

In the past 20 years, 13 new gardens have opened, bringing the total to 35. And 10 more gardens are on the way.

Cleveland has what are believed to be the world’s only collection of gardens honoring different nationalities. The somewhat scattered gardens have come to occupy about half of the municipal Rockefeller Park’s 254 acres. The collective gardens’ shared motto is “Peace through mutual understanding.”

Why so many new gardens?

Lori Ashyk, executive director and sole employee of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation, partially credits the region’s growing diversity for the growth.

Early gardens represented European cultures, but many recent or forthcoming ones represent Asian, African, Latin American, and Native American ones.

“The communities are getting more organized, and are proud of their heritages,” says Ashyk,  “and they want to be recognized.”

Former broadcaster Obie Shelton (in yellow) is leading efforts to complete the African-American CulturalFormer broadcaster Obie Shelton (in yellow) is leading efforts to complete the African-American CulturalInterests in gardening and other outdoor pursuits have grown since the pandemic. Ashyk also credits recent improvements in the park and its surroundings for drawing more visitors. The city periodically yields more land to the gardens as needed, most recently in 2018.

The gardens stage events that draw yet more visitors. The World on Stage series began there in 2021. The 78-year-old One World Day’s parade started a few years ago to accept all cultures—whether they had gardens or not. Last year’s event was the biggest ever, with tens of thousands of visitors and 1,500 parade participants from more than 50 cultures.

Former WKYC-TV reporter Obie Shelton, who leads the African American Garden, says he sees yet one more reason for the gardens’ growth.

“With things that have been happening internationally, like [the war in] Ukraine, you have this rise in national and ethnic identity and pride,” he explains.

For example, students from Gilmour Academy and other Clevelanders recently have been placing stones painted blue and yellow, the colors of the embattled country’s flag, at the Ukrainian Cultural Garden.

108 years of history

The park was given to Cleveland on the city’s bicentennial in 1896 by oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. It straddles Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and features stone overpasses by leading Cleveland architect Charles Schweinfurth.

The first Cultural Garden was the Shakespeare Garden, now the British Cultural Garden. It opened in 1916 under Leo Weidenthal, editor and publisher of the “Jewish Independent.” In 1926. he led the opening of the Hebrew Cultural Garden, which includes three cedars of Lebanon. It was the first official member of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation.

Thirteen more gardens followed before World War II. They included what are now the American Cultural Garden and the Peace Garden of the Nations, the latter originally founded by the American Legion.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s federal Works Progress Administration helped build stonework and paths.

The first One World Day parade and festival took place in 1946 during Cleveland’s 150th anniversary. Costumed figures trekked six miles from Public Square to the park. The next 76 celebrations took place purely within the park, as the event this August will also do.

After World War II, more gardens opened. But the collection suffered in the 1960s and 1970s from vandalism, neglect, and neighborhood flight.

In the 1990s, the park began to resurge with help from Mayor Michael White, an avid gardener who lived nearby.

2005 brought the first new garden in 20 years, the India Cultural Garden, which started a boom that has yet to bust. African American, Albanian, Armenian, Azerbaijan, Ethiopian, Lebanese, Pakistani, Russian, Syrian, Turkish, and Vietnamese Cultural Gardens have all followed.

When Yugoslavia broke up, so did its garden, and separate Serbian and Croatian Cultural Gardens followed in Yugoslavia’s place.

Now Colombian, Egyptian, Filipino, French, Korean, Mexican, Native American, Peruvian, Scottish, and Uzbekistan Cultural Gardens are under currently development.

Jim Balogh helps the Hungarian Cultural Garden shineJim Balogh helps the Hungarian Cultural Garden shineContinuous evolution

Existing gardens continue to improve. The Vietnamese Cultural Garden opened in 2020 and added a tall, slender white statue last year of the mythological mother of that country’s culture.

Common areas have improved too. In 2020, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation dedicated Centennial Peace Plaza, with an amphitheater for shared events.

Many of the gardens feature flowers, trees, gates, benches, plazas, and fountains. Many have plaques and statues honoring cultural leaders such as Mother Teresa in the Albanian Garden, Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian one, Frederic Chopin in the Polish one, and Booker T. Washington in the American one.

Many have artwork and artifacts, either original or copied. The Ethiopian Cultural Garden depicts Lucy, a hominid found in Ethiopia and discovered in 1974 by then Cleveland Museum of Natural History curator Donald Johanson, where the real specimen is on display, and followed up with big finds by his successor, Yohannes Haile-Selaisse from Ethiopia.

Some gardens have taken decades to plan, fund and build. The Syrian Cultural Garden got a site in 1929 but didn’t open until 2011.

Calls arose in the 1960s for an African American Cultural Garden. A site was dedicated in 1977. The first structure, a symbolic “Door of No Return,” was completed in 2016. The garden was added last year to the Cleveland Civil Rights Trail and recently got a $500,000 grant from the St. Luke’s Foundation. The garden’s funds have reached $1.8 million, and its goal is $4.2 million, including some money for maintenance.

Group efforts

In an example of cooperation between cultures, the African American Garden recently transferred some unneeded land to the forthcoming Peruvian Garden.

The city mows the gardens’ grass. But it’s mostly up to leaders of the nonprofit group behind each garden to maintain and improve it.

As he polishes granite engravings at the Hungarian Cultural Garden, volunteer Jim Balogh says, “Every couple weeks, I come down and clean. My ancestors 85 years ago spent a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of labor to build this. Now it’s our responsibility to take care of it.”

Volunteer groups such as College Now often help out in individual gardens and common areas.

Elsewhere in town, many nationalities have churches, social halls, museums, schools, shops, and other gathering places. But many leaders say they like sharing their gardens with other cultures.

Isabel Galvez of the Peruvian Cultural Garden says, “We can show the nation how multicultural Cleveland is by being in a multicultural place where we can learn about other countries and their cultures.”

Carl Robson, who leads the Ethiopian Garden, says, “It’s good to show all the cooperation and the variety of the people on this planet.”

Dozia Krislaty of the Ukrainian Garden says, “We love each other’s cultures. The more cultural gardens there are, the better.”

Leaders like the location, too. “It’s a peaceful setting,” says executive director Ashyk. “You can go there and meditate, learn, get exercise. It’s just a marvelous place to visit. It’s getting more and more recognition.”

Young girls dance during a 2023 World On Stage concert at the Cleveland Cultural GardensYoung girls dance during a 2023 World On Stage concert at the Cleveland Cultural GardensSummer in the gardens

Events at the Cultural Gardens this summer will include the World on Stage series: World Percussion Day this Saturday, June 29; Community Night on Thursday, July 18; Pan-American Master Games Tree Planting Ceremony on Saturday, July 20; and International Cultural Night on Saturday, September 7. All events are from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Opera in the Italian Garden will take place on Sunday, July 28 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at 990 East Blvd. Spectators can sit on the lawn for free or buy reserved chair seating for $32.

The 78th One World Day happens on Sunday, Aug. 25, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and includes a naturalization ceremony for new citizens; the parade of flags; and food, music, and dance from different cultures.

Grant Segall
Grant Segall

About the Author: Grant Segall

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years at daily papers, mostly The Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Oxford University Press, Time, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets.