One World Day keeps growing in Cleveland Cultural Gardens

On Sunday, Aug. 25, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens will celebrate the 74th annual One World Day, a festival highlighting the 32 different cultures worldwide that are represented in the gardens as well as the 100-plus nationalities residing in Northeast Ohio. 

The event will be a milestone for the cultural gardens, a completely unique entity that only exists in Cleveland, says Lori Ashyk, executive director of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation. “I think it’s going to be bigger and better than ever and will help further our mission of peace through mutual understanding,” she says.

The event will feature the annual Parade of Flags, with international cultures led by children in traditional garb marching up Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. A federal judge will swear in 25 immigrants as new citizens in a naturalization ceremony. Each of the 32 gardens will host their own internationally themed performances and activities, and food and ethnic goods will be for sale.

One World Fest 2014This year, the group is offering a new Children’s Village, which will provide kids activities ranging from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Studio Go to an alpaca petting zoo. There will also be enhanced transportation options from Lolly the Trolley and golf carts. Increased garden activities will include yoga, Middle Eastern Dabke dance, a Pakistani story hour, a Vietnamese fashion show, and Irish dancing. Finally, the federation will host the inaugural One World Day Music Competition, open to independent solo musicians and singers and ensembles of all ages and nationalities.

All of this is a pretty big turnabout for an area that was little more than a sketchy commuter pass-through 30 years ago. Rockefeller Park, a gift from John D. Rockefeller to the city of Cleveland more than a century ago, was for years stunningly beautiful but also desperately in need of updating, not unlike an old East Boulevard house neighboring the park. Yet in the past decade or so, with new gardens and improvements to existing ones, the revamping of MLK Jr. Blvd. to include more crosswalks and improved parking, more residents living in University Circle, and the slow redevelopment of Glenville, the park and the gardens are seeing new life.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, the gardens have really come alive and had all this new growth,” says Ashyk, who has been in her position about a year and a half and is federation’s first-ever paid employee.

Originally founded by journalist Leo Weidenthal, who came up with the idea of a garden chain that would represent the many cultures of the world and stand for peace, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens have always been one of the city’s hidden treasures. Yet during dark stretches of the city’s history, they were unfortunately a little too hidden and became neglected. With the suburban housing boom after World War II, the gardens withered alongside the city’s East Side neighborhoods.  

“The gardens, much like the city of Cleveland, were in a state of decline in the '70s and '80s,” Ashyk says. “The reputation was that it wasn’t safe.”

Fast forward to 2005, when the Indian Cultural Garden was added. At that time, it was the first new garden in more than 20 years. Even as waves of new immigrants came to Cleveland and the U.S., the gardens hadn’t changed to reflect their influences on the city and country, but that would soon change.

“A lot of newer cultures have come in since then,” says Ashyk. “Since 2010, there has also been a wave of garden restorations.”

One World Day in the Italian Cultural GardenThe latest wave of growth came when the city added 15 new plots. The Ethiopian garden, the first African country to be represented, will celebrate the dedication of its first installation Saturday, Aug. 24, from 1 to 3 p.m. with a visit from the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States. Colombian and Uzbekistan gardens were also recently approved. Other gardens in the works include ones representing Korea, Vietnam, Native Americans, Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon.

To establish a garden, a group must submit a proposal to the federation showing they represent the culture and have a vision for the space. Typically, garden walkways, benches, landscaping and statuary can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, all of which the sponsoring group must raise. They often take years to complete, after which volunteers maintain them.

“It is important to keep our heritage alive here in Cleveland and in the United States,” says Ivan Cerquera with the Ohio Colombian Foundation, the group sponsoring the new Colombian Cultural Garden. “Also, it’s important to notice that we are the first Latin American garden. We’d like to see other Hispanic and Latino countries do the same, and we’d like to help them.”

One World Day is part of the federation’s attempts to increase public engagement through bringing more programming to the gardens. The group offers regular Saturday morning tours, which this year run into September ($12 per person, and reservations must be made in advance). “The gardens are doing more,” says Ashyk. “It’s more of an immersive, interactive experience. … Our goal is to make it more of a destination.”

Opera in the Italian Cultural GardenThe new, $1.2 million Centennial Peace Plaza, the federation’s first stand-alone project, represents a major step forward in that destination-making effort. Located near the German Garden, across from St. Casimir Way along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the first phase will be done by October. When complete, it will feature concert space for performing arts programs with international themes and other educational efforts.

Ashyk cites garden-hosted events such as Opera in the Italian Garden, the annual Franz Liszt concert in the Hungarian Garden, and the Juneteenth celebration in the African-American garden as examples of ramped-up programming. As new gardens get underway, she expects programming to heat up even more.  

“Some of the newer gardens have first- and second-generation immigrants,” she says. “They have stories to tell. We want to start telling those stories of Cleveland and its culture, and we want to do it in a way that’s enjoyable and entertaining.”

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.
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