Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens: A landscape of diversity, the middle years

This is the second in a series of four articles about Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens, based on the book by John Grabowski and Lauren Pacini, “Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens: A Landscape of Diversity.”

The Middle Years: 1941-1985
Following America’s entry into World War II and the allied victories in Europe and the Pacific, much of the world slipped into the Cold War. The stark reminder of the political hostility that existed between the Soviet bloc countries and the U.S.-led Western powers during that era was embodied in the Nike Missile base just north of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, and east of the mouth of Doan Brook.

Civil Defense drills were commonplace in the greater Cleveland schools, and emergency rations were stored anywhere there was space, including in school and church basements.

Confucius is central to Chinese culture and to the Chinese Garden.The 17 years following 1941 saw continued work on the existing gardens, but no new gardens were created. The addition of the Finnish Garden in 1958 was far from signaling a flurry of new-garden activity that was similar to the years between1930 and 1940 when 14 gardens were created. The Finnish garden was followed by the addition of only four more gardens—Estonian, Romanian, African American, and Chinese—over the remainder of the 20th Century.

As early as June 1943, the  Plain Dealer reported that vandals had knocked the bust of Mark Twain off its stone pedestal in the American Colonial Garden.

It was not the first instance of damage as minutes of the Cultural Gardens Federation from the 1930s indicate prior issues of minor vandalism. Three young elm trees were uprooted and one was “planted” atop the pedestal. Over the weeks leading to this incident, a large number of plants had been destroyed throughout the gardens.

These were perhaps youthful pranks, however, what would follow in the late 1960s and into the 1970s was not. As Cleveland historian John Grabowski points out in "Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens: A Landscape of Diversity," the civil disturbances in Hough in July 1966 and in Glenville in July 1968 were felt in the Gardens when anti-Black and anti-white graffiti appeared on benches and plinths.

This was followed by a period of deep decline in the gardens, which included the vandalism or theft of as many as one-half of the objects in the Gardens. Of the remaining objects, most of those that could be moved were put into storage.

The city’s population peaked at nearly 915,000 residents in 1950. Of those, albeit a, smaller percentage than at any time in the previous 100 years, more than 25% were still foreign-born. As those who had been instrumental in the creation and support of the gardens passed, the significance of the gardens waned with them.

Of the five gardens constructed in this period, two were not without discord. In 1961, discussions of a “Negro Garden” took place within the Cultural Gardens Federation. Twice, proposals of a Negro Garden went nowhere, the prevailing sentiment at the Federation being that Black Americans were a part of American culture, and as such, a part of the American Colonial Garden.

The African American Garden (1977) remained undeveloped until 2016 when the planning began for a three-phase project to tell the story of the past, present, and future of the African American community. Dedicated October 23, 1977.So, in 1970, a bust of Booker T. Washington donated by the local Tuskegee Alumni Association was erected in the American Colonial Garden (renamed the American Cultural Garden in 2011). Seven years later the African American Garden was dedicated, with the first phase of construction completed in 2016 and planning for the second phase, which is currently underway.

Dedicated in 1985, the Chinese Garden, like the African American Garden, had a somewhat problematic story. Proposed by a Taiwanese delegation from Cleveland’s sister city of Taipei, the Chinese Garden was a product of the relationship with Taiwan, and not with the People’s Republic of China.

The decision was to locate it much further south along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, across from the Cleveland Museum of Art, which is nearly three-quarters of a mile from the entrance the Cultural Gardens entrance at the Wade Park Avenue Bridge, reflected the lingering concerns about the safety and security of the gardens to the north.

The first  installment of this series can be found here:
Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens: A landscape of diversity, the early years


Coming Thursday: The Later Years, 2005-2020.

Published by Kent State University Press, “Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens: A Landscape of Diversity,” which combines words and images, will be available at the 76th annual One World Day at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens on Sunday, Aug. 28.

For additional details on the book, click here
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Read more articles by Lauren R. Pacini.

Lauren R. Pacini is an architectural photographer and local history author. He began photographing the Cultural Gardens in 2008, and in 2019 he partnered with Cleveland historian John J. Grabowski, the Krieger-Mueller joint professor in history at Case Western University and historian and senior vice president at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Together they created Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens: A Landscape of Diversity, the first book on the topic since Clara Lederer’s book, "Their Paths Are Peace," launched in 1954.