The perspective of the Gardens Federation

An Introduction from Former President of the Federation, George Parras, M.D., January 2007

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the City of Cleveland played a leading role in the Industrial Revolution and, as such, was composed of a population so diverse in ethnic and racial backgrounds that it essentially represented a microcosm of the world. Tension and friction existed between many of the ethnic communities largely as a result of a misunderstanding of, and an unwillingness to accept beliefs, customs or practices that were “foreign”. It may be that the concept of “Americanism” that was becoming widely popular was no coincidence, but rather a response to the xenophobia that gripped our nation. We could neutralize our pluralism by creating an American culture with its own customs, beliefs and traditions, different from other nations. It is true that when people arrived here through Ellis Island and other ports of entry around the country, most felt compelled to change their names and shed their past to better fit in the New World.

It was in this environment that the idea of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens was born. The visionary of the Cultural Garden concept was Leo Weidenthal, editor of the Cleveland Jewish News. Operating under the premise that “True cultures impose no barriers of race or creed.” the Gardens would recognize the immense value of our cultural diversity and serve as a symbol to the ideal of universal peace and brotherhood - a true and lasting peace that could only be achieved through an understanding of our differences. The idea of the Cultural Gardens directly opposed the concept of “Americanism”. It recognized that this country, perhaps more than any other, was built on the ideals, the hopes and dreams, the customs and traditions of many people of many nations and that throughout our history, this constant infusion of new ideas and new ways has enriched us as a people and made us great as a nation. It held that our true identity existed in our multiculturalism and that by recognizing this we could respect and accept one another and peacefully coexist.

The idea of linking peace to a mutual understanding across cultures was so powerful that it was recognized internationally. Dignitaries from allover the world visited the Gardens. In fact, several years after the major sites were built, the Gardens were visited by Guillame Fatio, the founder of the League of Nations, later the United Nations. His purpose was to use the Gardens as a model for a similar concept to be built in Ariana Park, the grounds of the future headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Anthony J. Celebrezze, a former mayor of the City of Cleveland, fully understood the universal message of the Cultural Gardens when he said the following, “I hope and trust that the basic concept behind the Cultural Gardens of Cleveland will provide the necessary impetus in the movement for better understanding among all people, and among all nations throughout the world.”

The Cultural Gardens lie in Rockefeller Park, a two hundred fifty four-acre tranquil ravine like setting that spans two miles between University Circle, Cleveland’s cultural center to the South and Lake Erie to the North. John D. Rockefeller donated the land for the park to his city in 1896 in celebration of Cleveland’s first centennial. Ernest Bowditch, a renowned Boston landscape architect designed a meandering parkway flanked by wide-open green space framed by steeply sloped terrain.

** To read more see the online journal of the Cultural Landscapes Foundation.Landslide.