Cleveland Cultural Gardens Tour, Teaching American History Workshop

On June 17, 2009 Mark Tebeau led a group of history teachers on a tour of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens as part of the Teaching American History Workshop.  What started out as a grey, rainy day soon turned sunny, and we thankfully were able to ditch our escort and walk most of the way,  leaving Lolly the Trolley – relegated to listlessly following behind us as we moved from garden to garden – far from jolly.

The gardens have certainly seen a resurgence after decades of neglect left many of them strewn with trash and graffiti, though problems still remain.  The traffic on Martin Luther King Boulevard, which runs through the lower part of the gardens, is noisy and incessant, largely ruining any hope for quiet reflection or a real feeling of tranquility.  Fellow Graduate Assistant Matt Seaman suggested walling off the gardens located along MLK Blvd., which probably would reduce some of the noise pollution.  However, based on British Garden delegate Mary Hamlin’s comment during a 2009 interview with the CPHDH on a proposal by the Scottish Garden to add an enclosed castle to their garden, it seems that the Cleveland Police Department would not be too keen on this idea.

Clip from Hamlin Interview [mp3]

Also, the Doan Brook, which runs along some of the gardens on the lower level, remains polluted. India Garden delegate Raj Pallai’s proposal to add steps from the garden down to the Doan Brook – a la steps seen in India leading to the Ganges River – thus would seem unfeasible.

Clip from Pallai interview [mp3]

Nor is there really any indication in the garden that Lake Erie – one of the world’s largest and most beautiful freshwater lakes – lies just a short distance away to the north.

The top level of the gardens – which runs along the less heavily trafficked East Boulevard – exhibits some of the tranquility missing down below on MLK Blvd., though it has its share of missing busts, dirty statues, and obtrusive lighting fixtures.

In any case, the tour elicited some lively discussion amongst the teachers, particularly on the meaning of the gardens and what should happen to them in the future. The consensus seemed to be that the Cultural Gardens ought to be continually renovated, updated, and improved, and not left fallow like some sort of archeological site.  Discussions also took place on the relatively empty African-American Garden and the tricky issue of how to establish a garden representing Cleveland’s Latino population: should there be a single Latino Garden? Or maybe a Puerto Rican Garden, a Mexican Garden, and other gardens representing the different nationalities that Cleveland’s ethnically Latino population belongs to.

Once a dangerous, depopulated spot filled with trash and graffiti, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens are starting to regain some of their past prominence, a time when they were a symbol of Cleveland’s diverse ethnic heritage and a place of recreation for thousands.  In this way, they mirror Cleveland itself as it seeks to rise up from the mistakes of the past and again stake a claim to being one of America’s greatest cities.

Pictures from the tour can be seen at the CPHDH’s  Teaching and Learning Cleveland site, tagged under “Cultural Gardens Walking Tour” They can also be found on the CPHDH Flickr page.

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Erin Bell (M.L.I.S.) is Project Coordinator and Technology Director at the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University and lead developer for Curatescape, a web and mobile app framework for publishing location-based humanities content. In addition to managing a variety of oral history, digital humanities and educational technology initiatives, he has spoken to audiences of librarians, scholars, and technologists on best practices in web development and publishing.