Controlling immigration was near the top of the United States agenda during the early 1920s, a period then touted as a “return to normalcy.” Two major pieces of federal legislation, the Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924 severely limited the number of immigrants admitted to the US from the eastern hemisphere, designed with quotas that discriminated against those from southern, central, and eastern Europe. Those laws, on top of a nearly total restriction of immigrants from the “Asian barred Zone” would remain largely in force until 1965.
At that same time, Cleveland took a step in a different direction, it decided, through the creation of a series of landscaped gardens, to celebrate the diverse cultures that made up the city. Indeed, in 1920, two thirds of the city’s population was of foreign birth or foreign parentage, and another 35,000 were part of a growing African-American population.
The concept was promoted by Leo Weidenthal, a journalist, book collector with a deep interest in theater, and a civic activist. In 1916 Weidenthal had led the effort to establish a Shakespeare Garden to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Bard’s death. The dedication ceremony featured readings by actress Julia Marlow and music from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Its decorative scheme would include plantings from England, including a cutting from a mulberry that, itself had been planted by Shakespeare.
In some ways the Shakespeare Garden can be seen as a reaffirmation of the United States’ link to Great Britain, particularly at the time of World War I. However, Weidenthal’s vision was wider and it would come to fruition in the 1920s – perhaps in response to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment at that time. His vision was for a series of similar gardens, each reflecting the culture of a particular ethnic group in the city. He was joined in this effort by Jennie Zwick and Charles Wolfram. Zwick, like Weidenthal was Jewish and Wolfram was a major figure in the city’s German community. In 1925 the three would establish the City Progress League which would become the Cultural Garden League.
The enterprise had the enthusiastic backing of William R. Hopkins, Cleveland’s City Manager. Land for the gardens would be made available along then Liberty Boulevard (now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd) and East Boulevard. The entire enterprise would be defined by the Doan Brook Valley. So, as the nation began to limit immigration, Cleveland began to celebrate the cultures that immigrants brought to the city. The first garden to be established was the Hebrew Garden in 1926. Three years later (and only eleven after the end of World War I) a German Garden was dedicated. By 1940 another thirteen had been established many with fiscal support of the Depression-era WPA. During the ensuing Second World War the gardens became successful symbols of the need for national unity.
The remainder of the century would see progress slow, with only five additional gardens created as the Doan Brook valley suffered as the city’s fortunes declined and as racial tensions expanded. Ironically, when immigration to Cleveland slowed after restriction, migration from the American South and Appalachia increased to fill the need for workers in the 1920s and during and after World War II. Yet, no garden was planned or established for the African-American Community until 1977.
At the same time, the new immigration law of 1965, did away with the old biased restrictions and ultimately opened the United States and Cleveland to new groups of immigrants from areas well beyond Europe. Those communities ultimately would revivify the Cultural Gardens. In 2005 the Asian Indian community established its garden and, fittingly, erected a stunning statue of Mahatma Gandhi alongside the then renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. That event, along with new sources of funding and the creation of a bicycle path from University Circle to the lake, has catalyzed a renaissance of the system.
As of 2019 there were 33 gardens, with others proposed and, or in the planning process. What Leo Weidenthal envisioned has, today, become a landmark in the city – indeed, there is no peer for the Cultural Gardens. And, today, there is more reason than ever to look at them and consider what they represent as we once again debate immigration. It is, indeed, a site of beauty, but more so one of contemplation of the diversity of our city, our nation, and wider world. And, it is a site where groups that may once have contended with one another, now celebrate their history and heritage in concert.