In Cleveland’s boom years, Rockefeller Park was the site of boating couples in seersucker suits and straw hats, hoop skirts and parasols floating lazily on wooden skiffs down Doan Brook. Ninety-seven years ago, the city built its Cultural Gardens here to give place to its proud immigrant clans.
The Cleveland Cultural Gardens still serve as a series of linked gathering spots adorned with amphitheaters, sculpture, fountains, and stone stairs traipsing from East Boulevard down to what is today Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.
In the 1930s, nearly 100,000 Germans, Lithuanians, Italians, Irish and Polish sons and daughters tread the gardens to celebrate their naturalization as citizens. Today, the One World Festival still marks that important passageway for immigrants, but those attending have dwindled to a few hundred.
Ingenuity Fest and Cleveland Public Theatre founder James Levin has ambitions to re-introduce a festival to Rockefeller Park. Levin’s time away from Ingenuity (he departed three years ago) gave him the space to realize his attraction to what many consider (but few use beyond a commuter corridor) Cleveland’s Central Park.
“I’ve been aware of it for a long time. I was part of a Save the Trees campaign here,” he said, explaining that, in the 1990s, Mayor Michael White’s Administration agreed to a plan to remediate Doan Brook and it appeared that trees were slated to be chopped down. “I really would like to see the park animated with activity.”
Several groups have Quixotically plied this route, but none had Levin’s track record. He both nods to those efforts—such as Lois Moss’ Walk + Roll—and plans to take a page by placing the festival on only a few of the park's 250 acres and 30 gardens (stages will be set up at the African-American and the Irish gardens).
Levin has formed WorldFest Cleveland, which counts among its board of directors landscape architect Jim McKnight, whose Rockefeller Park Strategic Master Plan was awarded a 2009 American Society of Landscape Architects award. Levin's been drumming up support among Cleveland Councilman Jeff Johnson, non-profit development corporation, Famicos, The Cleveland Cultural Garden Federation, and community groups in Glenville.
He’s working a fundraising campaign, and is confident he can pull off a one- or two-day (August 24 & 25, 2013) festival featuring two stages of live music and a series of small performances in the gardens, including a staging of the play, Antigone, in the Greek and a Shakespeare play in the British gardens. The Rock Hall has agreed to sponsor one stage and bring in a headliner, Levin said.
Rockefeller Park is also the site of a plan to restore a small part of the brook—which runs in daylight—and to provide a better connection for the neighborhood, says Doan Brook Watershed Partnership director, Tori Mills. The group has identified ways to strengthen the brook’s health and improve connections to the hearts and minds of Cleveland’s east side residents.
For instance, an old pedestrian bridge was rediscovered near E. 105th and Ansel, Mills says. McKnight’s plan highlights how it would be restored to weave the residential area back in to the park which, as a valley, tends to be overlooked. An exception are the local kids who are attracted to the expanse of green grass in the park in the summer as a respite from the concrete.
The Rockefeller Park restoration plan’s budget of $2 million (what’s left from the $5.5 million settlement of a EPA lawsuit for the clean up of Abrams Creek, near Hopkins Airport) will focus on a small area of the Doan Brook near the Lagoon which doubles as a fishing pond. Mills hopes the festival could raise awareness of the high rate of combined sewer overflows in Rockefeller Park, and the potential for connecting people to a natural water feature that runs through it.