CLEVELAND, Ohio – Visit any major U.S. city and there’s a good chance you’ll come across a “Little Italy,” a twist on the one found along Mayfield Road in Cleveland, with fine dining , bakeries and the annual feast of the Assumption.
What you won’t find most places else is something like the Italian Cultural Garden a few miles away, celebrating Italian heritage in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens for nearly 100 years.
This is part of a series of stories from cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer exploring Cleveland’s cultural gardens and the ethnic communities each garden represents. Read it current series on this link.
Dedicated in 1930, the Italian Cultural Garden was initially created as “a symbol of the contribution of Italian culture to American democracy,” according to the Cultural Gardens.
The Italian garden is designed in a formal Renaissance style. On the upper level of the garden, a fountain inspired by that of the Villa Medici in Rome sits in the center of the garden, surrounded by several busts and new plaques, including the poet Virgil and the artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Two staircases descend to the lower level of the garden, off Martin Luther King Drive, and lead to the amphitheater with a secondary fountain. Visitors can find roses, salvia, catnip, ginkgos and daffodils throughout the garden.
But age isn’t stopping the garden from evolving into modern times, which is currently undergoing a $1.5 million restoration.
Future plans include building a replica of the Pantheon.
“I want to create an open-air museum,” says Joyce Mariani, executive director of the Italian Federation of Cultural Gardens. “From Roman times to the Renaissance and to the present day, Italy has hosted hundreds of great cultural names in the fields of arts and sciences and we will never have the place for all of them. to welcome.”
The garden also hosts many events throughout the year, including Opera in the Italian Garden, an annual event that brings together more than 2,500 people to watch ballets and operas in the garden. Both art forms originated in Italy.
Mariani says events like this help increase people’s understanding of Italian culture.
Italian culture is “not just food, the Feast (of the Assumption) and pétanque,” Mariani says.
As the Garden of Italian Culture approaches its centennial, Italian immigrants have been coming to Cleveland since the 1800s.
In the 1870 census, 35 Italians were counted in Cleveland. But over the next 50 years, more than 20,000 Italians emigrated to Cleveland, mostly from southern Italy, where poverty was extreme. In the late 1920s, the first wave of immigrants founded six Italian neighborhoods.
Greater Italy encompassed Woodland and Orange avenues, from East Ninth Street to East 40th Street. Little Italy stretched along Mayfield and Murray Hill roads. A third community was at East 107th Street and Cedar Avenue, a fourth in Collinwood, a fifth at Clark and Fulton avenues, and the last on Detroit Avenue near West 65th Street.
“We had established Italian communities,” says Mariani. “But when the immigrants arrived, they were so separated, even though they came from the same country, that they didn’t say they necessarily came from Italy.”
Mariani explains that this is because Italian immigrants came from different regions of Italy, which differed in language and culture. For example, instead of telling people they were from Italy, they identified themselves as being from Calabria, a region in southwest Italy.
Italians often faced discrimination upon arrival and were met with signs such as “Italians do not need to apply” when looking for work. Again many Italians provided cheap labor for factory work and worked in stone cutting, cooking, embroidery and sewing, as well as running fruit stalls.
This introduced Cleveland and Northeast Ohio to oranges, olive oil, figs, anchovies, garlic, bananas and nuts, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
Italians also formed the newspaper The voice, which interpreted American law, economic and social rights, citizenship and offered news from the homeland. Local societies helped bring the traditions of their respective Italian villages to Cleveland, and the church served as a unifying place for all Italians.
Little Italy would be the neighborhood that persevered, as people left Big Italy to settle in the Woodland and East 116th Street area.
World War II brought a change in Cleveland’s Italian population. Despite initial support for Mussolini, Cleveland Italians eventually contributed to the war effort alongside the United States, with many even going to war for the country. Upon their return, the Italians moved to the suburbs, including Mayfield Heights, Lyndhurst, and Parma.
In the 1960s, Cleveland’s Italian population began to decline. As of the 1960 census, nearly 20,000 first- and second-generation Italians lived in the city. By 1970, the population had fallen to 17,693 and fewer than 14,000 people were born in Italy, according to Italian Americans and Their Communities in Cleveland by Gene Veronesi.
While Italian immigrants have declined from a peak of 20,000 people a century ago, more than 192,000 people in the Cleveland metro area claim Italian ancestry in 2021, according to the Census Bureau.
The main entrance to the Italian Garden is on Eastern Boulevard, between the Greek and Czech gardens. It is also accessible on Martin Luther King Boulevard, opposite the Ukrainian garden.
This story also included additional reporting from Paris Wolfe.