The seeds for GardenWalk Cleveland were planted in 2010 when founders Jan Kious and Bobbi Reichtell visited its namesake, GardenWalk Buffalo, a free, self-guided tour of more than 400 urban residential gardens. They enjoyed it so much they decided to bring it here. Now in its 11th year, GardenWalk Cleveland not only celebrates hundreds of gardens throughout the city but also builds relationships among neighbors and showcases local neighborhoods.
It springs to life this weekend, when Clevelanders can tour gardens and green spaces in nine neighborhoods throughout the city. On Sat., July 10 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Glenville, Fairfax, Old Brooklyn and West Park will be featured. On Sun., July 11, Slavic Village, Clifton-Baltic, Collinwood, Detroit Shoreway and Little Italy will be on display.
Marie Kittredge, the Slavic Village-based president of GardenWalk, said her greatest satisfaction with the event is planting connections between people. “It’s that smile that people have when they walk in the backyard and see the gardener greeting them,” she said. “It’s just a warmth you can’t replace.”
GardenWalk Cleveland has always been much more than a garden tour. It also builds community and fights negative perceptions in areas that have weathered decades of blight and disinvestment. It fosters understanding that residents of these areas, like the proverbial book, can’t be judged by their covers.
“Slavic Village is a neighborhood that’s shabby around the edges, a place without much money, and it shows,” Kittredge said. “It’s [creating] understanding that people who live here have good lives despite how it looks on the outside. These are fun, dynamic places to live that people care passionately about.”
The all-volunteer affair also helps neighbors get to know one another. “It can be hard to connect with the people next to you, to manufacture that connection, but when you say, ‘Oh, let me see your garden, let me see your tomatoes,’ that can help to create that connection,” she said.
Event planning starts in the dark days of winter when the ground is still frozen. GardenWalk leaders put out the feelers in January, using local “garden finders” to help recruit neighborhood gardeners to show off their yards. Then in the spring, marketing kicks off.
The city’s nonprofit community development corporations, or CDC’s, help to get the word out and cover costs. GardenWalk Cleveland costs between $5,000 and $6,000 every year to produce, with funds raised from CDC’s, sponsorships and individual donations.
Garden finder Teri Dew, a resident of the city’s Collinwood neighborhood, said GardenWalk is about much more than gardening — it’s about uniting a community.
When she started participating in GardenWalk, Dew said she “kind of expected to sit in my backyard with my book.” She wondered who would come look at a garden on a dead-end street. “I saw a lot of people,” she said, ”so I was pleasantly surprised. I saw old friends, there were people who didn’t know I lived here and it was just rewarding.”
This year, Dew was able to enlist about 30 gardeners in her community and said their unique personalities are often reflected in their work. For example, a house with bowling balls incorporated into the garden can be seen Sunday as part of the Collinwood walk.
As a child, Fairfax resident Vernice Smith always toiled in the garden. Today, her own backyard is filled with flowers lining a winding garden path that shows off her green thumb. The retired math teacher was able to increase the number of gardeners she recruited this year from her goal of 12 to 22.
“You don’t have to be an expert to participate in GardenWalk,” Smith said. “You have to appreciate the gift of land God’s blessed us with.”
The individuality of the gardens is part of what makes the event so successful, Kittredge said. “For garden walks where people pay money, they expect to see waterfalls, pergolas, and fancy productions,” she said. “We have some of those, but others have rows of marigolds down the front walk. We’re just pleased to be able to show off the home and flowers.”
“You have to check your judgment at the door about what you’re expecting to see,” she added. “Did the gardener put effort into it? Are you proud of it? Then we want to see it.”
In addition to private gardens, GardenWalk also features community gardens and greenspaces. This weekend, Antioch Baptist Church is showing off the community garden where its congregants grow vegetables for their neighbors at East 89th Street and Cedar Avenue in Fairfax, while Praxis Fiber Arts is showcasing the community garden where its artists grow indigo for natural dying at East 156th Street and Corsica Avenue in Collinwood.
Cleveland has more than 13,000 vacant lots that are available for purchase through the Cleveland Land Bank, according to an interactive GIS website. Each year, city grass cutting crews struggle to maintain them. “The amount of time, money and energy it takes to maintain vacant lots is just staggering,” Kittredge said.
The long-term solution is to return these lots to some kind of productive use, but that’s challenging given many of them are located in areas not currently attracting development. The city of Cleveland is selling vacant residential lots for side yard expansion for $200. A recently launched website, Cleveland Lots, aims to streamline the process and make applications available online.
Some efforts to improve Cleveland’s vacant lots in the past fell by the wayside. Reimagining Cleveland, a program that greened vacant lots with gardens and green spaces in the wake of the 2007-2009 Great Recession, is no longer active. Kittredge said the long-term solution is to identify a dedicated pool of money that can be used to improve vacant lots, and to streamline the process that allows them to be turned over to responsible owners who will maintain them.
Nonetheless, GardenWalk, which was also started during that time, has continued and thrived. Kittredge said the grassroots event attracts hundreds of people from Cleveland Heights to Lakewood every year. “It’s an invitation to see the neighborhood as a resident would see it,” she said.
GardenWalk Cleveland is free and takes place Saturday, July 10 and Sunday, July 11 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. Maps for each neighborhood on the walk are available here for download. Information stations with maps are also available in each neighborhood.
This story was produced as part of Ask The Land: Environmental Justice Reporting Initiative, a project being organized by The Land and The NewsLab at Kent State University with partners Ideastream Public Media, 89.7 WKSU, Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO), and La Mega Media. It is funded in part by a collaborative of the Cleveland Foundation, Gund Foundation, Center for Community Solutions, and Black Environmental Leaders.
Gabrielle Woods is a 2021 graduate of Kent State University who is an intern in the School of Media and Journalism’s Collaborative NewsLab. Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.