One thing I did not expect when moving to Cleveland from New York – it’s fair to say I was pretty ignorant about the Midwest back then – is that Cleveland is home to many foreigners and Americans with strong foreign roots. No wonder the local public library boasts a mind-blowing number of books and films in foreign languages. No wonder there are two Spanish-speaking local radio channels and German, Slovenian, Hungarian Ukrainian, Polish, Serbian, Slovak, and Lithuanian shows are still broadcasting on 90.3 FM. They have audiences to serve. In a way I moved from one immigrant city to another one.
While Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University are the two flagship magnets attracting educated foreigners to the city, many more have come here from all around the world to work a few years or start a brand new life. Sometimes the former turns into the latter even before you realize it…
A recently released study has found that Cleveland is the No. 1 city in America in which to become a U.S. citizen, with the shortest average waiting time and the most efficient U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office. This, in a nation that has not been overly welcoming to immigrants over the last few years, is remarkable enough.
Thankfully, my own everyday life illustrates Cleveland’s vibrant diversity. I interact with foreign-born parents at Minette‘s school. I buy (excellent) bread and croissants at my local bakery owned by a Russian immigrant and her American husband. I meet with Indian families at Minette’s weekly Tamil class. I shop in one of the many Indian food stores available in the area. I check in with my best local friends, who include an American-Polish, a Japanese, and a French mom. I check out French books and films at the public library. So many of the these things are possible because I live in a multicultural city.
Once upon a time Cleveland was even more multicultural. A visit to the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage or a stroll in the Slavic Village neighborhood, where my friend Agnieszka grew up, will immediately drive this point home. Back in 1920, when Cleveland was the 5th largest city in the United States, 30% of Clevelanders were foreign-born as a result of massive immigration influx from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and central and eastern Europe throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.
Cleveland was once the second largest Hungarian city after Budapest… Polish and Russian immigrants also came in very large numbers. No wonder there is a National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame (love the name…) and many of the city’s culinary traditions come from eastern Europe (hello pierogis!). It also explains why some Cleveland leaders came up with the idea of honoring immigrant communities with the so-called Cultural Gardens nearly a century ago.
The Cultural Gardens, a unique institution in the country and worldwide, are gardens dedicated to national and cultural minorities that are part of Cleveland’s history and fabric. It started with the British, Hebrew, Italian, German, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Irish and Slovak gardens. More recent additions have included Syria, India, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. Today there are 32 dedicated gardens along the MLK Boulevard.
If you live in Cleveland or you happen to come over here you could do worse than take a walk around the Cultural Gardens to get a sense of the past and present of a city with currently over 100 different ethnic groups living together that truly values its heritage of diversity. Perhaps the single most important reason why I feel I can call Cleveland home.