Planty Raid

Need a shrub? Rockefeller Park is the ideal place to steal it.

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Green thumbs up: Artist and park designer Laila Voss. - Walter  Novak
Green thumbs up: Artist and park designer Laila Voss.
A few weeks ago, about $10,000 in shrubs and flowers was stolen from the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in Rockefeller Park. Now that's a lotta petunias. Concerned residents suspect either a shady landscaper short on supplies or a professional plantnapper who could fetch a pretty price for boxwoods on the black market.

Whoever it was, the thief took advantage of the park's utter lack of visitors by filling a truck with uprooted geraniums in broad daylight. The Greek, Italian, and Slovenian gardens -- among the easiest to scope out from the road -- were the hardest hit.

Park volunteers recently gathered at the Third District Police Station to wonder loudly who would do such a thing. Perhaps the real question is, who wouldn't do such a thing? Being nearly people-free, the ethnic gardens are a fabulous place to steal stuff.

"Other than a couple of kids, who do we see here in an hour?" remarks David Dusek, a clean-cut outdoorsman who lives across from the gardens. "There's nobody here to enjoy it."

Busy Martin Luther King Drive cuts through the grounds, making them unfriendly to pedestrians who might notice suspicious activity. So theft is "certainly not shocking" in the nearly empty park, says Ann Zoller, head of the city's nonprofit Parkworks program. "Especially when the plantings are clearly visible from the street."

Well-acquainted with leafy green bandits, Parkworks also recently had $1,000 worth of annuals stolen from containers on Public Square. The thefts happened at night, when nobody was paying attention.

"When you're doing urban beautification, you have to put the weather and vandalism and theft into perspective," Zoller says. "We work replacement costs of plants into our budget every year. You can't let yourself be discouraged by people taking something."

Looting the Cultural Gardens hasn't been lucrative until recently, because what was there to steal? In the 1960s, race riots and white flight battered the neighborhood, dragging the gardens down, too. "We never had much theft, because we never had much money invested in it," says Ben Stefanski, the trim, sixtyish caretaker of the Polish Garden.

Interest picked up around 1995, when the city itself started to come out of its coma. As rose bushes slowly replaced scrub grass, the park "became more of an attractive nuisance," says Stefanski.

The annual budget for the Polish Gardens is whatever Stefanski happens to have in his pocket. This year, it was $700 -- enough to fashion ruffly rows of dime-store perennials. The thieves made off with nine of Stefanski's concrete flowerpots, but he says nothing they got was irreplaceable.

The Slovenian gardeners had more to lose this year, thanks to a $50,000 check that came from friends in the Old Country. They sank most of that into repairs, landscaping, and plantings, then got hit big by the burglaries.

"I've been calling the Slovenian Garden a nursery," volunteer Mary Ann Vogel shared at the meeting. "Just this week, we had $1,000 taken. That's 24 plants.

"A month ago, I was proud to say that since November, we'd only lost one plant. We thought we could bring the garden back to its original grandeur," but now she's not so sure.

Flowers alone won't erase three decades of neglect. "There's 27,000 people who come to University Circle every day," says Dusek. "If only a few of them would stop here!"

Meanwhile, the African Americans who live around the garden are starting to look out for the primarily European American showplace, which was dedicated in 1938. "A lot of neighbors are interested in the park," says Dusek. "It's our front yard, and when things get stolen, everyone around here is badly hurt."

East Boulevard resident Arie Chapmon called police when he noticed somebody digging up geraniums in the park. The cops didn't quite catch the guy, so Chapmon remains vigilant. "A lieutenant talked to him for about 35 minutes and let him go," he recalls incredulously. "When [the suspected crook] left, he took his bags of geraniums with him."

With patience and watering, passing concern can blossom into real devotion. Organized fun that included the neighbors might help everyone feel more welcome in the park, says Dusek. Last summer, the Cultural Gardens Federation, the collective that oversees the park, hosted a band concert. But it took place in the afternoon, when the only people who could enjoy it were retirees, third-shift workers, and preschoolers.

Collaboration helps, too. "You've got to do outreach that isn't a one-shot deal, because that's what that garden is about," advises Cleveland artist and park designer Laila Voss. "Because then it isn't somebody from Euclid or Parma or Cleveland Heights saying, 'Oh, man, they defaced it again.' Maybe there's somebody saying, 'Hey, guys, I live in this neighborhood. Don't deface this garden.'"

At her projects, Voss encourages kids to paint designs on playground equipment and invites their parents to park-planning meetings. When she designed a mural for Greenwood Pool Park on West 38th Street, "a lot of the kids did get involved, and they were proud of what they did. The first day, we had 75 to 100 kids there to help."

They were so proud of their handiwork that when the mural started to fade, they touched it up. "It doesn't look quite the same as it used to," Voss says, "but what happened is, people in the area go out there every year and repair it themselves." They've even stopped city workers from whitewashing it over by mistake.

"Part of what you're doing is, you're empowering the people that surround that area to do something," says Voss. "It really does start to matter to them what happens and doesn't happen." With the particulars taken care of, they can move on to more important things, like whether to pack fried chicken or egg-salad sandwiches in their picnic lunch.

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