A garden offers the ultimate gift, a sense of control, over the soil, even over the passage of time. Then a leaf turns yellow, the first chill of September arrives, and nature laughs. A garden is forever unfinished business.
In the crushing immediacy of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful urged local affiliates to build gardens to freedom. Cincinnati answered the call, and nearly 20 years later, the Liberty Garden thrives, a space to dwell not only in that day but in everything that followed, of who we were then, of who we are now.
On a knoll in the park
Linda Holterhoff, then president of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, seized upon the national charge for a liberty garden and in the sorrowful aftermath of 9/11 found many willing partners. “People really stepped up with this,” she said.
The city’s Park Board welcomed a garden for Eden Park, on a high knoll near the old brick water tower. The landscape architecture firms Human Nature and Kolar Design volunteered services. A donation from real estate industry leaders Christine Schoonover and George Verkamp allowed for original art.
No vertical sign marks the garden. Instead, the entry on Alpine Place features seven stone triangles, sunk into the sidewalk, to echo the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Ringing the garden are tulip poplars grown from cuttings of the Liberty Tree in Annapolis, under which Maryland colonials plotted revolution.
A serpentine path, built pro bono by Prus Construction, tames the knoll’s steep elevation. The walk also provides what Human Nature landscape architect David Whittaker called a meditation that, “Liberty and freedom are sort of an ongoing journey, never completely finished.”
Along the path stand four blocks of Indiana limestone. In each, Cincinnati sculptor Karen Heyl carved her interpretation of the four aspirations that President Franklin Roosevelt proposed in another anxious time, January 1941: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear.
“We still haven’t achieved all of the four freedoms, have we?” said Heyl last week. “The sculptures themselves are very abstract, almost the opposite of what the four freedoms represent. Those are concrete goals. I had to think: 'How does fear look? How does want look?' It’s easy to say them but hard to convey them.”
'Stages to the grief and the horror'
The stones of the path bear more quotes about freedom, from the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, but also some 20th century takes.
This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.President Theodore Roosevelt.
The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom. Former first lady Lady Bird Johnson
Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.Author H. Jackson Brown Jr.
The path leads around a grassy circle with a park bench to a bronze tower by Blue Ash sculptor Jarrett K. Hawkins, who made “Remembrance” all undulating surfaces, with a hole at its center.
“On the meandering path up to my piece,” Hawkins said last week, “you’ve got time to think, almost like they are Stations of the Cross. … There are so many stages to the grief and the horror and the shock that in a certain way, a sculptural installation of that sort gives a person a way to think about it in stages.”
At “Remembrance,” the path stops. On the ground just beyond, flat stones lay at odd angles to each other, to harken the rubble fields in New York, Washington, D.C., and Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. The only way to leave is to turn back.
'An evolving interaction'
The south face of the 16-story St. James in the Park condominium building overlooks the Liberty Garden. Over time, the residents adopted the space. Resident Mary Kay Levesay said about a dozen residents tend the garden, and the residents raise money for professional help. A few years ago, the condo residents paid for a new irrigation system.
Resident Liz Scheurer and Levesay choose the plants. “We’ve moving more and more to perennials,” Scheurer said, “so we don’t have to raise so much money to put in all the annuals.”
With art and horticulture and the best of intentions, the garden captures a time when a wounded America was certain that liberty itself had been attacked. But the Liberty Garden also bears witness to 20 years of consequences and unfinished business, wars on terror, the Patriot Act, the 2008 financial crash, the explosion of violent white nationalism, the coronavirus pandemic.
“Certainly, the events of 9/11 are less in the forefront than they used to be,” Whittaker said, “But the ideas of freedom and liberty still resonate with me personally. It’s always been sort of an evolving interaction. I have different feelings on different days."