Convening in Chelton Park during the first week of August, 2016, bands of volunteers joined artists Gary Williams and Robin Robinson to take part in the final stage of a community art endeavor that aspired to beautify the public space. A bleak retaining wall was to be transformed into a colorful representation of the surrounding Moreland community. With chalk and paintbrushes in hand, participants spent their summer days outlining and painting interlocking shapes along an eastern barrier that divided recreation grounds from the Shaker Heights School Bus Garage. The final mural depicted images of Moreland neighborhood residents surrounded by jigsaw puzzle pieces. Overseen and guided by the non-profit art organization Sankofa Fine Art Plus, the Chelton Park Mural Project had evolved from community input as part of the City of Shaker Heights’ Moreland Rising program. Culminating in the Faces of Moreland mural, the dividing wall now serves as an apt tribute to the Moreland community’s long tradition of advocacy for the development of public spaces within the neighborhood. The advancement of park building projects, as reflected through the development of Chelton Park, had been both a point of collaboration and contention between Moreland residents and the City of Shaker Heights since the 1960s.
The need for public parks in Moreland had long been apparent by the time of Chelton Park’s opening in 1964. The area’s only designated recreation facilities and playground were located at Moreland School. This was typical of Shaker Heights neighborhoods. Local schools acted as the nucleus of community life and identity, and provided grounds for civic and recreational activities. Moreland’s residential layout, however, presented unique conditions that demanded a different approach to public space. Small property lots and the prevalence of multifamily homes precipitated a need for accessible community recreation facilities. Additionally, play space at the school had dwindled over time following the construction of a library, warehouses, bus garages and parking lots. What remained of the land was often unavailable due to school activities, and its asphalt surface precluded use for activities such as baseball and football. While neighborhood children used vacant lots and city streets for play, the practice was discouraged by police.
The first realized efforts to promote park building were initiated by the Moreland Community Association (MCA). Formed in the spring of 1962, the community group was modeled after and inspired by the Ludlow Community Association. Its primary goals were to deter block busting and promote stability within the neighborhood. Moreland had witnessed an unprecedented rise in the number of homes being placed on the market, in part a reaction to racial integration in the southwest region of Shaker Heights. Beyond efforts to manage the neighborhood’s racial composition, MCA advocated for improvements to municipal services and the creation of community recreation grounds.
Upon its founding, MCA quickly began work with the Shaker Heights Recreation Board to identify locations for the development of local playgrounds. These sites were conceived as designated play spaces for the neighborhood’s estimated 1,300 children, as well as a means of promoting urban renewal through the creation of an aesthetically attractive landscape. United in purpose to create stable, attractive and livable communities, MCA and the City did not always align in their perception of where parks should be located and how they were to be used.
Early park building efforts focused on two sites. Four adjoining lots owned by the City near Milverton and Sutton Roads were recommended as a tot-lot facility. Grounds behind a commercial building on Lee Road between Hampstead and Nicholas Roads were chosen for potential use as a play field. The City of Shaker Heights Finance Committee swiftly rejected plans for the proposed Milverton-Sutton playground. The land’s potential value for future development, inaccessibility to the total community, and proximity to parks in other neighborhoods were cited as reasons for not moving forward with the project. In a letter penned to City of Shaker Heights Mayor Paul K. Jones for the Moreland Community Association in March, 1963, Mrs. Netta Berman expressed, “We are appalled at the possibility of the development of this site for other than recreation purposes.”
Within a month of sending the letter, Nette Berman presented Shaker Heights City Council a petition containing 889 signatures to demonstrate support of MCA’s plans for neighborhood playgrounds. Despite continued objections to the Milverton-Sutton site, the City Council approved the purchase of a 240 by 200 parcel of land between Hampstead and Nicholas Roads in February, 1964. A house on the property was to be demolished to create an entrance from Chelton Road, and three lots developed as a community playground.
In October, 1964, the playground off Chelton Road was dedicated. Mayor Paul K. Jones spoke at the ceremony, recognizing the collaborative efforts of the Moreland Community Association and Shaker Heights' Recreation Board. Recreation facilities, including a baseball backstop and field, were added during the Spring of 1966. For the park’s youngest visitors, a fenced-in tot-lot was situated at the south end of the play field. Shrouded from the dangers of stray baseballs, the area offered benches, a Swedish Gym, a climb-around, a slide, a steam engine and five spring-loaded saddle mates of differing animal types.
The Moreland Community Association continued working with local government officials to guide the maintenance and development of neighborhood recreation spaces over the next two decades. In 1968, the organization offered its support for a City-sponsored bond issue that included funds to develop open spaces within the southwest section of Shaker Heights. The issue’s passage helped finance the construction of Sutton Place, a controversial six-acre combination park and town house development. The community organization also advocated for city property at Hildana Road and Chagrin Boulevard to be transformed into a play space and ice-skating pond.
A new community organization took the lead advancing recreational facilities for the Moreland community during the 1990s. Founded in 1991 as Moreland on the Move, the community group merged with the Moreland Community Association in 1994 to establish Moreland on the Move Community Association. These institutions oversaw the renovation and expansion of Chelton Park as part of a larger effort by the City of Shaker Heights to overhaul its playgrounds and recreational amenities during the first half of the decade.
In the fall of 1992, the City hired a landscape architect to redesign the playground in Moreland. Plans included the purchase of two adjoining properties on Chelton Road to open the grounds for better visibility and security. The new park was to be made over as a play space for elementary school children. An application for a Community Development Block Grant was submitted by the City to finance the project, but the proposal was denied. Shaker Heights City Council agreed to move forward and fund the plans, which had received widespread support from Moreland residents and its community organizations. Two homes were acquired and demolished, and existing playground equipment was reinstalled closer to Chelton Road. In the spring of 1995, the revamped park opened to the public.
Municipal government efforts to develop and improve green spaces within the Moreland neighborhood once again surged following 2010. The City of Shaker Heights had begun receiving disbursements of over $2.75 million in federal grants the prior year for Neighborhood Stabilization Programs through the Cuyahoga County Department of Development. This funding aimed to counteract the devastating impact of the national foreclosure crisis in hard-hit communities such as Moreland. Foreclosed and abandoned properties quickly accrued in the city land bank. While some homes were rehabbed and placed on the market, dilapidated structures that undermined neighborhood stability were demolished. The ensuing vacant lots were maintained by the city while being marketed to buyers wishing to build quality new homes within the neighborhood. Empty lots were also developed into parks and playgrounds for the community.
In Moreland, $181,000 in National Stabilization Program funding was utilized to enhance the neighborhood’s playground and park facilities. Working in collaboration with Moreland on the Move Community Association to identify the needs of neighborhood residents, the City developed two new playgrounds in vacant properties. The Menlo Tot-Lot was designed for children two to five years old, and the Ashby Play Lot was created as a neighborhood play space. Funds were also allocated to the Chelton Park Expansion Project. The City purchased and demolished a home adjacent to the park, landscaped the grounds, and added new fencing, amenities and playground equipment. Throughout the park building process, community members actively engaged in its planning. A petition signed by over 100 members of the Moreland community in 2015 helped advance the Chelton Park Mural Project, which used public art to physically inscribe the neighborhood’s identity into the popular recreation grounds.
In 2018, the Moreland neighborhood boasts five recreation spaces available to its residents. Continuing a long tradition of collaboration between community members and the local government in park building projects, the City of Shaker Heights made a concerted effort to engage local residents in the development and implementation of plans initiated through Neighborhood Stabilization Programs. This partnership, dating back to the creation of Chelton Park in the 1960s, has guided the creation of meaningful, attractive and usable spaces in the Moreland community.