Article apeared at: L.A. Daily News - Simi Valley

Published: Saturday, August 06, 2005 - 7:10:42 AM PST

Cemetery use as park topic of argument

City compromise hasn't cooled debate

By Eric Leach, Staff Writer

VENTURA -- Children play on its sprawling grass, neighbors walk their dogs on its gentle slopes and a high school hip-hop team may even be dancing on its graves.

Many visitors to Ventura's Cemetery Memorial Park, east of downtown on Main Street, have no problem with such activities on the site. But others see it as sacrilege on a site that contains graves dating back to the 19th century.

The city recently resolved a brewing conflict over its use by deciding to maintain it as an open park, but erecting a memorial to the 2,000-plus people buried on the seven-acre site that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

Still, the decision has done little to cool the passions of some residents.

Steve Schleder, a leading proponent of restoring the site as much as possible to a cemetery, said what has happened there amounts to "desecration of the dead."

"This is their remains, their own personal graves," he said. "You want to cry and vomit at the same time, when it hits you what has happened."

He said the area where the hip-hop dancers work out was part of an area devoted to Catholic burials, but officials were not certain whether the team was actually dancing above the graves because the city removed the headstones years ago.

"When you remove the headstones it makes it easier for everybody to think that it's not a cemetery," he said.

But most residents think the park should remain open to the public for varied uses.

"I think this is a very spiritual place," said Shirley Fairbanks, who lives nearby and walks her dogs there. "It's just lovely here. I sometimes will bring a blanket and lie under the trees. It's wonderful. It's just got something about it. You can feel it in the air, that it's a cemetery. All the old history of Ventura is here."

On July 25, after a public hearing that lasted more than three hours, the Ventura City Council decided to keep the site as a park, but design a memorial of some kind to recognize its history as a cemetery where thousands of people were buried.

"We see it as a historical park. We recognize it as a cemetery, but it's next to impossible to restore something like that," said Brian Brennan, mayor of the city of Ventura.

"Overall, the community recognizes the importance of the cemetery. The majority of the folks feel we should respect what is here, but want it to have a dual use," Brennan said. "We can do a much better job of celebrating the past and honoring our history and also leading into the future."

Jerry Revard, parks supervisor for the city, said officials are trying to get the community involved in deciding what is best for the site and how to design an appropriate memorial.

City officials are also trying to find out exactly where the grave sites are, possibly using underground radar.

It's possible, officials say, that there are even graves under the parking lot at the west end of the park between Main and Poli streets.

The city does not plan to bring back all the gravestones, but a number of graves are being marked with ground-level markers at the request of descendants of those who are buried there.

One already marks the grave of James Sumner, who lived from 1840 to 1912 and was a medal of honor recipient in the U.S. Cavalry. Another marks the grave of William Vandever, a major general in the Iowa volunteers who lived from 1817 to 1893.

Although it has not been determined exactly what will go into the memorial, it will probably include educational elements to highlight the importance of the old cemetery in the community's history, Revard said.

The controversy has been very emotional at times, particularly for Schleder's supporters, who include some descendants of the people buried there.

In June the Ventura County Grand Jury issued a report recommending that Ventura city officials should work to re-establish a serene and sacred environment there.

As many as 3,000 people, maybe more, including Civil War veterans and American Indians, were believed buried at the site north of Main Street and a few blocks east of downtown Ventura and the San Buenaventura Mission, according to various estimates from city officials, Schleder and local historians.

At 3.7 acres, St. Mary's Cemetery was established as a Catholic burial ground in 1862, and later was doubled in size for Protestant and Jewish burials. There have been no burials there since 1944, and the city of Ventura acquired the land over time, including the final parcels in the 1950s.

Many of the headstones were vandalized and stolen for pranks, and hundreds were taken away and used to stabilize land beneath a golf course and elsewhere.

The grand jury found no evidence of any illegal actions by the city, but recommended that city officials should "appropriately acknowledge the historical significance of the site and those interred, and re-establish a more serene and sacred environment consistent with a cemetery."

"I think the grand jury really slapped the city in the face in their handling of the situation," said Schleder, who established the Web site, which includes historic photos of the site and people who are buried there, along with a list of thousands of names.

"It doesn't matter what the City Council thinks. ... We will continue until we get these graves marked. We will hold them accountable right until the end, until each grave is identified and restored."

"There are people who like to use it as a park, but the fact is it is a cemetery," he said.

But neighbors say they love the park and want to continue using it.

Raquel Lopez, the parent adviser for the Ventura High School hip-hop team, which sometimes works out there, said it is a good spot for the high school students.

The team, made up of 13 girls ages 14 through 17, performs at school events, pep rallies, and sports events such as basketball, football and volleyball games.

"It's not really a graveyard any more. We see it as a community park. It's right down the street from our school. People come up with their dogs and their kids," she said.

Catherine Spinelli said she lives nearby and likes to walk there with her 11-year-old twin sons, Jason and Justin.

"I thought this was a dog cemetery," she said. l=8s=8 Eric Leach, (805) 583-7602

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