City weighs park options

This story ran in the Ventura County Star

By Kevin Clerici,
March 6, 2005

City weighs park options

Nearly 3,000 people are buried at Cemetery Memorial Park in Ventura, most in unmarked graves under this grassy slope that has become a popular haven for picnickers and Frisbee-chasing dogs.

Visitors, like Warren Knowles, often are unaware of its history -- and torn over whether they would want it to be restored.

"A cemetery is an amazing place," said Knowles as the Ventura resident hurled a tennis ball in the air for Rusty, his Australian shepherd. "But this park is so important to the neighborhood."

To local preservationist Steve Schleder, there is only one choice.

Schleder is leading a vocal crusade along with some families to restore the seven-acre park to its original state -- headstones and all.

"The headstone is sacred, the grave is sacred, the remains of the deceased are sacred," said Schleder, who describes himself as a traditional Catholic and attends a Latin mass.

He contends today's leaders should be held accountable for the cemetery's desecration.

Residents in the surrounding midtown community, however, cherish this idyllic green space, which has become a popular dog and picnic area with panoramic views of the city and Pacific Ocean.

Now, the city is seeking input from citizens through a survey launched on its Web site and mailed to some 800 homes that surrounded the park.

The survey asks what improvements residents would like to see, including a children's play area on a far western portion currently covered by a dilapidated asphalt parking lot.

In light of renewed interest in commemorating those interred there, the survey also asks if residents would like to see a memorial, monument or wall installed. It does not ask if the park should fully restored. Schleder says the city has lost sight of the "sacred rights of the deceased" and that the 600 headstones removed 40 years ago must be returned.

He says the dead deserve more respect from the city and a chance to finally rest in peace.

Ventura Parks Manager Mike Montoya said there are precious few acres of open space available in the downtown and midtown neighborhoods and he would be hard pressed to support Schleder's goal to bring back the cemetery.

Ventura Mayor Brian Brennan said he's sympathetic, but restoring the cemetery would be difficult and costly.

"I don't see a scenario where that happens," he said. The mayor encouraged residents to fill out the survey and let city leaders know their preference.

Montoya said historical documents show the vast majority of the unmarked grave sites are in the eastern portion of the park space.

The focus for a possible children's play area is a 110-foot-by-400-foot swath at the park's western edge, which, according to written statements from the Catholic Archdiocese, does not contain any remains, he said.

Montoya acknowledges that some people might be buried in that area, but that could not be known conclusively without further study. If the city were to build the children's area, it would commission a study that could include using an underground radar probe to determine if anyone is buried in that area.

Opened in 1862 as St. Mary's, the Catholic cemetery was later divided into Protestant, Jewish, Chumash and Chinese sections. Those interred include Civil War veterans and county pioneers, such as William Dewey Hobson, who led Ventura's break from Santa Barbara County in 1873.

But by 1944, the city-owned cemetery was racked with financial troubles and fell into disrepair, officials said. New burials were prohibited.

In 1963, when the city took the 600 headstones to nearby Hall Canyon, family members were contacted to retrieve them. Many went unclaimed, however, some were stolen and a few ended up in a creek running through the canyon.

In 1969, when the area was converted to a passive park and cemetery, Ventura citizens and descendents of individuals buried in the cemetery were consulted, Montoya said.

Most were pleased to have their loved ones commemorated in a revitalized and green memorial park space, he said.

"This was considered by many as a blessing in contrast to the broken-down, weed-infested, crime-infested space that existed prior to the dedication of the property to the city," Montoya said. It is the city's utmost desire to respect and avoid disturbing any grave sites, Montoya said.

But Schleder, 52, an expressive architectural restorationist, has come to believe the city's views will be dictated by saving or making money, not by doing what is right.

"Today's leaders are still culpable for what their predecessors did in 1965," he said. "They still have the shame. They still have a chance to make amends."

The survey results will be sent in coming months to the city Parks and Recreation Commission, which will then formulate recommendations to the City Council regarding future park improvements.

Said Montoya: "Whatever your stance, this is the community's chance to give the commission a clear understanding of your needs and desires for this area."

Copyright 2005, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.

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