Just Another Park (but Only on the Surface)

Los Angeles Times Saturday August 10, 2002

Just Another Park (but Only on the Surface)

* The seven acres in Ventura hold more than 2,200 graves, most unmarked. Many users say they're not spooked.
Home Edition, California, Page B-2
Metro Desk
28 inches; 1001 words

It could be the only city park in California for both the quick and the dead.
On seven gently sloping acres in midtown Ventura, Frisbee players bound after the floating disk. Dogs romp as their owners chat in the sea breeze. Strollers take in a stunning view of the ocean, just a half-mile away.
Meanwhile, more than 2,200 of Ventura's earlier citizens lie six feet under, mostly in graves that are no longer marked.
Officially, the spot is called Memorial Park. However, locals use a more plain-spoken name, paying heed to what the emerald swath was and, in a way, still is: Cemetery Park.
Kevin Flanagan, a spokesman for the state agency regulating burials, said he never had heard of a cemetery given over to recreation.
"It's a new one on me," said Flanagan, an official with the Department of Consumer Affairs, which runs the state's Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.
It also was new to Deanna Lucio, who moved to an apartment across the street last year.
One recent afternoon, Lucio was lounging on a blanket, blowing soap bubbles with her 16-month-old daughter, Marina. She was unfazed by the spot's history.
"We love it here," she said. "On weekends we sometimes set up a grill. Marina loves to go over and pick up the pine cones. It's just a nice, quiet place for us to hang out."
Across the park, Erica Garcia was equally nonchalant. On her daily walk with her little dog Lucky she gave the high sign to other dog owners. She said the park's history has never rattled her.
"When you live here so long, you just get used to it," she said.
There are no playgrounds or ball fields, no restrooms or picnic tables at Cemetery Park. Stately pine trees offer shade. The only things that hint of the park's former use are several dozen simple memorial plaques dotting the vast lawn. They were installed by the city at the request of families whose loved ones are interred beneath them.
From time to time, couples marry in Cemetery Park.
"We just ask them to be cautious and respectful," said Mike Montoya, Ventura's parks manager.
If the community's reaction to the park seems laid back now, it was practically glowing when the transformation took place in the mid-1960s.
"It was a different time," said Richard Senate, a local historian and lifelong Ventura resident. "The city was growing and this was seen as progress. Only one person objected. One!"
By then, the cemetery had long since fallen on hard times.
It was established as St. Mary's Cemetery in 1862, four years before Ventura was incorporated. Over the decades, it was divided into sections for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Chinese. Eventually deeded to the city, it was the final resting place for wealthy town fathers as well as the nameless poor.
The area's first congressman, Gen. William Vandever, was buried here. Serving from 1887 to 1891, he was unsuccessful in his efforts to split California into two states. However, he scored big with his bill creating Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.
James Sumner also wound up here. He rode with the U.S. Cavalry and won a Medal of Honor for "gallantry in action" against the Apaches in 1870. He ended up working at an Oxnard saloon and dying in the county poorhouse.
By the 1940s, Ventura had grown around its old graveyard and another cemetery had been set up outside of town. In 1944, further burials were banned.
Over the years, weeds overran the place and vandals toppled tombstones. On Halloween, pranksters would work stones loose and dump them in neighborhood yards.
"It was the city's free hotel for bums and winos," said Ed Lupton, the parks superintendent when the city came up with its bold plan.
In 1965, workers dug up the cemetery's more than 600 tombstones and arranged them alphabetically in a nearby canyon. Officials wrote to as many families as they could find, telling them they could pick up their loved ones' rotting wood crosses and elaborate marble monuments.
Fewer than a dozen were claimed. After seven years, the stones were used to shore up a riverbank levee at a municipal golf course.
Seventeen families chose to have their relatives' bodies exhumed and reburied elsewhere. The rest stayed in place. Most of them are identified on a map kept by the city.
"We converted a blighted, abandoned cemetery and 40 years later it's still a beautiful memorial," said Lupton, now 84. "I drive by and it gives me a very, very warm feeling to know that I played a role. I think of it as a green carpet covering those wonderful souls of Ventura's history."
But cemeteries should remain cemeteries forever, say activists who fight to preserve them.
"What's wrong with it? Everything!" said Sue Silver, a volunteer in Northern California for a national group called Saving Graves. "How fitting is it for the first citizens of Ventura to be walked upon, urinated upon, and to have dogs poop on them?"
Silver, who has battled plans to build roads and telephone switching stations on top of graveyards, contends that the city may have broken a state law by devoting a cemetery to any other use.
Senate, the city historian, disagreed, pointing out that the property is still "a memorial park."
"It had been deeded to Ventura and they could do what they jolly well pleased with it," he said.
Whichever the case, the park has become a unique landmark.
Ken Malone, a retired oil field equipment salesman, said he used to make up stories for his children about an escaped killer living in Cemetery Park, eager for his nightly victims.
"We laugh about it now," he said as his toy poodle Gigi peered up at him after an amble through the park. "I figured it might keep them out of trouble."


PHOTO: It's officially called Memorial Park, but locals call it Cemetery Park, and sometimes there are weddings, with a caution to be "respectful."
ID NUMBER: 20020810h04wwqke
PHOTO: Several dozen memorial plaques, installed at the request of survivors, are the only indicators of a cemetery, established in 1862.
ID NUMBER: 20020810h04wxuke
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