|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
28 inches; 1001 words
By STEVE CHAWKINS, TIMES STAFF WRITER
It could be the only city park in California for both the quick and
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
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
"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
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
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
Over the years, weeds overran the place and vandals toppled tombstones.
On Halloween, pranksters would work stones loose and dump them in neighborhood
"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
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."
Descriptors: CEMETERIES; PARKS; VENTURA COUNTY
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
PHOTOGRAPHER: Photos by ANACLETO RAPPING / Los Angeles Times
PHOTO: Several dozen memorial plaques, installed at the request of survivors,
are the only indicators of a cemetery, established in 1862.
ID NUMBER: 20020810h04wxuke
PHOTOGRAPHER: Photos by ANACLETO RAPPING / Los Angeles Times
© Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times