Status quo for Cemetery Memorial Park

Council votes to replace headstones if requested

By Kevin Clerici,

July 26, 2005

Cemetery Memorial Park in Ventura should remain as a cemetery and a passive green space, the City Council declared Monday, despite demands the park be restored as a fenced graveyard.
Though opposed to a complete restoration, the council unanimously established a headstone replacement policy where a flush marker roughly 6 inches by 12 inches and made of granite would be installed if requested by family members of those interred. The markers would cost the city $300 each. Non-family members who make requests would be required to pay.
City staff also will work to create a memorial or commemorating public art piece and to formally dedicate an existing flagpole and small plaza inside the park as a veterans' memorial.
There are more than 2,500 unmarked gravesites at Cemetery Memorial Park, which for the past 36 years has functioned as both a park and a cemetery. Today, the grassy slope has become a popular haven for picnickers and Frisbee-chasing dogs.
The council's action caps one of this coastal community's most divisive and tangled issues as a growing number of advocates have emerged insisting on the full restoration of St. Mary's Cemetery.
Those sentiments were on full display Monday as some three dozen people, many descendants who displayed enlarged black-and-white photos of relatives, said the dead deserve more respect from the city and a chance to finally rest in peace.
"I think it's a moral obligation to pay a little respect to these people and restore the park to a cemetery," Tony Real said.
Another descendant, Pat Clark Doerner, presented a photo collage of recovered headstones that left some in the audience weeping.
"The fact the headstones have been abandoned or destroyed is unacceptable," said Crystal Davis, a history teacher in Ojai, who read a letter of a co-worker who has family members interred.
"You can't just do that to our people," said Shamar Camargo, a Chumash descendant.
Councilman Sandy Smith said he couldn't support a full restoration.
Instead, he agreed with those who want a memorial or multiple memorials that "people can be proud of."
Councilwoman Christy Weir favored the park be left as is, including allowing dogs, but said she would want the memorial to list as many names as possible.
Councilman Carl Morehouse felt people should be outraged at the Catholic Church, which he said let the cemetery fall into a state of disrepair before selling the property to the city.
"The sins of the past are foisted on us," he said.
Opened in 1862 as St. Mary's Cemetery, the Catholic burial facility was later divided into Protestant, Jewish and Chinese sections.
By 1944, the city-owned cemetery was racked with financial problems and fell into weed-infested disrepair.
Headstones were toppled and damaged. New burials were prohibited.
Last month, the Ventura County Grand Jury cleared the Ventura City Clerk's Office of allegations that it concealed public documents on Cemetery Memorial Park.
However, the Grand Jury criticized other city actions involving the historical cemetery.
Though it found no illegalities, the Grand Jury concluded the city in the 1960s removed some 500 tombstones and crypts with little regard to their historical significance.
In 1964, the city began storing tombstones and crypts at a Hall Canyon city parks yard, where they were laid out in alphabetical order until heirs of the deceased could be located to claim them, officials said.
Some of the unclaimed stones were later buried in Hall Canyon and others hauled to the Olivas levee.
City Manager Rick Cole defended current parks staff, saying they are the "inheritors" of their predecessors' controversial decisions.
A 110-foot portion of the park, which formerly housed a recreation center before it crumbled, was looked at for a children's play area and picnic grounds, but Parks Manager Mike Montoya said that proposal and others should be shelved. A survey of residents in the surrounding neighborhood, he explained, responded overwhelmingly they want the park to be left alone.
Montoya said there is $25,000 in public art money to place a befitting memorial on the site and some $230,000 to pay for requested markers.
He also said the city's park committee will soon discuss ways to better enforce rarely observed leash laws.
But that's hardly enough for preservationist Steve Schleder, who is among those who want the popular hillside park restored to a cemetery and believes the city remains culpable for decisions of the past.
Schleder claims the city cannot produce ownership documents to portions of the cemetery. And therefore, he argues, it has no authority to decide how it be used. City staff didn't respond to the claims.
"Do we want to be branded as the city with 7,000 desecrated graves by the sea?" said Schleder, referring to the 3,000 interred below Cemetery Memorial Park and an additional 4,000 below what is now Holy Cross School, built in 1922, west of downtown's famed Mission San Buenaventura Mission.

Copyright 2005, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.

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