IN THE ANNALS OF Ventura history, there is likely nothing odder than the back-story of Cemetery Park on Main Street Downtown. Established in 1862, the cemetery once sat on the very edge of town before the city sprawled eastward. The site is the final resting place of more than 2,000 people.
You'd never know that by looking at it today. It now functions as a public park with only occasional small, flat markers indicating it was ever a proper cemetery. It's become a gathering space for families and lots of Frisbee-tossing dog owners. I often drive visitors by the spot and point out that while the headstones are gone, the bodies still remain in the ground, a tidbit which nearly always elicits a look of disbelief.
How the resting place of some of Ventura's founding fathers and mothers got to this stage probably ranks as one of the city's more controversial decisions. The church-owned cemetery, filled to capacity in the 1940s, began falling into disrepair over the years, much to the dismay of nearby property owners. A large hedge, planted to cover up the spectacle, did little to appease neighbors.
Years of vandalism took its toll until 1963 when the city, by now the owner of the property, decided -- with only a bit of public outcry -- to convert it to a public park. Bodies resting in mausoleums were moved underground, relatives who could be located were give the option of moving their deceased ancestors and/or collecting the headstones. Flat markers were placed at the request of some family members.
The monuments were unceremoniously moved to a city storage yard and arranged in alphabetical order for relatives to collect. But over the years it became a popular high school prank to steal the headstones and cart them off as grim trophies. Now, many years later, they still pop up from time to time in odd places.
Finally, the unclaimed stones were ground up and used to fill a levee near the Olivas Park Golf Course.
GIVEN THIS CHECKERED history, it is no wonder local residents have clamored for a respectable ending to this resting place for people who have Ventura streets named after them. Finally a plan has emerged that may appeal to everyone, but paying for it in these tight financial times is the difficult part. The city is hoping for help in the form of grants and private donations, Mayor Christy Weir said.
"Since most grant funding will only pay construction costs -- and not design fees -- the city has taken the initial steps necessary to become eligible for available funding by designing a plan for improvements to the park," she said.
But neighbors, who now enjoy the open, restful spot, have complained about the addition of perhaps 2,000 flat brass markers to the site and wonder how recreation and memorials can co-exist. Others in the community say it never should have been made into a public park in the first place and should be fenced off and restored as a cemetery. A map to the gravesites with names still exists.
The new plan also includes refurbished landscaping and repairs to the historic WPA cobblestone retaining wall, a veterans' memorial path and flagpole, original headstones inset into a memorial wall and a memorial garden, which will make it a more pleasant public space.
"The plan is to gather whatever headstones still exist to use them in the memorial wall," Weir said. "We're trying to restore the history and dignity that was lost when the park conversion took place."
The city is hoping to get more public input on the plan on Wednesday, Nov. 19 at 5:30 p.m. at Community Presbyterian Church, 1555 Poli St. The proposed plans are posted at the park, and are also online at the city's Web site.