Historic graveyard still haunts city planners

Pioneer Square in grim need of a makeover, says city

Grave markers removed from Pioneer Square in 1909 are still stored in a little shed behind the City Parks office.

Grave markers removed from Pioneer Square in 1909 are still stored in a little shed behind the City Parks office.

Victoria could have a real ghost story on its hands — at least, depending on what the city decides to do with one historic graveyard-turned city park.

Pioneer Square has been drumming up noise in the news lately due to the city’s plans to evaluate a new maintenance project. But the small and controversial city park on Quadra near the Christ Church Cathedral has more to worry about than just fresh flowers — the city is asking residents what is more important: maintaining graves, or putting in a playground? That, and a host of other options could see a dramatic change in the old graveyard.

“The space is tired and worn out, and we’ve seen a lot of social issues around homeless activity, drug use and late-night noise,” says Gary Darrah, manager of Parks Planning and Design for the city. “Each year there is a capital program dedicated to upgrading parks around the area — last year was Cridge Park — and Pioneer Square has been needing something for a while.”

In an effort to find out what the community cares most about when it comes to preserving, reviving or redoing the old square, the City of Victoria is undergoing a public consultation process which will wrap up this Friday, July 8. With a park the city says has seen its share of crime and dishevelment, many ideas have been thrown around, including taking out the portion of Rockland Road on the church side — a spot the city is relatively sure has no bodies under it — and turning it into an additional playground or leisure area. The public is also being asked to weigh in on the current dusk-til-dawn usage restrictions. While plans won’t be taken to council until next spring, Darrah adds “there will be no fundamental changes” to the site — the graves themselves will remain untouched.

“Of course we realize the heritage value of a park like this, and it is quite a unique case being a grave site and a park — we don’t have the luxury of treating it as one or the other … and it remains a central green space in the city,” says Doug Demarzo, senior Parks planner, adding that there are rare stones in the site, like the obelisque markers, table top markers and the Prichard Tomb, shaped like a bench. “Right now though, it has been an eyesore to the city, and we have had people asking us to do something.”

While dozens of names have been registered as buried at Pioneer Square, a lack of records and poor marker management has left the city with no way of knowing how many flower-pushers are currently catching their long naps in the site. Darrah suspects over 1,300 bodies are actually buried there, including some illegal burials back from when immigrants could not be buried alongside the white community. The graveyard was deactivated as a burial site in 1873, and turned into a city park around 1908. But in 1909, when Victoria undertook its first attempt at “maintaining” the park — which involved removing dozens of stone markers and installing new structures — the Parks manager at the time resigned after an onslaught of community (and perhaps ghostly) anger.

From that point onward, the city has housed over 50 grave markers in a little shed behind the parks office. Monday was granted the chance to take exclusive shots of the markers, and found out the eerie fact that we were only one of three people to enter the shed in the last decade or longer. Ironically, the stored markers are now in better condition than those that currently occupy Pioneer Square.

While Darrah says it’s unlikely that those markers would be placed back in the square — due in part to decay and in part to the impossibility of finding their original locations — they can’t reside in the city shed forever and may eventually even be auctioned off as lawn ornaments to those who desire them.

While Darrah and Demarzo agree that restoration is an option, there is a great expense that comes with the endeavour and questions around what is most important: heritage, beautification, park maintenance, or improvement? Currently, Darrah says he’s making no predictions, but will let the public speak on this one.

“We’ve noticed this park in particular seems to fall into cycles — 10 to 20 years of upkeep, followed by years of little maintenance and disrepair, depending on the city and community at the time,” says Darrah. “In this case, it’s really going to depend what the community wants to see happen.” M

To weigh in with your thoughts on Pioneer Square, complete a survey by Friday, July 8 via victoria.ca/cityhall/compar_prkimp-consult-pioneer-square.shtml, or call 250-361-0600.

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