Till Saturday's visit to the Dallas Convention Center, I hadn't walked around Pioneer Park Cemetery since I was a kid, when my dad took me to see the Jackson 5 at Memorial Auditorium. And so I was stunned to see, years later, what a shambles the city-owned cemetery, in which several former mayors and city founders are buried, has become: As you can see from the photo above, for every grave marked with a legible headstone, there are dozens shorn of their markers entirely. Whole families are now unidentified, and were it not for this interactive (and incomplete) online map, you'd have no idea who's buried where.
Francis James, regarded as the city's cemetery expert, is appalled by the state of Pioneer Park, which is under the purview of the city's Park and Recreation Department. And Park and Rec's assistant director, Willis Winters, acknowledges that, yes, it's a mess. But with the city's budget in its own state of disrepair, well, there's just no money to clean up what he refers to as "a downtown dog park" that has the potential to serve as "a downtown tourist destination."
"Given our maintenance budgets, which only go down and not up, and our capital improvement needs, as you can imagine the cemetery falls to a lower priority in the grand scheme of things," Winters tells Unfair Park. "Having said that, because it's downtown and in such a prominent location and because of who's buried there and because it's a beautiful green space on the egde of the convention center, we'd like to be able to do a nice improvement package to beautify the grounds and restore tombstones and do interpretative signate to tell people who's buried here and why they're important. There's not a lot of history in Dallas, and it's one of the more sacred grounds around and deserving of attention."
James, who's leading a tour of cemeteries on May 15, says she knows who's to blame for the mess: the very department charged with its upkeep.
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"The maintenance man rides a large riding mower, and he clips off the headstones from time to time," she says this morning. "So there's a chunk, and they just throw it away. One time I was following a Parks Department truck around Turtle Creek, and in the back was a whole lot of headstones. So I called the man who, at the time, was in charge of Pioneer Park. I said, 'The Downtown Improvement District has set aside money to repair the headstones, so if we can get them, now's the time.
"He said, 'We only have one -- for John Crockett.' And I said, 'He was Texas Secretary of State! And a mayor! Could you bring that one back, please?'"
Some of the graves do have Texas Historical Commission markers, but those are the fortunate ones. James says Pioneer Park's sad story is an all-too-familiar one when it comes to Dallas's treatment of its dead. After all, she reminds, when the convention center was being built in the '50s, the city dug up 22 bodies from the original city cemetery on the property and hauled then off to the dump. And there's another marker that reads, "In Memory of Fifteen Unknown Citizens of Dallas, Buried near this location, 1880-1910, Reinterred at this site 1999."
"There are so many wonderful stories buried there," she says. "We could write book about each one and what they did. These are the founders of Dallas."