MANCHESTER, NH – I met Michelle Caron and Mike Drelick at the Valley Street Cemetery. They wanted to show me something that was bothering them.
“We walk in here all the time,” says Mike.
The cemetery is one of the city’s historic green spaces, originally designed to be as much a park as a final resting place. Historic descriptions are idyllic – scenes of people strolling, eating picnic-style on the green areas, a brook running through it, and even summer homes.
Mike and Michelle wonder if they are the only ones who see what’s happening. Our city’s oldest cemetery, built in 1841 on 20 acres just a block off Elm Street, where some of the most historically significant city mothers and fathers are buried, has become a decrepit, overgrown haven for the homeless, and drug-users.
“This is a nice walkway, which you should be able to go down, but if you look, the steps are overgrown. There are headstones all the way down that are overgrown, too. You can’t really see them unless you know they’re there,” says Mike.
“And there’s a mausoleum over there,” says Michelle, pointing to the left, “You can see the top of it, but it’s all overgrown.”
Mike says he knows that some of the damage to headstones goes back decades. But evidence of current vandalism is everywhere.
Toppled stones that are cracked or completely broken, articles of clothing, shoes, trash, all haplessly strewn about. Makeshift campsites are visible in wooded areas. Some, though, are right out in the open, as headstones become headboards for sleeping spaces, and rumpled blankets left behind like an unmade bed.
As we walked through the cemetery we noted small stashes of personal belongings tucked here and there, along with debris. On a hill with a clear rear view of the graffiti-covered businesses along the south end of Elm Street, we spotted a partial roll of toilet paper. Further down the hill, we stepped over human feces.
We walked over to one of the most prominent fixtures, the Smyth tomb. Built in the style of a Greek temple it honors Frederick Smyth, twice governor of New Hampshire, who died in 1899.
“Back in the day people used to come in here with their horse and buggies. It was a place where people came to picnic. Even when I was a teenager, there was trash, but not like it is now,” says Mike. “I understand it costs money to do this. But I was talking to a woman who lives across the street, and I said to her, what if we get a bunch of volunteers together to come clean this place up, bring trash bags and make burgers afterwards, would you help? She said she’d be down with it – there are people who’d be down with it.”
One of the relics we came across was an old sign dating back to Mayor Bob Baines’ reign over the Queen City. It was on the ground, weathered but legible. It announced Phase I of the Valley Street Restoration Project, which included gate and fence restoration, security lighting, landscaping and such. It was a joint project between the city and the New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP).
I spent about an hour at the cemetery with Mike and Michelle. We saw a flock of wild turkey milling around, and they pointed out some of the sore spots that prompted them to give me a tour. Mike occasionally stopped to pull weeds away from an overgrown headstone. We peered through a stand of trees to see tarps strung together for shelter. We saw a couple walking along a dirt path, heading back to what looked like a makeshift campsite.
I watched a man huddled behind a secluded headstone preparing to shoot heroin.
“I’d like to know what the city’s plan is, and if they’re going to do anything to restore this place,” Mike said.
I thought more about the sign, and Phase 1 of the renovation project, jotted down the information, and then sent an email. I got a quick response from Jenna Lapachinski, Historic Resource Specialist for LCHIP, who helped fill in the blanks of how Phase I ended.
She explained that LCHIP awarded $200,000 to the project as part of a 2003 grant cycle. Money for Phase 1 was dispersed between 2005 and 2008, and all the money for Phase I was expended when the project was completed.
She also mentioned that the city could apply for additional funding as part of a future round of grants.
“We currently have an open grant round, but the Intent to Apply forms were due a few weeks ago and applications are due in less than a month, so I fear they are too late to apply for this round,” Jenna said. “For now, I would recommend that they look into updating their cemetery preservation plan, as the one we have on file is from 2002, and needs and priorities can shift a lot over the course of 15 years.”
The NH Preservation Alliance has a planning grant program that may be able to help fund the planning update, which would put the city in good standing to apply for an LCHIP grant in 2018, she said – that is, if they aren’t squeezed by the final state budget.
I thought that was good information, but I needed to understand more about how cemetery upkeep is funded. John Clayton at the Manchester Historic Association mentioned a cemetery trust fund. A call to city Parks Director Don Pinard helped piece together some of the answers to Mike and Michelle’s questions.
Pinard acknowledged that Valley Cemetery has been in disrepair for a long time, since before the cemetery department was folded into the parks department. His skeleton crew (pun intended) does its best to break down makeshift camps and move people along.
“In its heyday, and even when the cemetery department was its own department, there were 40 people who took care of the city’s nine cemeteries,” says Pinard. “I have a crew of six full-timers, and we do it all – the cemeteries and all the city’s parks and public green spaces.”
Pinard says it’s a “never-ending battle” to keep up with the recent influx of people setting up campsites and leaving trash and drug paraphernalia behind.
“Cemeteries are very much on my radar, it’s just a matter of having to set priorities with funding. A lot of our money is spent on routine maintenance, cutting grass. There’s a little pool of money every year, but unless a project is funded by the [Community Improvement Program], like the Splash Pad, it’s hard to take a noticeable bite out of the need at the cemeteries,” Pinard says.
There are 344 total acres dedicated just to cemeteries in the city of Manchester. Pine Grove is by far the largest, at 275 acres, and the only remaining active cemetery. The others, including Valley, are considered historic places now.
“There used to be a Friends of Valley Cemetery, but they disbanded after an initial drive to repair the fence that surrounds the cemetery,” says Pinard. That work was finally completed by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce/Leadership Manchester alumni group, with an assist from the city.
Pinard says he believes the only way the city can ever restore such a vital part of its history is through public/private partnerships.
“No one has a taste for raising taxes, and currently the cemetery trust is our department’s main funding source,” Pinard says. “If we tripled my staff we could certainly get more bang for our buck, but that’s not realistic.”
The Parks Department budget is supported primarily with an annual influx of $500,000 from the city’s more than $20 million cemetery trust fund. However, that $500,000 supports all the work of the Parks and Recreation department, not just perpetual care at the cemetery. Many improvements have been made at Pine Grove, because it’s the largest and most active cemetery. That is just the grim reality of staff and budgetary constraints, says Pinard.
After speaking to Pinard, I looked up the Friends of the Valley Cemetery, and found that they had filed tax documents for a few years. I reached out to Peter Capano, one of the friends, who is a former city parks chief and now serves as a trustee of Wagner Park. He told me the group was spearheaded by State Rep. Jane Beaulieu, daughter of former Manchester Mayor Emile Beaulieu.
“Jane was the heart and soul of the friends of the cemetery. She pulled together a nice group, and they developed a few key goals, and frankly speaking, I’d say they met them – getting the fence fixed and painted over the course of three years with a group of volunteers, using some donated specialty paint for wrought iron, and that was really the major goal of the group at the time,” Capano says.
The group also managed to get some headstones restored, enlisting the help of local Scout troops and other community groups.
“I’m not sure why Jane decided the organization should fold. She got busy with some business ventures, I guess. But what she did was meaningful,” says Capano.
When the Friends group disbanded three or four years ago, the hope was that the torch might be picked up by the next person with the time and interest in the city’s history. There might be a few hundred dollars left from their fundraising efforts.
But Capano echoed what Pinard said, about the budget. Cost of cemetery upkeep at Valley far exceeds what the city can afford, or what the Friends were able to muster.
“That half-million dollars from the cemetery trust is used now as operation maintenance for the whole parks department, and part of it is doing perpetual care, which can be something as simple as putting a flower out. We fully comply with perpetual care expectations, but when you talk about one of those big vaults, you could easily spend $50,000 a year. It’s just beyond the ability of the cemetery budget to do that, and I’m not sure it’s anything the taxpayers would want their taxes raised for,” Capano says. “Right now we have trouble caring for the living.”
About a week after my conversation with Don Pinard, I got a call from Chris Sullivan, the city’s Park Planner. Sullivan heard from Pinard that I was working on a story. Sullivan had a lead.
He put me in touch with Tanya Frazier, who officially “adopted” Valley Street Cemetery in September of 2016 as part of the city’s Adopt-a-Park initiative.
Tanya, who works for Benefit Strategies, spends her down time coordinating volunteer projects and mission trips. She often is challenged to find opportunities where families, including children, can pitch in. That’s why she adopted Valley Street Cemetery, because she, too, had fallen in love with the place and saw it as a potential site for recurring volunteerism.
“The first two times I walked through I was worried about whether there would be a lot of homeless people. There wasn’t a ton of activity there that I noticed, before I adopted it. That was in the fall, and I didn’t really get a chance to go back right away. But the first morning I went to start clearing brush I found two spots where people were tucking in and doing drugs,” Tanya says.
Her focus at that point shifted away from trash to the overgrowth problem, which made it easy for people to hunker down.
“I figured if we cleared the brush then people wouldn’t have a place to tuck in and hide, but there has to be a major clearing and cleaning effort. It’s the only way to bring the cemetery back to its original roots, which is a walking park and community garden,” Tanya says.
“One of the first things I did when I adopted the park in September was to take down the ‘no running’ sign. I want people to be able to run there. I’d like to have a formal mile clocked there so people could have a place to run safely, besides Livingston Park,” says Tanya. “After I adopted the park, I found a lot of other people who wanted to help. I just haven’t had the time to put together a huge clean-up day.”
Tanya has the keys to the tool shed on the property, filled with “tons of supplies,” enough for a small army of volunteers.
“We can for sure arrange a community clean up day – my greatest concern is there’s so much drug paraphernalia right now we’d have to do a pre-clean just to make sure it’s safe. When I was finding needles in the fall I brought them to fire station down the street, but I’m sure since then, there are many more to be cleaned up,” Tanya says.
She’d like to revive the non-profit Friends of the Valley Cemetery. Although defunct, it can be revived and money raised can be used for better lighting, which would be one of her objectives.
She believes it’s time for the city to take back Valley Cemetery, and would happily join forces with Mike and Michelle – and anyone else interested in reviving the city’s oldest, most historic sacred space.
Coincidentally, last week local filmmaker and history buff Paul Cormier posted a video tribute to Valley Cemetery, a mournful look at how it’s lost it’s luster, and a sort of cinematic call to action.
All of a sudden, I felt momentum brewing. If I could write a story about these disjointed efforts, it might help bring other people out of the woodwork who feel the same as Mike, Michelle and Erica, Tanya and Paul.
Tanya told me a story about an encounter she had while working at the cemetery.
“The first morning I was down there clearing brush, it was before 6:30 a.m., and this homeless guy came up on his bike and asked me what I was doing. I said I was taking the space back, and that’s when he told me how he’s been an off-and-on resident of the cemetery for almost 13 years. But even he hates that people are taking it over to tuck in and do drugs,” Tanya says. “Then he leaned his bike against a tree and this homeless guy bagged trash with me for the next three hours. Even the homeless want to help.”
Tanya says she created a site last year, volintegrity.org, which she is hoping to launch specifically for the purpose of reviving Valley Cemetery.
Mike and Michelle have launched a Save Valley Cemetery Facebook page, and ask anyone interested in getting involved to join the page.
Capano was heartened to hear that there could be a revival of the Friends of Valley Cemetery. It would go a long way in turning things around, he says.
“I would wish the best to a new group, and I’d recommend they pick a few key projects so they don’t get overwhelmed, maybe examine the model that Friends of Stark Park have created,” Capano said.
Anyone interested in connecting with Tanya Frazier about joining her efforts can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org