BERKELEY • It's hard to understand why anyone would want to buy a sprawling, overgrown cemetery, neglected for years with no funds for perpetual care.
"Walk with me," says Kevin Bailey, who has owned Washington Park Cemetery for less than two years. He stops at a tombstone with his name on it.
"That is my father. He was murdered when I was two," says Bailey, talking over the roar of lawn mowers and chain saws used as part of a massive cleanup effort Saturday. His father, Kevin Garrett Bailey, died on Aug. 20, 1978, a month shy of his 26th birthday.
"I'm sure his is not the only story like that here," Bailey said.
The cemetery, one of the largest African-American burial sites in the region, with 55,000 graves, is a mess. There is no better way to describe it. Like many left-for-dead cemeteries, Washington Park, just off Natural Bridge Road and south of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, also serves as a dump site. Gates restrict traffic, but the nearly 50-acre site is not fenced. Hundreds of tires are in one pile. Broken furniture and pallets are in another. Weeds stand more than 10 feet tall. Vines snake around tombstones.
The cleanup Saturday was led by Boy Scout Troop 323, which took on the cemetery cleanup last month as a community service project. But the Scouts soon realized it was too much for them to handle alone. Scout leader Steve Roseman went back to St. Peter Catholic Church in Kirkwood, where the troop is based, and suggested the parish get involved.
Monsignor John M. Costello said photos the Scouts shared were convincing. The project was mentioned at Mass. The volunteer list grew.
"It's just in shambles," Costello said, taking a break from raking. "Cemeteries are sacred places. We need to make it a holy space again."
Burials stopped here about 20 years ago. It wasn't long after that much of the cemetery's maintenance did as well.
Now more than a century old, Washington Park has been fighting challenges for more than 50 years.
Construction of Interstate 70 in the late 1950s split the cemetery into two parts. Lambert bought nine acres for expansion in 1972. In the 1990s, the airport and MetroLink bought other sections and paid to remove the remains of about 12,000 people to other cemeteries.
In 1991, the state accused former owner Virginia Younger of failing to provide paid-for headstones and of making improper burials after investigators found human bones above ground, multiple burials in grave sites and shallow graves. Younger committed suicide.
Ronald Kuper took ownership in 1994. Bailey bought it in July 2009, after Kuper's death. He got it for $2.
"Now I see why," said Bailey, 35, overwhelmed by the efforts to keep the cemetery maintained. An old house on the property has been condemned. He said the city of Berkeley has fined him nearly $30,000 for high weeds.
Bailey is grateful for the support from community groups, but has no regular maintenance plan in place for the cemetery.
He hopes to cobble together a schedule of regular volunteers to continue cleanup efforts. Brendan Doyle, 15, was among the 150 or so working at the cemetery on Saturday.
"The people buried here, I feel sorry for them, even though I don't know them," Brendan said. "It makes me feel good that I'm able to help them."