From left: Brenda Fortune of Councilmember Richard Alarcon’s district office, Kay Ochi of NCRR, David Scott, whose grandfather was in charge of the detention station, and  Lloyd Hitt of Little Landers Historical Society.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission on April 18 voted unanimously not to grant historical/cultural landmark status to the former site of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station. 

After hearing testimony from 20 people in favor of landmark designation as well as a rebuttal from the property owner and developer, the commissioners agreed that the site has historical significance, but urged the parties concerned to work something out to preserve that history.

Ken Inouye, JACL Pacific Southwest District governor, and Haru Kuromiya, whose father was interned at Tuna Canyon.

The motion for landmark status was made by City Councilmember Richard Alarcon of District 7, and now goes back to the City Council without the commission’s recommendation. Prior to the vote, city staff also concluded that such designation was not warranted.

Located at 6433 W. La Tuna Canyon Rd. in Tujunga, the site is currently the Verdugo Hills Golf Course. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established there during the Great Depression, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service turned into a detention station for immigrants from Axis nations. The majority were Japanese; there were also some Germans and Italians.

In the 1950s, the camp was used by Los Angeles County as a probation school for boys. A group of doctors purchased the land in 1959 and built the golf course. More recently, the land has been sold to a developer who plans to build 229 homes there.

Ken Bernstein of the Office of Historic Resources reported, “Staff has analyzed the nomination against the city’s historical monument criteria … a site in which ‘the broad cultural, economic or social history of the nation, state or community is reflected or exemplified’ … The events related to the internment of Japanese Americans and other detainees at the site are unquestionably significant, and the staff recommendation in no way is meant to deny the significance and the need for wider recognition and deeper understanding of those events …

“Unfortunately, based on the site inspection that staff performed, our recommendation is that the subject property no longer contains sufficient integrity related to those historic associations from the internment during the early 1940s as well as the historic events of the 1930s, due to demolition activity in 1960, which removed all the physical buildings and structures associated with the internment camp, and the alterations as well that were made to the landscape and topography. So our recommendation is that the subject property does not appear to be eligible for local designation under the criteria of our ordinance.

“However, we do want to encourage the commission as well as the community to consider ways of pursuing appropriate interpretive displays, signage, exhibits and markers on this property to better educate and inform visitors about the tremendous historic significance of the site.”

Nancy Oda, president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, and Robert Horsting, co-writer/producer of “Citizen Tanouye.”

Lloyd Hitt, historian for Little Landers Historical Society, said the site is “rich in history” and gave a brief outline, starting with its use as a village by the Tongva, who lived in the area for hundreds of years.

Regarding the more recent history, he said, “Most Americans under 50 who are not Japanese, Italian or German have no idea what happened in America, and more importantly in Tujunga. Like it or not, it’s part of our history. Almost all the immigrants picked up were legal immigrants and over 90 percent were Japanese. With the buildings and fences gone, it was much easier for Americans to forget it ever happened, as we did for so many years.

“Most Americans don’t understand the issue of locking up the Japanese was based in large part on fear-driven prejudice … This was a camp where the INS decided whether or not a father would rejoin his family in a concentration camp or be sent to a different concentration camp for the entire war.”

David Scott of Upland spoke about his grandfather, who was the officer in charge at Tuna Canyon. Merrill Scott established “a system of self-government in the center to allow the detainees to … resolve problems within the community,” the grandson said, adding, “He held the staff to the highest standards and would not allow any disrespect of any detainee. I feel this was a reflection of my grandfather’s view of mutual respect and personal honor, to treat others as you would wish to be treated, to realize that no one was at fault for the situation they were in.” Merrill Scott later oversaw a camp for German POWs in New Mexico.

Brenda Fortune, a member of Alarcon’s Sunland-Tujunga district office staff, read a letter from Grace Kaminaka Tsuida, whose father, Kamekichi, a vegetable farmer in Lemon Grove, was picked up by the FBI, jailed in San Diego, then held in Tujunga and Santa Fe before the family was reunited at the Santa Anita Assembly Center.

Fortune also read a letter from Russell Endo, a retired professor of sociology and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, whose grandfather, Heigoro, a fisherman and community leader, was imprisoned at Tuna Canyon. Endo also grew up in Tujunga after the war.

Kay Ochi of NCRR (Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), a former LAUSD teacher, came from Chula Vista to testify. Recalling NCRR’s role in the redress movement of the 1980s, she said, “We spend countless hours doing education … to local schools and colleges, teachers’ conferences, to make sure this period in history is studied … to develop compassion for other ethnic and racial groups, because it could happen and it may happen to you or someone you love … Designating La Tuna Canyon as a historic/cultural monument … is really important not only to our children but our communities and even to the entire nation.”

Father Detained

Haru Kuromiya of Altadena spoke for her father, Chikayasu Inaba, and uncle, Hideo Inaba. “My parents were farmers and my uncle was a dentist,” she said. “I was a sophomore in high school. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, our lives were turned upside down. The FBI picked up my father and uncle in February 1942. They were first taken to the local jail, then to the Tujunga Canyon camp. I vaguely remember visiting them just once. We were not allowed inside the camp. We talked to them through the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp …

JACL PSW board member Kanji Sahara and Nancy Takayama of San Fernando Valley JACL.

“Shortly after the FBI abducted my father, my mother gave birth to my youngest brother, our family’s seventh child. The authorities would not let my father be with my mother at this very difficult time. My mother and aunt settled their affairs, left Riverside and evacuated to live in Manzanar.”

The Inaba brothers were sent to the Santa Fe and Lordsburg camps in New Mexico, and after 15 months apart the family was reunited at the camp in Crystal City, Texas.

Kuromiya said her father and uncle “cared deeply about being Americans … They never once considered returning to Japan even though the U.S. government incarcerated them and their families for no legitimate reason. Our family did not leave Crystal City until January 1946 after almost four years in camp.”

Ken Inouye, Pacific Southwest District governor of JACL, said, “Even though there’s no structures there, it is a site where many people suffered the humiliation of losing their civil liberties for no other reason than their ethnicity. I think it’s important that this body send a loud message to the people of Los Angeles that we must never forget, that even in the darkest hours, we cannot deny our people the right to due process that’s guaranteed to all of us under the Constitution.”

Robert Horsting, co-writer and producer of the documentary “Citizen Tanouye,” spoke about Tuna Canyon’s connection to Ted Tanouye of Torrance, who was killed in action while serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and posthumously received the Medal of Honor. “His father was one of those that was incarcerated at that site … That gives it quite a lot of importance beyond that site. It has significance for other cities surrounding Los Angeles.

“This generation that was incarcerated are long gone. Their children are approaching the final arc of their life. They’re the ones that have the memories of the significance of these sites. The third generation, Sansei, some of whom are here, there’s a good number of them that have no memory … If this designation is not granted and we don’t preserve our history, who will pass it on?”

Mark Seigel, Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council president, and James Okazaki, formerly of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Nancy Oda, president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, noted that “311 Japanese, 59 Germans and 10 Italians were the first to occupy the camp built for 300 people … They consisted of religious leaders, judo teachers, bankers and community leaders. In total, 1,490 Japanese males were arrested and then eventually dispersed to the other camps.

“Herbert Nicholson, a Quaker missionary and friend to Japanese Americans, was an early visitor to the camp. He was a go-between for the internees and their worried families. Many of our members remember him fondly.”

Citing efforts to educate the younger generation about the camps while former internees can still tell their stories, Oda said, “It is (now) even more important for us to preserve our local history.”

Nancy Takayama, a board member of San Fernando Valley JACL, said her chapter has been working with SFVJACC and the CSU Northridge Asian American Studies Department to “uncover, research, collect and document the lost and forgotten existence of the Japanese and Japanese Americans in the San Fernando Valley” by interviewing local Nisei.

“With the discovery of the detention station, internees are coming forward to talk,” Takayama said. “This is part of U.S. history from 70 years ago. Let’s remember the people who lived there. The San Fernando Valley has no historical sites representing the Japanese and the Japanese Americans.”

JACL PSW board member Kanji Sahara, who was interned as a child at Santa Anita and Jerome in Arkansas, said that Manzanar “has a fine museum … but it is 200 miles north of L.A.” He suggested, “What we should do is rename the Verdugo Hills Golf Course as the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Golf Course … When a golfer makes a reservation, he will be reminded of what this once was … When a young boy goes to the driving range, he will ask his father, ‘What is a detention station?’”

Sahara cited as precedent the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site near Tucson, Ariz. That is the site of a work camp where Hirabayashi was sent after he unsuccessfully challenged the internment in court.

James Okazaki, who worked for the City of Los Angeles for 34 years, mostly with the Department of Transportation, cited another precedent, the naming of Judge John Aiso Street in Little Tokyo after the late Military Intelligence Service instructor. Because of Tuna Canyon’s uniqueness as a detention site within the city limits, he said, “ I hope that the commission will recognize this location by designating it a historical/cultural heritage site for the people of Los Angeles and the world.”

From left: Karen Keehne Zimmerman of Save the Verdugo Hills Golf Course; Nina Royal and  Elektra Kruger, Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council; Krystee Clark, former City Council candidate.

Mark Seigel, president of Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, said, “Having a site like this in Los Angeles is so important …. to have a site locally where the 6 million people of Los Angeles have a place they can go to … and see what happened not just in Germany but also in the United States … The fact that this could happen again, the fact that we don’t have a site that we can show our children, our grandchildren  what humans can do, what they can become.”

Krystee Clark, a former City Council candidate, commented, “I wish we could go back in time to the ’60s and make sure that those buildings weren’t destroyed … but we can’t do that. At that time they wouldn’t even admit that this was a problem … I really feel like this is a way of showing another generation what could happen. I don’t think they’re going to get that just from a plaque.”

Elektra Kruger’s husband’s grandfather was a German immigrant who was held at Tuna Canyon. “That’s just one of the sad and unfortunate consequences of the war era,” she said. “It was a time of family separations, a time of distrust among neighbors, and it’s something that we just all need to learn from.”

Nina Royal of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, speaking for Italian Americans, said, “What was done to the Italians and the Germans and the Japanese that were here in America was wrong. Even though we know that what happened in our mother countries was wrong, we were punished … There are no other such camps in California that I know of where Italians are commemorated for the things that happened …Their homes and fishing vessels were taken away.”

Karen Keehne Zimmerman of Save the Verdugo Hills Golf Course mentioned the current movie “42,” which is educating today’s audiences about Jackie Robinson, and warned, “If we … want to turn a blind eye, to forget, there’s a very strong possibility that Tuna Canyon Detention Station will continue to be a mere footnote in some database somewhere in some huge computer. We don’t want to see that happen … It’s essential that we find a way of making a learning moment out of that very sad part of our history and since it is within the city of Los Angeles I think it bears upon us as Angelenos to take this opportunity to recognize that and not let this slip away.”

Cindy Cleghorn, president of the Sunland-Tujunga Chamber of Commerce, urged the commissioners to visit the site. “The trees, the landscape, the topography, all of it is very significant and all the more reason why this should be designated a historical site.”

Alarcon was represented by his chief planning deputy, Gerald Gubatan, who stated, “First, the significant history associated with the site is undeniable and indisputable. Secondly, regardless that buildings do not exist today, the relevant history remains. Third, certain natural landforms are amazingly intact on the site. Fourth, the cultural heritage commission has precedent designating sites and landscape features as well as buildings … Finally we’d argue that the site fits the criteria of the ordinance.”

Cindy Cleghorn, president of the Sunland-Tujunga Chamber of Commerce, and Gerald Gubatan, representing City Councilmember Richard Alarcon.

“About 10 years ago or so, the National Archives did release documents and at that time it was confirmed that only two sites in the city of Los Angeles were used as detention stations,” he said. “One is in Griffith Park and the second is in La Tuna Canyon. To me, that’s compelling information as to the significance relative to the city of Los Angeles.”

As a result of a cultural resource study commissioned by the owner in 2005, the site is listed as a historic resource by the state’s Office of Historic Preservation, said Gubatan, adding that certain land forms and trees “evoke strong memories and associations for local residents and former INS Tuna Canyon Detention Station detainees and their families.” He suggested a grove of oak trees as a possible location for plaques and interpretive panels.

He stressed that the presence of historic structures is only one of four criteria, and that a site does not have to meet all four in order to be considered for landmark status.

Developer’s Argument

Fred Gaines, attorney for Snowball West Investments, current owner of the property, said that a draft environmental impact report issued in 2007 included a cultural resource study and recommended that the developer “provide interpretive materials and so forth on-site at the time the property is developed. It’s not … that either the prior owner or the current owner in any way intends to diminish the importance of the site in terms of the history … It’s a legal issue as to what is the appropriate way to do that …

“The project plan is to have interpretive materials at that location, so you already have paperwork submitted to the state, and you have an EIR that’s going to require this kind of mitigation. That’s the appropriate way to do that in this case. Your staff in going through the city cultural monument designation has also … identified that that’s not the legal method in this particular case … If this project were to be approved, those conditions would be included that would accomplish those goals.”

Laura Carias, architectural historian at SWCA Environmental Consultants, said that she reviewed the draft EIR and concluded, “The buildings are gone … The grounds to the west have been graded to make room for this golf course. We also have the construction of La Tuna Canyon Road … south of the property as well as the construction of Interstate 210 … I would say it’s lost a considerable amount of integrity … rendering the property ineligible for designation.”

Commissioner Tara Hamacher asked why something wasn’t done about historical preservation until now. Zimmerman responded, “It wasn’t until seven years ago that we were aware that Tuna Camp existed. This is true of the community as a whole. It continues to come as a surprise to know that this took place there back in the early 1940s.”

When the new development was proposed, Zimmerman said, “That’s when the Tuna Canyon Detention Station came to our attention, and it’s only recently when this became an issue with the city. We were very fortunate that our councilman stepped forward on our behalf and made a motion.”

Fred Gaines, attorney for the property’s developer, and architectural historian Laura Carias.

Oda added that many Japanese Americans focused on rebuilding their lives after the war and until recently have been reluctant to talk about their experiences. “We have a word called gaman, that is to endure. We don’t cry, we don’t wash our dirty laundry, so to speak, in public. We persevere.”

Hitt said local residents had only vague memories of the camp. “My wife said when she was a little girl, they drove by the camp, her mother told her to look the other way. So nobody talked about it.”

Commissioner Oz Scott commented, “I want to say to the community, this is a very passionate plea … I love the history. I think that’s what we’re here for, to commemorate the history … I think that’s important. (But) I have a problem in designating a golf course. I’m not here to protect the golf course.”

Noting that there are concerns about increased traffic due to the development, he said, “We just can’t be in that position of being used for that. We’re here for historical significance, not to mitigate the other things. Those are my concerns. I think it’s very important that this site be commemorated … I’m just confused on how to do that.”

Since the staff report says there are steps that the City Council can take regardless of whether the project goes forward or landmark status is granted, Scott asked, “What other options can the City Council come up with to help recognize this? … Can’t the city erect something?”

Hamacher added, “Working with the owner … and trying to make conditions tied to the development seems to be a more successful opportunity than what we can offer. I think our issues are the integrity issues … We have a golf course there. It’s challenging for us to see past that given our criteria.”

Both Gaines and Alarcon aide Mary Benson confirmed that the developer had meetings with former Councilmember Wendy Greuel and current Councilmember Paul Krekorian when they represented the Tujunga area, but not with Alarcon.

Commission Vice President Roella Louie told Gubatan and Gaines, “Would you two get your bosses together and come up with a plan to make this a real statement about the history of the Japanese internment, which was horrible and illegal and shameful, and make this a place where you can build homes and people can be proud to live there, and the councilman can be proud to represent these people who care so much, and you’ll be proud to be a businessman that lives in that community? Don’t come to us with this strategy to make it a cultural monument so you can hold up development. That’s not what we’re here for, and you put the staff and all of us in a ridiculous position that (suggests) we don’t care. We care enormously.”

Hamacher was critical of Alarcon, saying, “This is the representative that we expect to be out there and making things happen for our city, not showing up here trying to oppose development. I want to go on record expressing my disappointment in the way the councilman has handled this because I think it could have been a lot more friendly situation.”

After the vote, Cleghorn told the commission, “For you to be stepping in on the development side concerns me,” but Louie responded, “Just to be clear, we don’t take sides.”

The City Council can still grant landmark status if 10 of the 15 members vote for it.

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

From left: Ken Bernstein of the Office of Historic Resources, Commissioner Gail Kennard, Commission Vice President Rouella Louie, Commissioner Oz Scott and Commissioner Tara Hamacher.

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  1. Great, comprehensive article. I have to say I’m still unclear whether or not the historical designation/Japanese internment is being used specifically to stop development? And if that development is a good or bad thing separate of the issue? I think more journalistic investigation needs to go into separating out the issues because they are getting quite mixed. It’s not clear at all – so what happens if the site gets the designation? No development is allowed ever? Or… that is a big question I’m left with still.