Gerald Gubatan, representing Councilmember Richard Alarcon, points to aerial photos showing that a grove of oak trees present during World War II still exists today.

 By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The issue of historic/cultural landmark designation for the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station site in Tujunga remained unresolved following a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee.

Two of the three PLUM Committee members, Councilmembers Mitchell Englander and Ed Reyes (chair), heard testimony.

The committee decided to postpone a decision until a future meeting, but it has just been announced that the full City Council will discuss the issue at its meeting on Friday, June 21, at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall. It is unclear whether a vote will be taken.

Operated by the Department of Justice, Tuna Canyon processed more than 2,500 individuals, mostly Japanese immigrants as well as some German and Italian immigrants and Japanese Peruvians, from December 1941 to October 1943.

Councilmember Richard Alarcon, whose district includes northeastern San Fernando Valley, nominated the site for landmark status, but the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission in April rejected the nomination, stating that the site doesn’t contain any World War II-era structures.

The site, currently occupied by the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, is slated for development into single-family homes. The developer, Snowball West Investments Inc., recognizes the site’s historical significance but says landmark status would slow down or even halt the project.

On June 11, with about 100 people in attendance, two of the three PLUM Committee members, Councilmembers Ed Reyes (chair) and Mitchell Englander, heard statements from 35 people, most of them favoring landmark designation. The third member, Councilmember Jose Huizar, was absent, but the two were called upon to make a recommendation to the full City Council, which could grand landmark status if 10 of he 15 members support it.

Instead, the committee decided to:

• Request the Planning Department and city attorney to report back.

• Approve the establishment of a working group, composed of Planning Department staff, the property owner and a representative, and experts or historians from the Japanese American community, to develop ideas to report back to the committee on how best to address the issues brought up during the June 11 hearing.

Speakers included (from left) Priscilla Ouchida, National JACL executive director; Michelle Magalong of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation; Haru Inaba Kuromiya, whose father and uncle were interned at Tuna Canyon; and Rosalind Sagara, who delivered signatures on behalf of Tuna Canyon advocates.

• Request that the time limit for City Council action (90 days from the commission’s action) be extended by 15 days.

• Continue the matter to the July 23 PLUM meeting.

This timetable appeared to be contradicted by an announcement that the council will discuss the issue this week. Tuna Canyon advocates have been circulating emails urging all concerned individuals to attend.

Gerald Gubatan, chief planning deputy for Alarcon, told The Rafu Shimpo, “Technically, a committee recommendation to extend the time limit for council to act is before the council. Councilmember Alarcon nonetheless would like to speak to the issue since he did not have an opportunity to personally appear before the PLUM Committee due to being out of town in Sacramento to join high school interns who are participants in his Young Senators Program.

“The council session, of course, is still a public meeting which the community is welcome to observe or attend.”

He added, “The outcome could be to take action or defer the matter. I cannot speak for the council or what direction this matter will take.”

Historic Oak Grove

At the June 11 hearing, Ken Bernstein of the Office of Historic Resources gave some background on Tuna Canyon, which was originally a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1933 but was taken over by the Immigration and Naturalization Service when the war broke out. Los Angeles County purchased the property in 1947 and used it for a probation school for young boys. In 1960, the golf course was constructed, the original buildings were demolished, and the landscape and topography were altered.

Bernstein said his office and the commission found that “local history may only be reflected or exemplified if the site still has the ability to convey the historic associations that made it significant in the first place …. Our finding was that the property does not appear to be eligible for designation as a historic-cultural monument.”

He added, “This is a particularly difficult case for our staff and for the Cultural Heritage Commission. This is a site of unquestionable historic significance … As you can see by the turnout today, this nomination has elevated public awareness and understanding of this period in our history. Our office is interested in working with the community regardless of what happens with this nomination, to develop appropriate interpretive programming for this site, signage, displays, exhibitions … We certainly also want to work with the community, the council office and others to pursue federal funding that’s available for Japanese American internment sites and other private sources of funding to interpret this history.”

David Scott, whose grandfather ran the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, shows aerial photos of the site to NBC4’s Gordon Tokumatsu.

Laura Carias, architectural historian with SWCA Environmental Consultants, concurred with the commission’s assessment, saying that the site has lost too much integrity to be considered for landmark status.

Gubatan displayed aerial photos of the site and read a statement from Alarcon: “I disagree with the Cultural Heritage Commission’s finding that the property ‘no longer retains integrity relating to these 1933-1946 historical associations’ because all physical buildings and structures no longer remain. My office has reviewed an aerial photograph (circa 1952) showing the original building footprints and facility’s boundaries before demolition and compared it to a more recent photograph (circa 2005). Clearly, no original buildings remain however, mature oaks, which remain amazingly intact today, were located within the detention station’s original boundaries.

“The Cultural Heritage Ordinance allows the monument designation of any site, including significant trees or other plant life on the site. I therefore ask that monument designation encompass the original detention station’s boundaries, within which a smaller area with the mature oak grove — landscape features associated with the original detention station — may be set aside as a place to install the appropriate commemorative improvements …

“Monument designation will not stop future redevelopment but will ensure that a portion of the site is set aside to commemorate history and promote education about injustice and civil liberties for future generations.”

James Okazaki, a former city employee, recommended that in addition to the 1.5-acre grove, an additional acre be set aside to provide public access.

Bill Watanabe of the National APIA Historic Preservation Forum and the Little Tokyo Historical Society cited a precedent — the designation of the century-old Aoyama Tree in Little Tokyo as a historic-cultural monument in 2008.

Michelle Magalong of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation said that evaluations of Japanese American confinement sites should “be considerate of their temporary nature and … the government’s drive to quickly close the centers and return the land to its original stewards or convey it to new owners.” She argued that the site “retains strong integrity of location and setting” and that the oaks date back to the “period of significance.”

Rose Ochi, a former city official who was involved in Manzanar’s designation as a national historic site, supported the idea that in addition to structures, “there’s the ability for plants and other kinds of things that can be preserved.”

Testimony from Community

Left: Rose Ochi, a former city official who was involved in obtaining national landmark status for Manzanar. Right: Nancy Oda, who was born at Tule Lake and serves as president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center.

Haru Inaba Kuromiya of Altadena spoke for her father, Chikayasu Inaba, and his brother, Hideo Inaba, who were picked up by the FBI in February 1942 and held at Tuna Canyon, Santa Fe and Lordsburg in New Mexico, and Crystal City in Texas, where the family was reunited after being separated for 15 months — and was not released until January 1946, long after the war was over.

“Shortly after the FBI abducted my father, my mother gave birth to my youngest brother,” recalled Kuromiya. “She was now caring for seven children with the help of relatives and friends. She coped the best she could. 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.”

A Tuna Canyon historic monument “will serve as a reminder of the importance of our constitutional rights and how easily these rights can be taken away,” she said.

Nancy Oda, president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, addressed the lack of historical structures by quoting Ernie Nishii, whose grandfather was interned at Tuna Canyon: “Buildings fall; places endure.” She added that preserving the grove would enable visitors to see the same trees that more than 1,400 Issei detainees saw in 1941.

Alan Kumamoto of Friends of Heart Mountain noted that Tuna Canyon “has a difference from some of the other concentration camps … This one took single heads of households … and separated them from their families. I think that needs to be recognized.”

Joanne Kumamoto said her father was one of those Issei. “The family was not able to reach him for several weeks. They didn’t know what happened to him. He ended up being sent to Missoula, Montana.”

Left: Ken Bernstein, Office of Historic Resources. Right: Bill Watanabe, National APIA Historic Preservation Forum and Little Tokyo Historical Society.

Nina Royal of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council discussed the “embarrassment and disgrace” that the Italian immigrant detainees felt. “People need to know things were done to the Germans, the Italians, and the Japanese as well that should not have happened, because they were Americans.”

Priscilla Ouchida, National JACL executive director, said Tuna Canyon could be part of her organization’s teacher training programs. “This is a unique opportunity because it’s located in a populated urban area, unlike most of the confinement sites that are in very desolate areas … This is an opportunity to provide thousands of students with the lessons of World War II.”

Stephanie Nitahara, JACL Pacific Southwest regional director, added that a historic site would help “maintain these stories for my generation, which has more and more distance from the past.”

Nancy Takayama of the San Fernando Valley JACL, who has worked with the Asian American Studies Department at CSU Northridge to uncover the history of local Nikkei farmers, said that Tuna Canyon “is part of our forgotten and lost history … an integral part of U.S. history.”

Kay Ochi of Chula Vista, speaking for Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, pointed out that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided an apology and payments to those who were interned. “It would be such an opportunity for the L.A. City Council to step up and join all of the community here and across the nation in recognizing the historic tragedy and supporting this designation.”

Kathy Masaoka of NCRR delivered a message on behalf of Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

Salam al Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council commented, “We see so many memorials in parks dedicated to those who fought for our democracy, but we do not have memorials in the City of Los Angeles that remind us of how democracy can slip away from our hands. It’s not in faraway places like Crystal City and Manzanar, that only a few people know about, but it’s in places like Tuna Canyon where we have to learn the lessons.”

Left: Fred Gaines, attorney for Snowball West Investments. Right: Janek Dombrona, architect for the development.

Rosalind Sagara of Moreno Valley delivered more than 1,200 signatures collected online from people who support monument designation. She pointed out that most of the Tuna Canyon contingent was wearing red as a show of solidarity.

Filmmaker Robert Horsting, who produced a documentary about Medal of Honor recipient Ted Tanouye, said that the Nisei soldier was inducted on Feb. 20, 1942, and his Issei father was arrested and taken to Tuna Canyon on Feb. 21.

David Scott, whose grandfather was in charge of the detention station, said, “We support this … with all our heart and soul. This place needs to be remembered.”

Lloyd Hitt of the Little Landers Historical Society argued, “Looking at previous sites, the Cultural Heritage Commission often created monuments about people and major historic events that today are no longer there except for a historic marker. We have to wonder, are not the actions of our government against over 100,000 people based on race just as important as an old house?

Charles Fisher of Highland Park listed four historic landmarks where “not a single remnant existed of the original property,” including the Walt Disney Studio site in Silver Lake.

Marc Stirdivant of Glendale-Crescenta VOICE (Volunteers Organized in Conserving the Environment) stated, “Designation is the only way to ensure that this important lesson in our history, the imprisonment of more than 2,000 L.A. residents, is acknowledged, remembered and interpreted for future generations … If you deny historic-cultural status … you’re essentially saying … that their history doesn’t matter.”

Kay Ochi and Kathy Masaoka (obscured) of NCRR; Salam al Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Other speakers included Munson Kwock of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance; Paul G. Perez of APSEA (Asian Pacific State Employees Association); Mary Benson of the Los Angeles Trails Project, who did research on Tuna Canyon and brought it to Alarcon’s attention; Nancy Woodruff of the Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council; Bill Skiles of the Little Landers Historical Society; Tujunga resident Bonnie Rodiger-Lavine; Wayne Healy of East Los Streetscapers; Mark Seigel of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council; David Barron of Sunland-Tujunga; and Lawrence Fafarman of Los Angeles.

‘Appropriate Memorial’

Janek Dombrowa, architect for the site, said, “When we were asked to redesign this project … in 2011, one of the first things we did was preserve the oak trees, so the oak grove that’s under discussion is being preserved … The developer was prepared then to mark with the site of the oak trees with a commemorative plaque …We would like to work with the community, particularly the people who suffered … and prepare appropriate language, make sure that all the memories are preserved.”

Fred Gaines, attorney for the developer, emphasized, “Let’s be clear … There’s no dispute on the historical activities that occurred on the site and there’s no dispute that it should be memorialized. What is in dispute is the legal and proper way to do that.”

He said the historic nature of the site was documented in an EIR (environmental impact report) drafted in 2008, along with “mitigation that includes … an appropriate memorial on this site.”

Gaines agreed with the commission that landmark designation should “not be used by the City Council or others as a tool to prevent or delay development,” and that Alarcon’s office and Tuna Canyon advocates should have met with the developer. “If we could discuss it, I think we could reach agreement … The oak trees … are preserved on the site. That’s the exact location where the commemoration was planned to be. So we’re even that close … We’re happy to have the community participate in whatever the memorial action turns out to be …

Lloyd Hitt, Little Landers Historical Society; Nina Royal, Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council.

“The cause is just. There’s no argument there … And the result will be achieved. There will be a commemoration on this site … but you have to follow the law.”

Reyes said he sensed a “gap” between the two sides and asked, “Could it be suggested that there is room for understanding how and where we could memorialize the experience here, that there is room for achieving both goals?”

Englander agreed: “Everybody identifies this area as very sensitive, that something has to be done. It sounds like there’s just a disconnect between what that is and who’s doing it and where it’s taking place … I think there’s an opportunity to capture and protect and preserve everybody’s interests.”

Questioning whether the committee and the council should override the commission’s recommendation and the property owner’s wishes, Englander said, “I don’t want to turn around and find out that … we’re being sued, because we live in a very litigious society.” He warned that if the city loses such a lawsuit, the owner could then say, “I don’t have to do anything … I don’t have to erect a monument.”

Englander urged all the concerned parties to participate in the working group.

Reyes stressed that the committee’s decision is “in no way dismissing or diminishing what was said today.”

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

Many Tuna Canyon supporters wore red shirts as a show of solidarity.

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  1. I appreciate the coverage provided by the Rafu on the important matter of historic designation by the City of Los Angeles for the Tuna Canyon Detention Center. This part of American World War ii history has been missing regarding the US Department of Justice detention centers even as the 10 War Location Authority (WRA) relocation centers (Manzanar, Heart Mountain,Tule Lake, etc) are being recognized and becoming visible. Thank you Rafu Shimpo