Members of Support Historic Wintersburg held a protest outside the site in Huntington Beach following a fire that led to the demolition of two century-old buildings. (Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Following is Part 2 of our coverage of a rally held March 19 by supporters of Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach following a fire of unknown origin that struck the site in February. One of the speakers, Ocean View School District Vice President Patricia Singer, witnessed the fire.

“I was at work and … I came over here because this is something that is very dear to our community,” Singer recalled. “I wanted to make sure that I understood what was happening and what had happened. Upon arrival at the site, there was a fire and it was not fully extinguished at that point. The chief of police was here and the Fire Department was here, and they were very kind.

“They allowed me access onto the property so that I could see what was happening and understand what was happening after they had extinguished the fire. I was able to walk the property and I proceeded to ask questions like ‘What will happen now? Will there be a full investigation? Will there be a full arson investigation? We need to figure out what happened.’

“I was told there would be a full investigation that it would totally be handled, that it would be taken care of … I was told that there would be a part of the wall removed from the building. It was the only thing to do to ensure that the building would not be reignited, which I understood … For the safety of the community and the rest of the structures that were here, it was important that it did not reignite ….

“But instead, what happened was different. The building was actually demolished in its totality. And then when we believed everything was done and completed … and the investigation was going to proceed, a few hours later I was told that they came back and they actually bulldozed a second building that was not on fire, that there was no reason for that to happen. And so the question begs to be asked, why did that happen? Why did Republic think that it was necessary to demolish a second building with no reason? There was not a safety concern at that point — at least I was told by the Fire Department there wasn’t any …

“So I’d like Republic to really do the right thing, really work with us to understand what happened. They have an opportunity to be part of history and to make good history. Their record doesn’t show really well for them, so this is their opportunity to come out and do the right thing for the community and save this historic preservation.”

Singer and Ocean View School District President Gina Clayton-Tarvin joined the attendees in chanting, “Dont trash our history. We deserve the truth.”

Emcee David Monkawa with Ocean View School District President Gina Clayton-Tarvin (right) and Vice President Patricia Singer.

Resisting Anti-Asian Violence

Reggie Wong of Progressive Asian Network for Action and Neighborhood Safety Companions said, “The fire occurred during a surge of violence against Asians. Last year, anti-Asian hate crimes jumped up to 339% nationwide. And here in the OC, hate incidents in general shot 69% in 2020; more than half of those incidents were anti-Asian. We’ve seen attacks not just against Asian people, but against our houses of worship from Southern California to Seattle, Arkansas, and even Calgary, Canada …

“With all this going on, it makes you wonder if the fire was intentionally set … (which) would be a way to erase Asians from local history … We’ve been reduced to the enemy or the model minority lie to serve the status quo and pit us against other groups.”

Calling for a third-party investigation into the cause of the fire, Wong said, “We want to preserve the church so future generations will know how the Japanese American community persisted despite discrimination.”

Mitchell Matsumura

Mitchell Matsumura, speaking on behalf of Stop AAPI Hate South Bay and other organizations, noted that a woman from Long Beach recently assaulted Asian Americans at Del Amo Mall and Wilson Park in Torrance and wasn’t prosecuted until the community pushed for action, with the help of Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi and pro bono attorney Sandy Roxas.

He also cited the work of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, represented at the rally by Kanji Sahara and others, in fighting for historical designation of a former WWII confinement site in Tujunga, and the work of Save Our Seniors Network to help residents of the former Keiro Intermediate Care Facility in Boyle Heights after they were evicted by the new owner, Pacifica.

Regarding Historic Wintersburg, Matsumura said, “People are saying, ‘These are a bunch of old buildings … Let it go.’ But … in June 2014, Historic Wintersburg was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places … The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Historic Wintersburg a national treasure in October 2015.”

Although the Fire Department concluded that there was no evidence of arson, Matsumura argued, “They don’t even know what caused it. They don’t know if it was an accident … OC needs more investigation than on the city level. The situation needs to go to Rob Bonta. He’s the attorney general in Sacramento. We’re going to take it to him. I’m asking organizations here to write a letter … If we don’t get enough response, we’re going to take it to [U.S. Attorney General] Merrick Garland. We’re going to take it to Washington, D.C. because it doesn’t stop here.”

Matsumura urged local authorities, “Don’t touch that rubble because that’s evidence … We need that evidence.” He also called on anyone with photos or video from the day of the fire to come forward.

Kyoko Oda of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition said, “Like most of you in the audience, I’m not a fancy speaker. I’m a housewife. I retired 11 years ago. I’m going to speak to you from my heart. I know that Mary [Urashima of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, who was unable to attend] would be extremely happy to see so many of you here today representing so many parts of this community in Southern California. Let’s send her our best wishes …

Kyoko Oda

“I am here to protest the demolition of an important historical treasure. The Furuta family that lived here when the war started was forcibly removed … was taken to Tuna Canyon in the dark of night … Mr. Furuta went to Tuna Canyon and then to the next place and the next place. And so I support Historic Wintersburg one hundred percent.”

Calling the fire “outrageous,” Oda said, “This cannot continue. What if tonight they decide to just finish the job off? … [Republic] said in one document that they were interested in taking all six buildings down. So our job today is to fight back with whatever we can, with numbers, with letters. And I really like what I’ve heard today because they have some very practical and I think powerful ways of making … Republic Services take the high road.”

She added, “I am a survivor of the Japanese American World War II concentration camps. I was a baby when the war started. But I am committed to preserve our story so that this doesn’t happen again … This location, this is so beautiful. I see it as a potential park for reflection and inspiration. So please join me just a regular person to fight back.”

Billy Taing of API Rise, speaking as a refugee whose father was killed in Cambodia, stressed the importance of preserving family stories and community history.

Noting that Jeff Snow, a regional manager for Republic, said during a 2016 meeting on Wintersburg, “I will have no part of anything celebrating Pearl Harbor,” Taing said, “Let’s hope that not all the leadership of Republic is like Mr. Snow.”

Candidate’s Position

Jay Chen, a candidate for the 45th Congressional District, was represented by his campaign manager, Lindsay Barnes, who read the following statement: “I first learned about Historic Wintersburg only one month ago while researching the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the unjust incarceration of the Japanese American community in desert camps during World War II. I was shocked to realize that right here in Orange County was one of the most important Japanese American historical sites in all of Southern California and that it was in such a state of despair …

“My two boys have attended a Japanese school since they were toddlers, and I want them to see this piece of history and connect it with Manzanar, which we visited together last year, I’m saddened that a fire burned down part of Wintersburg before I could make this visit. Wintersburg is an invaluable piece of history that must be protected, preserved and promoted. It isn’t just a landmark for Huntington Beach, but a critical piece of American history that represents the perseverance and determination of the Japanese American people.

“It is distressing that the burned building and another building next to it were quickly demolished, potentially destroying crucial evidence hours after the fire was distinguished. This complicates the ability of authorities to properly investigate the cause of the fire …

“It has been reported in the press that the preservationists have been met with orchestrated online harassment and that the owners of the property wish to sell the land for development. Clearly there has been neglect in the care and security of this historic place, and that is completely unacceptable. Too often historic sites like Wintersburg receive inadequate support from the agencies charged with protecting them.

“In Congress. I will pursue legislation and funding that protects and preserve irreplaceable historical sites like this one. It is my hope that the lost structures will be rebuilt. The possibility that this fire could have been racially motivated also is not lost upon the audience today in light of the rise in anti-Asian attacks on our community. In Congress, I will work to ensure that law enforcement has the tools and resources to combat hate crimes and keep our communities safe. We will not live in fear or have our histories erased.

“I stand with Wintersburg and I look forward to bringing my children here, to know its history.”

The event concluded with participants marching in a circle, holding signs and chanting. Drivers passing by were asked to honk to show their support, and a number of them obliged.

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