On June 25, 2013 the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to add Tuna Canyon Detention Station (TCDS) to the Register of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monuments. This bittersweet moment gave dignity to the immigrant detainees held at TCDS during World War II and their families and marked the culmination of a long struggle that conjoined a diverse set of constituents.
Last fall, City Councilman Richard Alarcón, who has a long history with the Nikkei community stretching back to his youth, growing up next to Harry Nakada and learning judo at the CC, introduced a motion to designate TCDS a historic cultural monument. Shepherded by Mr. Alarcón’s unflagging staff, including Gerald Gubatan, Mary Benson and Brenda Fortune, our coalition grew.
Indefatigable local historian and past-president of the Little Landers Historical Society Dr. Lloyd Hitt unearthed important documents such as aerial maps from the 1930s and 1940s to provide the “hard evidence” of the camp’s past. To complement those primary sources, individuals whose fathers and grandfathers were detained at TCDS, such as Haru Kuromiya of Altadena, Russell Endo of Denver, and Ryan Yokota of Chicago, stepped forward to share their stories. Filmmaker Joe Barrett made several short documentaries designed to educate the public. Members of our Valley community including CC President Nancy Oda, former JACL president Nancy Takayama and myself joined this coalition to strategize how to generate further support for Alarón’s motion as it made its way through the legislative labyrinth of city hall.
In April the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission voted against the motion citing a lack of physical structures at the current site of TCDS, the Verdugo Hills Golf Course (which is slated for residential development). We faced another set-back when the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee similarly voted against the motion and recommended our coalition privately work with the developers to work out a deal. Undeterred, and unwilling to compromise, we buckled down and became even more determined. In the course of a few months, the grassroots mobilization was overwhelming. We secured letters or other expressions of support from the Sunland-Tujunga Community, veterans of the Asian American and Redress Movements, the Manzanar Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, State Senator Carol Liu, and a variety of Asian American Studies scholars at CSUN, UCLA, University of Colorado, Texas A&M, CSU Dominguez Hills, San Francisco State University, and the University of Hawai’i. Because the history of TCDS spoke to larger issues about race and democracy we received touching support from APIAs in Historic Preservation, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Shura Council, Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. Over 1,300 individuals from Arleta to Japan signed onto our online petition. Local media also took notice, with reporters from KPCC, the Rafu Shimpo, Pacific Citizen, Crescenta Valley Weekly, and eventually, the Los Angeles Times all taking note.
The showdown came on June 21 when Mr. Alarcón pushed a vote on the motion, going against the recommendations of the PLUM Committee. Armed with the numbers and wearing our brightest red clothes to demonstrate the passion with which we felt about TCDS our coalition and supporters boarded a large bus (generously funded, I might add, by the CC) in Sunland, drove past the site of TCDS, and made our way to downtown. Our coalition filled an entire half of the marbled council chambers. Members from the CC and/or JACL included Nancy Oda, resplendent in her red suit and black hat, Karl Nobuyuki, Mabel Takimoto, Nancy Takayama and myself. We tensely sat, listening to legislative jargon, perfunctory commendation presentations, and various gadflies. Noticing that the councilmembers continuously bypassed our agenda item caused great worry, but we could see Gerald, Brenda and Mary from Alarcón’s office and coalition member and city hall veteran JoAnn Kumamoto quickly darting across the chamber taking to other staffers and councilmembers. Eventually Mr. Alarcón spoke out passionately. The chair of the PLUM committee, Ed Reyes, voiced his disapproval for not respecting the terms of his committee’s recommendation. Yet, our sheer presence forced him to acknowledge the gravity of TCDS and its meanings for Japanese Americans and the entire community. Afterwards, we could see Alarcón earnestly negotiating with other councilmembers as some of his other colleagues spoke at length about preservation efforts in their districts. Eventually, the members reached a compromise: the Council would designate one acre of land, an oak grove, as a monument and mandate the creation of a task force to oversee the development of the site. A week later, the updated motion was unanimously carried.
Although some wished for more land to be allocated, it was a victory nonetheless.
Our scrappy coalition is now looking to incorporate as a non-profit organization so we can fundraise, secure a plaque, and begin the process of building an interpretive and educational center that will bring the tragic, but rich, stories of World War II to the residents and school children of Los Angeles. That our friends, neighbors, family, and youth will be able to travel just a few miles from their homes to bear witness to this past is an important feat unto itself.
At this point, and I’m sure she’d certainly disapprove of this turn, I would like to personally thank
Nancy Oda for her leadership, vision, and energy during this process. In addition to securing the invaluable institutional support of the CC, Nancy has served as an indispensible cornerstone in the coalition. With grace and foresight, she has articulated the historic, educational and moral imperative to save TCDS. Nancy has been a critical figure in bringing together members of the Nikkei and wider Asian American community, the Sunland-Tujunga neighborhoods, legislative staff and others. Sitting down with interviewers, criss-crossing the east Valley from the CC to the TCDS site, and making countless personal appeals, Nancy has demonstrated a profound commitment to this cause and all that it represents: excavating long buried histories, defending democracy, and imagining a better future.
By Jean-Paul de Guzman, JACL board member and member of the TCDS Coalition