By Michael J. ARVIZU
What did the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station in present day Tujunga look like in its prime? Who was housed there? Why did the camp exist? And why is the community so interested in preserving its memories?
The answers to these and other questions were answered on Monday night by researcher Lloyd Hitt, a member of the Sunland-Tujunga-based Little Landers Society.
Hitt presented his findings via a slideshow of historical photographs during the monthly meeting of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley that was held at the Center for Spiritual Living in La Crescenta.
Since 2006, Hitt has worked to conduct research on and save the site of what was once one of two Japanese detention camps in the Los Angeles area (the other was in Griffith Park) during WWII. Many others existed in California – including a camp known today as Manzanar Historic Site in northern California – and the United States.
The camp sat on what is now the La Crescenta/Tujunga border.
Most of the photographs in Hitt’s collection came from M.H. Scott who served as the Army commander of the detention station.
“These are pictures people haven’t seen,” Hitt said. “They show what the camp was about, what the different buildings were, and where the camp was.”
At its peak, the Tuna Canyon Japanese detention station was home to hundreds of American citizens of Japanese descent, a fraction of the almost 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry around the country who were evacuated by presidential executive order, “then confined in isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers, known as internment camps,” according to the National Archives.
The order, known as Executive Order 9066, was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Over the next six months, people of Japanese ancestry were relocated and families were torn apart. Father lost son; brother lost mother; uncle lost nephew; and grandfather lost grandson. Many of those families were further split apart as one branch of each family could potentially end up in a completely different state, like New Mexico.
The camps were a proactive decision made by the government against American citizens of Japanese descent already living in the United States. The fear was that those citizens – deemed a “threat to national security” according to the order – would turn against the United States as the Japanese waged war against the United States.
“[The Japanese] are not charged with anything at these camps,” Hitt said. “And they don’t have counsel. They were allowed to have one witness and interpreter from the outside.”
In 1946 the camp closed and its buildings were demolished. Today, a golf course sits on what was once the detention camp. Every day, visitors can be seen hitting golf balls with 9-irons over an area that was once a U.S. military installation surrounded with guard towers, fencing and barbed wire.
Over 60 years have passed since the camp’s existence, and many geophysical changes have taken place. The golf course itself is 25 to 28 acres in size, but the camp was only 10 acres.
In 2004, Encino-based developer Snowball West Investments, L.P., filed plans to create a new housing development on the site. Since then, local residents – and others who claim familial ties to Tuna Canyon – have fought to stop development and convince the city of Los Angeles to declare the entire site a historical monument.
Giving the site historical monument status would not stop development, the city says, but it would protect the site from being irrevocably altered, such as removal of the oak trees.
Residents argue the area is historically significant, and any development would sully the memory of the Japanese-American citizens whose lives and families were torn apart as a result of the executive order.
“He just got picked up,” said Naomi Yamagata Varsh, a La Crescenta resident whose great-grandfather, Toyoki Chi Nagasaki, was detained at Tuna Canyon Detention Station. “We need to look at our past. Some mistakes we make, we don’t want to make in the future. We need to preserve it – the good and the bad of it.”
Residents have received help from within Los Angeles City Hall. Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcón – Tuna Canyon lies within what was his council district — authored the original L.A. City Council motion to preserve the former detention site.
But nothing is left of the original camp structures, including foundations, the developer said. The only evidence that something once existed there comes from old photographs of the site. And the only natural remnants are a collection of boulders and oak trees that have existed since the time of the original camp.
The developer argues that, since no original structures exist, there is no legitimate reason to declare the site historic. The city’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee agreed and earlier this summer recommended to the city council that the area was not fit for historic declaration.
“What was more interesting and disappointing to me was that the historic commission said that, because there were no structures, that this site was not significant,” Alarcón said at the time of the decision. “That’s a complete misunderstanding of the history. If we believe that you need to have structures, then we simply do not understand history.”
The city council overrode the committee’s decision a few days later.
“Just because there isn’t something physically tangible there doesn’t mean it’s not important,” said City of Glendale Historic Preservation Commissioner and Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley member Michael Morgan. “You could go to Custer’s battlefield. There’s nothing there, but there was something there.”
Later this summer, in an unexpected move, Snowball West filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles for overriding the PLUM committee’s recommendations.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley former president Mike Lawler of the lawsuit. “When you build something big in a community, you got to give something back. I would like to see the developer continue on the path that he started.”
Amidst the lawsuit, however, the developer continues to listen to residents and their suggestions for how to best memorialize the site, even as plans for development move forward, and no mutual agreement has been reached.
“It just stopped everything,” said Janek Dombrowa from JTD Architects, the architect for Snowball West, of the lawsuit filed by his employer. “Instead of helping, everybody’s position is protected. But then what?”
Dombrowa said at Monday evening’s meeting that even without the original buildings, the site still has aesthetic and historic value, and negotiations with the developer will revolve around how to best use those natural features in any memorial.
“Physical things are very temporal,” he said. “For me, the oak trees are a better symbol than the buildings. We turned the entire project into a village. The oak trees became our center.”
Morgan would prefer to leave the site as is, he said on Monday.
“I guess you almost get to hear two different sides,” he said. “You have someone who is an architect – his job is to take something that’s ‘nothing’ and make it into ‘something.’ Sometimes, to me, ‘nothing’ is better than ‘something.’”