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Japanese-Americans seek historic status for Tuna Canyon detention station (photos)

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A campaign is underway to designate land that once housed a WWII internment camp in the San Fernando Valley as a cultural historic site. KPCC’s Josie Huang reports.

Turn off the 210 Freeway in Tujunga and the Verdugo Hills Golf Course soon comes into view. 

A cigarette dangles out of a golfer's mouth as he tees up on the driving range. At nearby picnic tables, friends rest after a game, drinks in hand. But the relaxed atmosphere belies the site's controversial past.

Before the land was cleared to build an 18-hole course, it was home to the Tuna Canyon Detention Station. During World War II, the U.S. government held more than 1,000 people of Japanese descent at Tuna Canyon before shipping them off for longer stays at detention centers further inland or out-of-state.

More than 70 years later, the detainees' descendants and community activists are asking the city to make Tuna Canyon a historic landmark so future generations will know what happened. 

"It reminds us what our constitutional rights are and that it can be taken away so easily," said Haru Kuromiya, whose father was taken into custody at Tuna Canyon. "You think it's behind you but it scares me to think that wars happen and this could happen again with any group of color."

Los Angeles City Councilor Richard Alarcon, whose district covers the northeast section of the San Fernando Valley, proposed designating Tuna Canyon as a Historic-Cultural Monument last fall. 

With the issue still unresolved, and his term expiring in a couple weeks, Alarcon said he will ask the council at its meeting Friday to make a decision. Activists say they plan to send a busload of people to City Hall to demonstrate the groundswell of support the measure has.

Still, the proposal has to overcome a major hurdle: There are no traces of the camp left.  And that has some city officials saying Tuna Canyon doesn't warrant the historic classification. 

Recreating a Lost History

Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's Office of Historic Resources, said he recognizes the significance of Tuna Canyon for Japanese-Americans. That's what makes Tuna Canyon "a particularly difficult case, one of the most difficult we've had in many years," Bernstein said.

His staff and the city's Cultural Historic Commission, have both recommended against giving Tuna Canyon historic status.

"What's unfortunate with this site is that this became the Verdugo Hills Golf Course in 1960 and the site was significantly regraded," Bernstein said. 

"All of the buildings that were associated with the internment camp were removed," Bernstein said. "The site no longer had an ability to convey those very important historic associations."

But Tuna Canyon activists say that the site's historic value should not be tied to buildings but to  what took place there. While detainees at Tuna Canyon included immigrants from Axis countries such as Italy and Germany, the vast majority were Japanese.  

In a government film, the director of the War Relocation Authority, Milton Eisenhower, explained why more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent from the West Coast were rounded up: "When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone." 

"No one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores," Eisenhower said. 

Among the first to be brought into custody were community leaders, such as Buddhist priests and Japanese-language school teachers. Haru Kuromiya wasn't sure why her father Chikayasu Inabe, a farmer, was taken to Tuna Canyon.

But Inabe was forced to abandon the family farm in Riverside, just weeks before the birth of his seventh child, a boy.

"They wouldn't even let him be with my mother when she had [the baby]," Kuromiya said. "So my dad wouldn't see my brother for another year."

Kuromiya was 15 at the time, and remembered visiting her father and uncle at Tuna Canyon and talking to them through a barbed wire fence. 

At home, she and her siblings sold the farm's chickens and equipment, as the family readied to go to a different internment camp.

"I just accepted what we had to do," Kuromiya said.

US government film about Japanese-American internment

 Protections from Future Development

Giving Tuna Canyon historic status means preservation officials would provide an extra layer of review if construction or other changes were ever proposed. Activists say the label also would give them leverage to apply for federal grants to help pay for displays and signage.  

At the entrance of the golf course, local historian Lloyd Hitt of the Little Landers Historical Society stands under a grove of oak trees that he says once shaded camp detainees.

He pointed off to the distance, towards the mountains circling the property.

"There's houses up there now, but when you look at the ridgeline, it's identical."

Hitt preferred a golf course to the 200-plus home subdivision that landowner Snowball West Investments wants to start building on top of the links as early as next year, pending approval by the city.

"You can come out here and sit and just picture things and it's quiet and restful," Hitt said. "It's not like you're in somebody's backyard or between two houses or up an alley or something."

But the developers say they plan on honoring the legacy of Tuna Canyon internees, no matter what. 

"We already were planning to have a plaque and other ways of commemorating the history of this location," said Michael Hoberman, the group's principal.

Other ways, said the company's lawyer Fred Gaines, may include a bench, and artwork. 

A City Council committee has convened a working group representing both the developer and the activists that is supposed to meet over the coming weeks.

Activists say they will continue to push for the historic-cultural monument designation, believing it carries more heft than a developer's promise.

Now 86, Haru Kuromiya says she didn't think she'd be an activist, but she keeps speaking out about Tuna Canyon because, "I just feel I owe it to my dad," she said.

And in some way, she doing it for the girl she was, who didn't say anything on the bus to the internment camp, but is getting to do it now.

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