By NAO GUNJI
Rafu English Assistant Editor
TUJUNGA.—Tucked away amidst the mountains of San Gabriel, Sunland-Tujunga is a suburb of Los Angeles known for its abundance of outdoor activities. People in this Crescenta Valley gateway to Angeles National Forest tend to be quite tenacious when it comes to protecting their quiet lifestyle. Earlier this year, retail giant Home Depot dropped its application to open a store on Foothill Boulevard in Sunland-Tujunga after a 4-year battle with the neighboring residents and activists.
A recent visitor to the area would quickly notice the yellow and green yard signs and bumper stickers carrying a single message, “Save the Verdugo Hills Golf Course.”
Again, the community is united. This time, their battle is to stop the development of 229 houses onto the 58-acre property on La Tuna Canyon Road, which includes 25 acres of the golf course and its supporting facilities.
What they are fighting for is to preserve the open/park area with hundreds of oak and sycamore trees, to avoid traffic congestion, and to establish a California state historical marker for the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, which once stood where the golf course is today and housed thousands of Issei men during World War II.
In 2005, Snowball West Investments, L.P. purchased the property for $7.6 million. On behalf of the company, Woodland Hills-based MWH Development filed an application with the City of Los Angeles to construct 229 single-family detached units on the site.
According to Lloyd Hitt, president of the Little Landers Historical Society in Sunland-Tujunga, the owner/developer hired a research company to study the land and found out that their new purchase once belonged to the La Tuna Canyon CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp in the ’30s, the Tuna Canyon Detention Station in the ’40s, and a boys’ school after the war.
The Tuna Canyon Detention Center had remained relatively anonymous until recently despite its proximity to downtown Los Angeles. There are few photographs of the Detention Station left, and even the longtime residents like Hitt, whose family came to the area in 1946, didn’t have a recollection of the place.
“I’ve asked the people for information (about the Detention Center), but it was like they ignored it on purpose,” said the local historian. “Back then, kids were instructed not to look over there. I think the reason why we don’t have pictures is because the government didn’t allow cameras around.”
The Immigration and Natural Service commandeered the CCC camp and opened the Detention Station as a clearing-house for male enemy aliens on the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese. The first Japanese nationals were received on Dec. 16, 1941 and by Christmas, nearly 100 Issei men arrested in Southern California were brought in.
On the fenced-in site, which is currently the golf course’s driving range, there were seven barracks, an infirmary, mess hall, administration building and office building. The barracks included four dormitories with bunk beds, a library, recreation room, workshop, barber shop, tool house, two auto repair shops, blacksmith shop, and shower room.
According to a report submitted by M.H. Scott, who was in charge of the Detention Station, in May 1942 his facility had detained and processed 1,490 Japanese males and transferred them in generally 100, 200 and 300-man groups to Fort Missoula, Mo., Fort Lincoln, N.D., and Santa Fe, N.M.
The documents released by the National Archives in Laguna Niguel in 2006 indicate the breakdown of the detainees as: Japanese, 2,316; German, 131; Italian, 99; Austrian, 2; French, 2; Polish, 1; Ukrainian, 1; Russian, 1; Dutch, 1; Unknown, 8.
Among those Japanese nationals were 173 Japanese Peruvians who were held to exchange for American civilians stranded in Japan. Others included Nikuma Tanouye, father of the Medal of Honor recipient Ted Tanouye; Daisuke Hohri, father of Redress activist and former Rafu Shimpo columnist William Hohri; and Heigoro Endo, grandfather of Russell Endo, a retired professor in sociology and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado.
Like many other families of the detainees—who often were teachers, Buddhist priests, martial artists, and community leaders—the Endos were not aware of Heigoro’s whereabouts for weeks after the FBI arrested him in 1942. Heigoro was a fisherman and later become a pioneering owner in the sportfishing business in San Pedro.
His eldest son, Hideo saved up enough of the gas ration coupons and visited Heigoro at Tuna Canyon.
“My grandfather was in good health, but complained about the food, rattlesnakes and of course, the confinement,” Endo told the Rafu. “My father didn’t make advanced arrangements but just went out there and asked to see the director. After a brief meeting, someone went to get my grandfather, and he and my father were able to talk for about an hour in an adjacent office. This of course wasn’t the usual procedure, but the director happened to be an old acquaintance of my grandfather and he may have allowed this type of meeting as a special favor.”
After several months at the Detention Station, Heigoro was released and rejoined his family at the camp in Jerome, Ark.
Hideo and his wife relocated to Chicago and later moved to Tujunga after the war. Endo graduated from Verdugo Hills High School, and his family experiences fueled a lifelong interest in the internment of Japanese Americans.
“Beyond the obvious injustice of my grandfather’s detention at Tuna Canyon, his absence created major difficulties for my father who became responsible for disposing of the family’s sportfishing business and personal assets in preparation for their removal to Santa Anita,” Endo said.
Yoko Yamashita also remembers her father Hideo Shimakawa went missing after the FBI arrested him at their Santa Barbara home. Yamashita and her mother visited Hideo, a Buddhist priest, at Tuna Canyon for a brief meeting after weeks from the arrest.
“All I remember was that we shook our hands, fingers touching each other through the fence. That’s all I remember,” Yamashita, who was 8 years old at that time, said. “My mother drove us through the forest and when we got to (Tuna Canyon), he came to the fence and we just talked through the fence.”
Hideo was sent to Santa Fe from Tuna Canyon, and the family, who was initially sent to Gila, Ariz., later joined him at Crystal City Internment Camp in Texas. They were eventually sent to Japan for exchange with Americans and stayed there until 1955.
Los Angeles County purchased 10-and-a-half acres of the land after the war and established a school for boys between the ages of 11 and 15 years. In 1960, a group of doctors took over the property and demolished all of the Detention Station buildings in order to build an 18-hole golf course.
The Los Angeles Daily News reported last month that Snowball West Investments, L.P./ MWH Development is willing to sell the property for the right price. Although the owner/developer said no price has been set, some opponents of the development claimed that they have privately been told the owner wants more than $20 million for the property.
Currently, the golf course is under A1-1 and RA-1 zoning—the low-density agricultural zones. According to Snowball West Investments, L.P./ MWH Development spokesman Mark Dierking, the developer has applied to change its zone to RD-5—a Restricted Density Multiple Dwelling Zone that includes single-family houses, apartment houses, and multiple dwellings. If granted, the change would raise the commercial value of the property considerably.
During the summer of 2006, neighboring community leaders from Sunland-Tujunga, La Crescenta and Glendale met and formed the Verdugo Hills Golf Course Committee (savethegolfcourse.org) to figure out a way to purchase and preserve the property as a regional park. Today, a dozen community organizations, including Little Landers Historical Society and Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, have circulated a petition and collected over 3,000 names calling for the preservation of the golf course.
In March 2007, a meeting was held at Los Angeles Coty Hall between Councilmember Wendy Greuel, in whose district the golf course is located, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, then-Mayor Dave Weaver of Glendale, and Deputy Director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Paul Edelman. All parties expressed their common interest to preserve the site as recreational open space, but no funding commitments were discussed.
To date, $1.7 million pledged by Supervisor Antonovich is the only financial resource available to the effort, which is far less than their funding goal.
“The purpose of this money is to preserve the land for future generations for recreational purposes as open space rather than a new development,” said Tony Bell, the Supervisor’s assistant chief/communications deputy.
Bell said Antonovich also advocates for a historical marker to be built at the site.
“Our project has nothing to do with the history,” Dierking, representing Snowball West Investments, L.P./ MWH Development, told the Rafu. “I think we’re open to suggestions from the Japanese American community, but the DEIR (Draft Environmental Impact Report) has found no historical structures from the site.”
Although the DEIR—the City of Los Angeles recently closed a comment period and is currently preparing the final EIR—suggests that lack of surviving buildings makes the property “ineligible for designation under national or California historical registers,” it recommends the site to be designated as California Historical Landmark (CHL).
The report also points out that there are still occasional visits from Japanese American families at the golf course:
“While cultural fabric from the period of significance is gone, the landforms are remarkably intact and evoke strong memories and associations for local residents and former INS Tuna Canyon Detention Station detainees and their families.”
The DEIR further explains that a CHL designation is “not intended to preserve the present resources at Verdugo Hills Golf Course, but to commemorate associated events through interpretation at the site, to encourage sensitive development of the overall landscape, and to accommodate visitors to the site through ease of parking, observation, and meditation.”
“We’re afraid that any marker is going to be lost among 229 stucco 2-story buildings,” Hitt continued. “We really want to leave this open space whether it is a private golf course or public park, because you don’t find park land like that for sale.”
Hitt and fellow Sunland-Tujunga resident Paul Tsuneishi have been working to put together pieces of a puzzle to create an accurate depiction of what the Tuna Canyon Detention Station was and what its historical significance is. They have obtained a copy of the complete list of the detainees and gathered stories from Nisei whose fathers, uncles and grandfathers were once brought into Tuna Canyon.
Hitt explained that a recent newspaper poll indicated that 79 percent of the local residents said to keep the property the way it is.
Although the funding is nowhere near what it needs to be, many of the residents remain optimistic about the future of the Verdugo Hills Golf Course. They may still remember the success of their campaign against Home Depot. Or perhaps, perseverance is the way of life in this mountainous neighborhood.
“You don’t want to get on our higher-ups. We’re mountain people as Home Depot found out,” said Hitt, smiling.