Terminal Island on Endangered Sites List

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In this Jan. 27, 1942 photo, Japanese women workers are seen at Terminal Island. Fear that several century-old tuna fish canneries and a shipyard will be demolished has prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to put Terminal Island on this year’s most endangered historic places list.

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Terminal Island, the once-vibrant Japanese American village in the Port of Los Angeles, was named one of this year’s most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The trust issued its 2012 list Wednesday in Washington. Eleven sites are listed, including one more in California that includes three bridges over the Merced River in Yosemite National Park.

This highly selective annual list spotlights important examples of the nation’s architectural, cultural, and natural heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage. In 2010, the trust selected the Minidoka National Historic Site as one of its most endangered historic sites.

“Terminal Island presents an incredible opportunity to transform a vital piece of America’s industrial past for new uses while also preserving an important part of our nation’s cultural history,” trust president Stephanie Meeks said.

Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said it is vital to save the few remaining buildings from the old Japanese commercial district such as the Nakamura Company Store. The conservancy group said it is concerned that the Terminal Island Land Use Plan introduced in 2011 calls for the demolition of more structures and fails to endorse the idea of adaptive reuse.

The plan sets into motion a dangerous framework for the future in which the preservation and reuse of Terminal Island’s historic buildings will not be possible, the group said.

The port is also actively seeking demolition of Canner’s Steam Plant and portions of the Al Larson Boat Shop Complex, while others suffer from neglect due to long-term vacancy.

“If it’s the last one, it has even greater significance. They are really in many ways the last linkage to the bustling village life,” said Dishman.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Geraldine Knatz, the port’s executive director, denied that there were plans to destroy any of the historic buildings.

“We don’t have any projects in our 10-year capital plan that call for the demolition of any buildings,” she said. “We have no projects right now that impact the historic resources.”

Terminal Island was selected for the role it played during World War I and World War II as a major shipbuilding center and the home of America’s tuna canning industry, as well as its central role in the tragic evacuation of Japanese Americans in 1942.

At its peak, nearly 3,000 Japanese Americans lived on Terminal Island, many working in the canneries or on fishing boats. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the residents were given mere hours to evacuate in the racial hysteria following Japan’s attack.

Dishman noted that tuna canning was once so important to the local economy that a tuna is still on the Los Angeles County seal.

“It’s telling a really key story about a major industry. We’re hoping to use the attention brought by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to become an example for ports across the country,” Dishman said.

The listing was welcomed by Min Tonai, president of the Terminal Islanders club. Terminal Islanders, who hold their annual picnic this weekend, have been steadfast in their desire to preserve the history of the island, raising the funds to build a memorial to the fishing village in 2002.

“The thing about it is that it’s part of the history of the United States,” said Tonai. “It was the largest fishing port in the U.S. before the war, and the Japanese were the largest group of fishermen there.”

Tonai lamented that so few people know about the island’s history. His uncle was among the fishermen who worked on the island. He was recruited from Bellingham, Wash., and came to San Pedro to fish.

Tonai remembered that when the fishing boats would come back, laden with sardines and mackerel, the women would rush to work at the canneries.

“All the workers were all women. In their boots and aprons they would carry their buckets and start walking to the canneries,” recalled Tonai. “It was a part of history that to erase all vestiges of what was there would be totally wrong.”

The Los Angeles Conservancy is appealing directly to the Japanese American community, asking former Terminal Island residents to share their stories, memories and photos about the lost fishing village.

“It’s funny because at the conservancy we spend our days saving buildings, but it really is the stories that have resonance,” said Dishman.

“There isn’t anything else that links us to that whole period. If those buildings are gone, do we forget that tuna was king at one point?”

To share your Terminal Island memories with the L.A. Conservancy, contact Marcello Vavala at (213) 623-2489 or email [email protected]

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