How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Lawsuit threatens activists' plan to recognize Japanese detention center

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At the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, dozens of people gathered Monday for what was undoubtedly the site's first-ever Buddhist purification rite.

Before the land was cleared for golf greens, it was the Tuna Canyon Detention Station. And it's where some 2,000 people suspected of collaborating with the enemy during World War II  - mostly Japanese immigrants - were held for days or months because of their heritage.

The cleansing ritual - which involved a Shinto priest tossing salt and rice-paper confetti in the air- was a step toward turning the space into a commemorative site. But Haru Kuromiya, whose father was detained at Tuna Canyon, wasn't allowing herself to celebrate fully.

"It's not the end of it yet, you know?" Kuroymiya said.

The landowner, Snowball West Investments, has sued the city over the memorial. At issue is the historic-cultural monument status the Los Angeles City Council granted the space in June, against the advice of the historic commission and city planners. No buildings were left after crews razed the detention station, staffers pointed out, negating the need to grant historic status. That's now the crux of Snowball's legal argument to overturn the designation.

"We want to remove these legal restrictions that we think have been incorrectly applied," said the developer's attorney Fred Gaines.

The historic designation means that if Snowball were to make any alterations to the site, it'd have to undergo hearings and review by city officials. This adds complexity to the company's goal to build 220-plus homes on the property by 2015, a plan opposed by some locals.

Gaines said the company supports a monument, just not the historic status.

"Really, what the owner is proposing to do goes well beyond what a typical city monument is," Gaines said. "The typical city monument is a sign."

Gaines said Snowball West has set aside an acre to build historical displays and a pathway leading to a space that can double as "as an outdoor classroom or a contemplative place."

That's in line with the ideas brainstormed by Japanese-American and community activists, with  help from Snowball West's architect Yanek Dombrowa, who was a guest at the Buddhist purification event. Activists would also like to see a wall with the names of people who were detained, a plaque, artwork, and a Japanese garden for reflection, among other things. 

But they insist that an official city designation is necessary because it forces the developer to keep its word and also gives them, as a group, more cache when applying for grants for the monument.

The stands of stately sycamores and oaks left from the days of the detention center fully warrant the historic designation, they said.

"These trees have rings that remember that particular time and date," said H. Ernie Nishi, a lawyer from Cerritos whose grandfather, a Buddhist priest, was detained at the station. 

"It's great that the city could recognize that, despite there being no buildings, nature is also part of who we are and what makes us persons," Nishi said.

A court hearing on the case is scheduled for Jan. 9.  Snowball West is also busy revising plans for its development that it plans to submit to the city for review early next year, according to Gaines.

In the meantime, the descendants of detainees wonder what's next.

Twenty-five of them attended the purification ceremony, held on the 72nd anniversary of the  date the camp started taking immigrants under government suspicion - not just Japanese, but Germans and Italians too.

Kuromiya remembered visiting her father at Tuna Canyon as a teenager. The whole family was later sent to internment camps, where it  - like thousands of other Japanese households - was forced to wait out the war.

Amid all the legal activity and development plans, Kuromiya said she'd like to see a proper memorial erected.

"I hope it will happen in my lifetime," said Kuromiya, who is in her 80s.  "There’s not too many of us left.”

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