How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

OC history: Japanese-American site makes 'Most Endangered' list

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Huntington Beach is known as “Surf City, USA." But preservationists say it’s also home to a vital piece of Japanese-American history — a rare, intact settlement that captures immigrant life through the twentieth century.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has put the property of Japanese goldfish farmer Charles Furuta on a list of the country's 11 most endangered historic places. The site, located in an area once known as Wintersburg Village, is the only West Coast location, and represents Orange County's first-ever appearance on the list.

"We really feel that (the property) is absolutely unique," said Kevin Sanada of the L.A. office of the preservation trust. "It captures multiple generations of Japanese-American history in the West, basically from the immigration of the late 19th century all the way to the return from incarceration at the internment camps of World War II." 

But after standing for more than a century, the Wintersburg home faces demolition. Its current owner, the waste management company Rainbow Environmental Services, wants to sell and has gotten city approval to raze the land before listing the property.

Sanada said the trust knew it needed to include the home on this year's list.

"We very much are racing the clock," Sanada said.

Hidden in plain sight

To find the settlement, head several miles inland from the city's famous pier to a particularly dense part of town. Wedged between industrial parks and the working-class Oak View neighborhood is the property, screened off from the street.

To many neighbors like Veronica Herrera, what’s inside is a bit of a mystery.

"Maybe a field? I don’t know," Herrera said.

Another neighbor Maria Rios said that at night, "when you're walking (by), it looks scary."

Behind a gated fence is nearly five acres which Charles acquired in 1908 with a minister friend (he later deeded the whole property over to Furuta in 1912.) Furuta and his wife Yukiko raised five children and farmed. They were the rare Japanese family to own property; many immigrants could not afford to buy homes before the California Alien Land Law of 1913 banned them from doing so.

There is a barn, a 1912 bungalow, a ranch home built after World War II. What is now a large field overrun with cacti was the Furutas’ goldfish farm, one of the first in the country. All types of species swam in the rectangular ponds.

"You had your classic comet goldfish. There were Shubunkins,  black moors, multi-colored moors," Mary Adams Urashima, a leader of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force. "They sold to companies that at that time gave away goldfish as premiums. There were the big store drug store chains like Woolworth's that created these pet departments and they had bowls of goldfish."

Urashima, who blogs about Wintersburg and has written a book about it, is the local authority on the Furuta settlement and the guiding force behind saving it from demolition.

Through years of research, Urashima has uncovered many stories about the Japanese who settled in Wintersburg. Charles Furuta, she said, was the first Japanese to be baptized in Orange County.

As part of a plan he hatched with his minister friend, Hisakichi Terasawa, Furuta had set aside a corner of the property for a Presbyterian church and a manse. Urashima said many notable Japanese-Americans attended the church as Sunday school kids, including Stephen K. Tamura, the first Asian American to sit on the California Court of Appeal and James Kanno, who became the country's first Japanese-American mayor when he was elected to lead Fountain Valley.

By the 1940s, the Japanese-American community was thriving. But then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The US entered World War II. The government sent more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps. 

The Furutas and other church members ended up in the Arizona desert at the Poston War Relocation Center for about three years. Norman Furuta, son of Charles' only son, Raymond, said that his family tried to make the best of the situation.

"They never sounded embittered about the experience, " Furuta said. "They just talked about it as one phase of their life."

He said when his family returned home after internment, it had to start over. They switched from goldfish farming to growing flowers — water lilies and sweet peas.   

"We all helped out on the farm, especially during the busy seasons — Mother’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July," Furuta said.

Charles Furuta would see little of this phase of the farm. He died in 1953 of cancer, just months after Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, allowing Japanese to become U.S. citizens. Wife Yukiko would get her citizenship several years later.

Selling the family home

Over time, it became apparent there was no one to take over the farm.  Norman became a lawyer for the Navy. His older brothers worked as a rocket scientist and accountant, respectively.  

In 2004, the Furuta family sold the property to Rainbow, which had built a waste transfer complex across the street. After briefly considering a redevelopment plan for the Furuta site, Rainbow has let the property sit quietly for 10 years. But now it wants to sell.

"We’ve paid taxes on it. We’ve maintained it," said Sue Gordon, spokeswoman for Rainbow, which is employee-owned. "It’s really a drain on our balance sheet."

Last year, the company got the city’s approval to change the zoning from residential to industrial, and to demolish the buildings on site.

Huntington Beach Mayor Matthew Harper voted in favor of allowing the demolition.

"On the one hand, I strongly believe in the historical preservation of the site," said Harper, who applauded the home's inclusion on the 'most endangered' list. "And on the other side, I'm also very strongly in favor of private property rights, and people being able to do what they want on their property."

Gordon said the company wants to work with the preservationists — it's allowed Urashima to give tours of the property — and has given them until May 2015 to find a buyer or to raise its own funds to purchase the land.

"We all hope that happens," Gordon said. "But if it doesn’t, we’ve given it our best shot."

Finding a new owner for the property will be no easy task.  Preservationists have raised about $10,000. Rainbow paid $4.6 million, and that was 10 years ago.

Joining of forces

Preservationists know that it'll be tough to preserve the site as-is, and even less likely they can convince anyone to build a free-standing museum, given the costs of running one.

So they are hopeful that they can rehab some of the buildings and convert, say the Furuta's bungalow into a coffee shop, or add a community store to the property.

Sanada expects more people will be drawn to the site as they learn about it. Because of civil rights infringements, the internment of Japanese-Americans has rightfully come to dominate their history, he said. But Sanada likes how the Furuta settlement adds another dimension to the Japanese-American experience.

"This site has a much broader and much more uplifting story about building community, establishing your identity," Sanada said. "The ultimate American immigrant story."

Norm Furuta said it still amazes him that the family home is now on a list of historic places with a Frank Lloyd Wright building.

“There are some awfully monumental structures. To have our buildings among them is just pretty astonishing," Furuta said.

Just as surprising, he said, is that many people leading the fight to preserve his family home are not of Japanese descent.

Preservationist Take Urashima used to be married to a Japanese-American, but comes from western European stock herself.

"I get asked by a lot of Japanese-Americans and Caucasian-Americans, why are you doing this?” she said.

The answer comes easily to her.

"History needs to be inclusive, accurate and this is an important part of the story," Urashima said.

Her hopes are high now that the site has made the 'most endangered' list. The trust said since 97 percent of places it's listed end up being saved. 

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