L.A.'s Cultural Heritage Commission met at City Hall Thursday morning to determine whether to designate Tujunga's Verdugo Hills Golf Course a historic-cultural monument, not because it's a golf course, but because it was the site of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, Immigration, and Naturalization Service -- a World War II internment camp where 90 percent of the detainees were Japanese.
But the Los Angeles Department of City Planning's Staff of Historic Resources recommended against the designation, precisely because the site is now a golf course -- and has been one for more than 50 years. And the Commission agreed.
A group of passionate speakers voiced their support for historic designation, including Japanese-Americans with personal ties to the site, and David Scott, whose grandfather, Merrill H. Scott, was a guard at the internment camp. They were just a few of the representatives from the community who have been trying to preserve the golf course after Snowball West Investments bought the property in 2004 for over $7,500,000, with plans to turn it into a housing development.
It's been a complicated and contentious debate for both those in favor and against historical designation, but at least everyone agreed on one thing: the site is very rich in history.
Originally a Native American Tongva village, the federal government first developed the land in the early 1930s, building a Civilian Conservation Corps work camp as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal public-works program. Immediately after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the government used the site as a temporary internment camp for more than 300 people of Japanese, Italian, Polish, and German decent, most of whom were legal Americans.
In the early 1950s, the city bought the land and turned it into the Los Angeles County Boys Probation Camp, and in 1959, a group of doctors developed it into the Verdugo Hills Golf Course. After Snowball West Investments bought the property nine years ago, the National Archives released information about the site's early incarnation as an internment camp, and David Scott came forward with his grandfather's photos as proof.
"My grandfather, or 'Pop,' as we knew him, was given orders to accomplish a task in a difficult situation," Scott told the Cultural Heritage Commission. "I feel it was a reflection of my grandfather's view of mutual respect and honor to treat others as you would wish to be treated -- to realize that no one was at fault for the situation, to respect each person's dignity and acknowledge their needs, [and] to instill a sense of community."
An historian at the Bolton Hall Historical Museum in Tujunga, Lloyd Hitt, also spoke in favor of historic monument designation.
"This camp was special," he said. "This is where the INS decided to either let fathers rejoin their families in family concentration camps or spend the next three or four years separated and alone, thousands of miles away."
Hitt added, "After six years of gathering information, my Japanese contacts, especially the Nisei, are leaving us in large numbers due to their age. Are we going to remember this important site while they are still alive, or write it off as we often do?"
A number of Japanese-Americans also spoke in favor of designation, including Ken Inouye of the Japanese-American Citizens League, the nation's oldest and largest Asian-American Civil Rights organization with 14,000 members nationwide.
"Even though there are no structures there, it is a site where many people suffered the humiliation of losing their civil liberties, for no other reason than their ethnicity," he told the Commission. "It is a sad chapter. It's something that happened that should never happen again, and I think if you were to make this an historic site, you would be telling everybody in Los Angeles that it should never happen again."
Unfortunately, since most of the original buildings have since been destroyed, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning's Staff of Historic Resources recommended against designation because the property failed to meet the official criteria as a site "in which the broad cultural, economic, or social history of the nation, state or community is reflected or exemplified."
In other words, the Verdugo Hills Golf Course looks like a golf course, not a World War II-era internment camp.
Cultural Heritage Commissioner Oz Scott voiced the confusion and doubt that many were feeling.
"This is a very passionate plea, and I love the history. I think that's what we're all here for, is to commemorate the history and to remember the history," he said. "I have a problem with designating a golf course. I'm not here to protect a golf course... I think the site should be designated, but the golf course shouldn't be designated."
Echoing Scott's sentiments, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted against designating the Verdugo Hills Golf Course a monument, but it seconded the staff report's recommendation "that the City Council and local community organizations consider appropriate interpretive displays, signage, markers, or exhibits on the property, to educate and inform visitors about the site's history and its role during the World War II internment."
Hitt acknowledges that the fight was "uphill all the way."
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"Years ago, it might have made it, but they changed the way they look at a site," he told L.A. Weekly. "In the past, a historic site or Indian site would have passed, even though there was nothing to see, if the information supported it."
So how does he feel about the decision?
"We may not have won, but we got the word out to the contractor that we expect more from him, and that the Sunland-Tujunga Community is watching -- along with the Japanese community."