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Politics of Preservation: Olvera Street to Huntington Beach

Across America, in Boston, Brooklyn, Oakland, Seattle, and San Diego, and across Los Angeles, on Main, Spring, and Broadway, preserved historic buildings are being reused, redeveloped, re-purposed for the 21st century. The preservation movement has organically come to rise across America and worldwide over the last 50 years. This week L.A. Letters unpacks the politics of preservation via two books published by the University of California Press: "California Vieja" and "Tokyo Vernacular." The discussion also examines a historic site of Japanese-American history, now slated for demolition, in Huntington Beach. History has shown some sites saved and some demolished, the decision is almost always dictated by dollars.

"In urban terms," writes Ada Louise Huxtable, "preservation is the saving of the essence and style of other eras, through the architecture and urban forms, so that the meaning and flavor of those other times and tastes are incorporated into the mainstream of the city's life. The accumulation is called culture." Preservation is a powerful force and, along with nostalgia, it is often used to sell the city. This phenomenon is captured in the 2006 book "California Vieja" by scholar Phoebe Kropp. Preservation is among the major themes addressed, along with how early boosters used the Spanish past to sell California. The author examines culture and memory in four iconic California venues: El Camino Real, Balboa Park, Olvera Street, and Rancho Santa Fe.

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The chapter on Olvera Street tells the story of 1920s historic preservation activist Christine Sterling and her vision for the Pueblo. Sterling knew nostalgia to be a powerful force and used it to sell her version of Los Angeles. Constance Simpson was a local business owner that opposed the redevelopment of Olvera Street. She took Christine Sterling all the way to the California Supreme Court. Citing undue interference with her property rights, Simpson opposed closing the street to automobile traffic. Kropp writes:

Simpson alleged that the city had not backed the project for public benefit at all but had done so solely to encourage private downtown interests. As evidence she offered Plaza de Los Angeles Incorporated, which had not only underwritten the construction of the marketplace but also planned to exploit the resultant rising real-estate values. The city of Los Angeles, she argued, had no business supporting a private venture.

Simpson eventually lost her case because Sterling and Olvera Street had the Los Angeles Times and Mayor's office behind them. As correct as Simpson may have been in her allegations, Sterling had the press and the city's power players behind her; there was no way she could lose. Olvera Street's redevelopment prevailed and its heartbeat pulses stronger than ever close to a century later.

Olvera Street before restoration | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Olvera Street after restoration | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

There's a truism about preservation that Ada Louise Huxtable points out: "In New York City, architectural preservation is real estate driven --- but so is everything else." Though some call this obvious, civic advocates often forget that the dollar drives everything in cities worldwide, whether we like it or not.

Tokyo's lack of preservation and ever-changing built environment is well known. The recently published "Tokyo Vernacular" by Jordan Sand examines Tokyo and the rise of public history and preservation in a city famous for not looking back. Sand writes, "Destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly since its founding, the city by the 1970s retained little in the way of building stock that was more than a generation old." They even tore down Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, an unthinkable act to preservationists. Sand shows how Tokyo's citizens found meaning in the city's vernacular landscape. "As more amateurs and ordinary citizens became engaged in preservation, the objects of their interest were frequently parts of this vernacular city, since the vernacular city connected directly to their lives in a way public monuments did not."

The rise of local histories and neighborhood pride fueled Tokyo's civic spirit, and "neighborhood activists, scholars, architects, artists, and writers set about recording and preserving traces of Tokyo's past, and large audiences responded by searching for the same places and things or consuming them vicariously through books, magazines, museum exhibits, and television programs," Sand writes. Sand's summary of Tokyo's recent urban history and the methods of its local historians reminded me of the current preservation scene in Los Angeles.

Angelenos can think of hundreds of demolished lost landmarks and neighborhoods, like Bunker Hill, Chavez Ravine, Sugar Hill, the Brown Derby, the Ambassador, Atlantic Richfield Building, the Pike in Long Beach, Pacific Ocean Park; countless other sites and structures now only remembered in photos and memories. As we speak, sites like Bob Baker's Marionette Theater and the World Stage are fighting to keep their space, while some organizations are able to preserve their site and continue. Every case is different depending on funding, nonprofit status, and other considerations. The preservation of Olvera Street happened in 1930 because it fit the bottom line of the city.

And so the question is asked: What happens to the buildings and projects that are not preserved?

Huntington Beach scholar and journalist Mary Adams Urashima is dedicated to spreading the word on a very historic location of six buildings in her home town, called Wintersburg Village. Wintersburg Village was a rural community that developed in the mid- to late-1800s in what is now north Huntington Beach. Located at Warner and Nichols, just west of Beach Boulevard, the area was once part of the Rancho la Bolsa Chica, owned by land baron Abel Stearns. The historic site is currently up for demolition. It has 18 months to make something happen. Urashima has been telling anyone that will listen why the site should be saved.

Urashima told me how she uncovered the area's history. "In the mid-1980s," she says, "I was stopped in traffic near the property and noticed the cornerstone on the 1934 Church building, which reads Japanese Presbyterian Church 1934. I thought to myself there must be a remarkable story there." As the years went on Urashima continued to dig and discovered that Wintersburg Village had been the heart of the early 1900s Japanese community in coastal Orange County.

Opening ceremony for the Wintersburg Mission on May 8, 1910 | historicwintersburg.blogspot.com

A blog was created by Urashima over the last year uncovering every detail of this historic community. One of the most interesting facts is that 10 Japanese Missions were built in California a century ago. She writes, "In 1886, the first Japanese mission in California marked the beginning of an effort for a new group of pioneers to establish communities as they assimilated into American life."

Urashima differentiates these missions from the Spanish Missions better known along the coast of California. She writes, "While the twenty-one Spanish Franciscan missions were stationed approximately 30 miles apart -- a day or two ride by horseback -- the Japanese missions sprang up in communities where immigrants established themselves for work. These were the missions of those who faced exclusion, discrimination, and a succession of laws that prevented citizenship and land ownership." Her research has uncovered that the Wintersburg Mission is the oldest Japanese church of any denomination in Orange County, and in much of Southern California.

After almost a century in farming, the Furuta family, who owned the land, no longer farmed, as younger members moved into professional careers. The older family members could no longer keep up the farm. The Furuta family sold the property in 2004 to Rainbow Environmental, after trying to sell it to home builders, according to Urashima. Rainbow Environmental is a waste company with a fleet of trash trucks.

Though a giant green tarp and fence now surrounds the property, the historic buildings still remain on site. According to Urashima, there are six buildings that remain on the land: "the 1910 Mission, the 1910 manse, the 1934 Church, the 1912 Furuta bungalow, the early 1900s Furuta barn -- the last pioneer barn in Huntington Beach -- and the 1947, post-WWII Furuta ranch house. "The Furuta farm was a goldfish and flower farm, one of Wintersburg Village's unique enterprises," she writes.

I drove to Huntington Beach to see for myself. Though the buildings are hardly visible behind a fence, the green tarp and century old scrubs, the cornerstone with the 1934 date, are visible from the street. I can see how Urashima was drawn in originally. One very significant fact about the Wintersburg site, as Urashima explains, is:

The Furuta farm and Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission on the Historic Wintersburg property is one of two known Japanese-owned properties purchased before 1913, prior to the Alien Land Law. The land was purchased in 1908. Historic Wintersburg is a rare, pre-Alien Land Law property with all six original structures extant, telling the story of pioneer settlement and mission development and growth.

California's Webb-Heney Act (Alien Land Law of 1913) prohibited "all aliens ineligible for citizenship" from owning land, and prohibited their leasing land for more than three years. Created as a response to paranoid farmers, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Asian Indian immigrant farmers were ineligible for naturalization under U.S. immigration laws. White, African American, and Filipino aliens were not affected.

Furuta family home in Wintersburg, 2007 | historicwintersburg.blogspot.com

The Wintersburg site is a whole other side of Orange County history. Despite all this history, according to Urashima, "The Huntington Beach City Council voted 4-3 to certify the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which allows the re-zoning to commercial/industrial, and the demolition." Other opponents of demolition and rezoning in the area include the nearby Oakview Elementary School in the Oakview neighborhood, one of Huntington Beach's densest areas.

The biggest disadvantage of the Wintersburg site is that it is in a nondescript area of the city, and not immediately adjacent to the ocean. Somehow I suspect that if it was near the pier, or right next to the beach and not in the Oakview area, Huntington Beach city officials could save the site for civic purposes, like Olvera Street. The site presents an opportunity to show another side of Orange County and Huntington Beach, but the clock is ticking.

To the city's credit, they have extended the deadline. Urashima writes, "On November 4, the Huntington Beach City Council gave us 18 months to raise funds to either buy the land -- if Rainbow is willing to sell -- or to pay for moving the historic structures to a new location." She notes that The National Park Service has indicated that Historic Wintersburg is potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criteria A: Japanese American Settlement of the American West.

Urashima is doing all she can to explain why it matters, "This is not 'Japanese history,' this is American history and deserving of reservation. Currently, a small percentage of our historic landmarks represent our diverse history, so we are, in essence, missing important chapters of our history." She adds, "We invite the broader Californian and American public to help us save this unique history for future generations."

Thousands of stories like this occur across America and the world. Some sites are saved, and some are forgotten. There's only a small window of time, and a whole range of factors. The politics of preservation, as Ada Louise Huxtable reminds us, is guided by real estate values. Time will tell what will happen at Wintersburg. I believe the site should be saved as well, but it is easy to see how the odds are stacked against them.

Salute to authors, activists, artists and architects like Mary Adams Urashima that promote local history and advocate preservation, they are seminal historians in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

Top: The Furuta family on the steps of their 1912 bungalow in Wintersburg Village, circa 1923. Photo: historicwintersburg.blogspot.com

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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