Naomi Hirahara, Geraldine Knatz recover L.A.'s hidden history in 'Terminal Island'

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Naomi Hirahara and Geraldine Knatz tell the story of Terminal Island

Naomi Hirahara is on a roll. Not only did she just release her seventh Southern California-based mystery novel, “Grave on Grand Avenue,” but a new nonfiction book, “Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor” (Angel City Press: 288 pp., $35 paper) -- coauthored with Geraldine Knatz, former director of the Port of Los Angeles -- debuted last weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Hirahara comes by this double vision honestly. Before beginning to publish fiction in 2004, she was an editor and writer at L.A.’s Japanese daily newspaper, the Rafu Shimpo, and produced several books on Japanese American history. “Terminal Island,” then, falls very much into that lineage: an exploration of a part of Southern California’s past that has not just been overlooked but essentially erased from memory.

When we think of Terminal Island, after all, what do we imagine? Do we know that it was once (in a manner of speaking) two islands, Rattlesnake Island and Deadman’s Island, before they were joined, first by a jetty and then by more direct intervention? Do we know that it was, initially, “a tourist destination with no hotels … a recreational spot for those who loved the outdoors and nature”? As early as 1888, it was declared, by The Times, to be an interesting destination, if “rough looking.”

Hirahara and Knatz are smart and detailed on this early history, framing the development of Terminal Island through the filter of the growth of Los Angeles itself. By 1891, there was a rail line, and the island was renamed, as bathhouses and hotels were built.

A decade later, the authors tell us, “People flocked to Terminal Island for the summer. ... The Times extolled the ‘virtues’ of the island: the best French chef, everything was clean and fresh, and ... [o]n holidays like July the Fourth, there was such a demand for bathing suits that it was hard to rent a dry one.”

All of this is just prologue, however, for the main story of the book, which has to do with the Japanese fishing village that took root in the wake of the development of “Fish Harbor” in the 1910s. Eventually, nearly 3,000 Japanese Americans lived on the island, which became, wrote Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston in her book “Farewell to Manzanar,” “a company town, a ghetto owned and controlled by the canneries.”

Hirahara and Knatz don’t sugarcoat -- indeed, the Houston quote comes from their account -- but they also write about the community that developed, with all the complexities of ethnicity and place. “To me, Terminal Island was a fascinating, fantastic dreamland. I called it ‘Enchanted Island,’” recalls a man named Charlie Hamasaki, who lived there until he was 18.

This all ended with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, after which the Japanese community was evacuated and their homes destroyed. By late February 1942, “[s]oldiers, in full uniform with bayonet rifles, went door to door ... with official notices. All residents of Terminal Island were given forty-eight hours to leave.”

That this is a brutal and disgusting chapter of American history goes without saying, and yet, Hirahara and Knatz treat it in a sober way. Their lack of overt emotion only gives more power to the telling, letting events and policies speak for themselves.

Such a tone of consideration, of context, is only enhanced by the book’s copious photographs, which cover the entire span of the island’s history, making it three-dimensional. Looking at these images, we cannot help see the faces of the narrative, and confront its very human cost.

There is more to the Terminal Island story, of course, not least of which involves the federal penitentiary, which has housed inmates ranging from Al Capone to Charles Manson. But this is secondary to Hirahara's and Gnatz’s account.

Rather, what they have uncovered, and preserved, for us, is yet another counter-narrative, a deepening of the story of Los Angeles, a story marked by deep layers, contradictions, a story we don’t often like to tell ourselves. What does it mean that this is part of our collective legacy, the legacy of the city where we live?

“History is a great tool for excavation,” William Deverell writes in a brief foreword here, and “Terminal Island” performs that excavation with intelligence and grace.

Twitter: @davidulin

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