Asian Americans seek answers in aftermath of Historic Wintersburg fire

Asian Americans and supporters rallied Saturday at the site of the Historic Wintersburg Japanese Mission that burned down.
Asian American groups and their supporters rallied Saturday at the site of the Historic Wintersburg Japanese Mission that burned down in February. They are demanding answers as to who or what caused the fire.
(James Carbone)

Asian American activists and supporters continue to demand answers after last month’s fire at the Historic Wintersburg property in Huntington Beach destroyed two historic buildings that were more than a century old.

About 150 gathered Saturday at the 4.5-acre site, which sits on the southeast corner of Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane. Chanting, “Don’t trash our history, we deserve the truth!,” they demanded a full investigation into the fire, which resulted in the loss of the 1910 Mission (church) and manse (parsonage) buildings.

For the record:

2:42 p.m. March 24, 2022An earlier version of this story said the Ocean View School District made its land use settlement in 2015, not 2016. Also, a clarification was made that the area around Historic Wintersburg not only falls within OVSD boundaries, but some of it is owned by the district.

Two of the six historic buildings on the property, which represents the settlement of the first generation of Japanese immigrants in California prior to the first alien land law in 1913, were lost in the blaze. The other church on the property, the 1934 Wintersburg Japanese Church, escaped unscathed.

The damaged manse and the mission building were subsequently bulldozed by Republic Services, the waste and recycling company that has owned the site since 2004. Republic has a plant down the street from the site, on Nichols Lane.

Mary Adams Urashima, a Huntington Beach resident and advocate for Historic Wintersburg, said she has filed a public records request for the full investigative report into the fire. But a news release issued by the city Friday stated the Huntington Beach police and fire department investigators found no evidence of arson or a hate crime.

“The initial reaction to the loss of these buildings, the anger that you’re hearing from some, has a context,” Urashima said. “None of this is directed at the fire department. Their efforts were heroic ... The response has to do with the context of targeted social media harassment and anti-Asian hate online, using anti-Japanese and anti-Asian rhetoric and graphics, that began in early 2016 and continued for a multiyear period. There is also the ongoing history of the neglect of the property.”

David Monkawa from the Progressive Asian Network gives a speech Saturday in support of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission.
David Monkawa from the Progressive Asian Network gives a speech Saturday in support of the Historic Wintersburg Japanese Mission.
(James Carbone)

Urashima said Republic has committed “demolition by neglect” by not taken simple maintenance measures in recent years at the property, such as weed abatement and brush clearing. The city police and fire investigation found evidence of personal belongings at the site, indicating that at least one person was possibly living on the property, though it was unclear whether they were involved in the fire.

Additionally, the investigation revealed that electricity may have been illegally and dangerously acquired by tapping into a nearby power source. The city of Huntington Beach has been informed by Republic Services of its intentions to enhance its security of the site, but that’s too little too late for some advocates.

“It’s been a continual effort to notify [Republic], frequently without response, to the ongoing damage and trespassing and neglect of the property,” Urashima said. “This property was recognized as one of American’s 11 most endangered historic places in 2014, then as a National Treasure in 2015 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is Orange County’s first and only National Treasure historic place.”

Republic Services of Huntington Beach said in an emailed statement that it is open to future ideas, though a specific question about the allegations of neglect was not answered.

“Republic Services takes pride in being a good neighbor in the communities we serve,” the statement read. “We are respectful of the Historic Wintersburg site and its significance to many in the community and will continue to be a thoughtful steward of the property. We remain open to listening to community ideas for the future, which could include a possible sale.”

Two buildings at the Historic Wintersburg Japanese Mission burned down in a fire last month.
(James Carbone)

Huntington Beach interim City Manager Sean Joyce said he has held exploratory discussions with Republic concerning the status of the property, including a possible purchase by the city, though he is not yet authorized by the City Council to negotiate terms.

“A property appraisal is being obtained before substantive discussions progress,” Joyce said in an email. “It is important to note that the mayor and City Council have not yet convened to contemplate acquiring the property, nor is consideration being given to expend any city general funds to acquire the property.”

Ocean View School District Board of Trustees President Gina Clayton-Tarvin has had her fights with Republic over the Historic Wintersburg site over the years. The district’s Oak View Preschool is adjacent to the property, and area surrounding the site is owned by OVSD.

In February 2019, Clayton-Tarvin said she took a tour of the property with Urashima and Republic staff.

“It was absolutely a mess in there,” she said. “At that time, there was evidence of homelessness, folks who had broken into … I think it was the manse and maybe one of the other buildings. We saw cigarette butts on the floor, we saw broken glass, we saw Coke cans on the ground.

“This is totally unacceptable to the school district. When the fire happened, we had to put the school on high alert, keep the kids inside in a shelter-in-place situation because you have a raging fire right next door. If we [had] let the kids out to play, they would have been choking on smoke.”

Ocean View School District President Gina Clayton-Tarvin speaks during a rally Saturday at the Wintersburg Japanese Mission.
(James Carbone)

Ocean View School District sued the city of Huntington Beach in 2013 after it rezoned the Historic Wintersburg land from medium-density residential to industrial. As part of a 2016 settlement, Clayton-Tarvin said the district had the first right of refusal to buy the Historic Wintersburg property or assign it to someone else.

But she said that right expired last November.

“We do not have the right to buy it, but we may have the opportunity to declare eminent domain rights to it,” she said. “There are some people out there who would like us to do that. I’m not saying we’re going to do it. It would have to be brought in front of the whole board ... [but] we’re going to continue to push for them relinquishing their rights, whether it’s through a sale or some other mechanism, to make sure that they do right by the community and save these structures.”

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