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Huntington Beach historian and preservationist Mary Adams Urashima dies

Mary Adams Urashima of Huntington Beach has died at age 62.
(Daily Pilot file photo)
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Mary Adams Urashima, a leader in the fight to save the Historic Wintersburg Japanese American settlement property in Huntington Beach, has died.

Friends said that Urashima passed away Nov. 20 after a two-year battle with cancer. She was 62 years old.

Urashima was many things, including a historian, preservationist and author. But she was most well known for her advocacy on behalf of Historic Wintersburg, the 4.5-acre Japanese American settlement located at the corner of Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane.

In 2014, she wrote a book, Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach. She was also the Wintersburg Task Force chairperson until the city disbanded the task force in 2019.

“Mary did a lot of the groundwork to be able to get the information out to the community that this truly is a historic place,” said Ocean View School District Board of Trustees President Gina Clayton-Tarvin, who knew Urashima for about a decade. “She did all of the legal work with the national organizations, the state organizations, the county organizations, to make sure that it was qualified as a National Historic Place.”

Mary Urashima speaks inside the barn during a tour of Historic Wintersburg in 2017.
Mary Urashima speaks inside the barn during a tour of Historic Wintersburg in 2017.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The site documents three generations of Japanese American experience, up through the return from incarceration following World War II. In 2004, Rainbow Environmental Services bought the site from the Furuta family for $4.6 million.

Republic Services Inc., which bought Rainbow in 2014, currently owns the site, the former home of the first Japanese Presbyterian Church in Orange County. A fire earlier this year resulted in the loss of the 1910 Mission (church) and manse (parsonage), two of six buildings on site. Urashima and local Asian American groups demanded an explanation, noting a spike in hate crimes in recent years, though Huntington Beach police and fire department investigators said they found no evidence of a hate crime.

What to do with the site has been hotly contested in recent years. The Ocean View School District, which owns streets adjacent to Wintersburg and has Oak View Elementary and Preschool close by, sued the city after it approved a zoning change from residential to industrial in 2013. The district won the case in 2015.

Earlier this month, the City Council and OVSD both had closed session discussions regarding Wintersburg.

“No one’s going to develop it, because we won’t allow it,” Clayton-Tarvin said. “The only thing we’re going to allow is a park, and that’s what Mary wanted. Before she died, I told her that I will make sure that no matter what happens, I will have her dream and her lifelong project come to fruition. It will become a reality.”

Ernie Nishii knew Urashima well as a pro bono lawyer who worked with her on preserving Wintersburg. Urashima was also very active online with a Wintersburg blog and on Twitter, and he said he also gave her counsel when she would be harassed online at times by people who wanted to see the site rezoned.

Mary Adams Urashima, Nancy Duremdes and Gina Clayton-Tarvin at the Newland House in Huntington Beach in 2018.
(Courtesy of Gina Clayton-Tarvin)

“Her belief was that Historic Wintersburg was part of the history of Huntington Beach, and to be part of the history you also have to be part of the present,” Nishii said. “She would have these Cherry Blossom Festival booths, with a whole recreation of what it was like at Historic Wintersburg back when it first opened. We participated in the Heritage Museum events that they had, recreating a storefront from 1910. I had to go find a suit from 1910.”

Heritage Museum of Orange County Executive Director Jamie Hiber, who considered Urashima a good friend, also vowed to keep Urashima’s mission going through the organization.

“Wintersburg was definitely her biggest project, but she was just really passionate about the history of Huntington Beach and people in general,” Hiber said. “Her work was really important, especially because ... I don’t want to say that nobody else was doing it, but nobody else knew as much as she did and really was so dedicated to it. Given adversity and things she faced, she continued to move forward, and she did so gracefully.”

Mark Bixby, a former Huntington Beach Planning Commissioner who runs the Surf City Sentinel page on Facebook, said that Urashima is survived by her son, Keane. Memorial service plans have not been announced.

“She never backed down,” Bixby said. “She always kept her eyes on the ultimate goal of achieving preservation because the story of what happened so many decades ago is still very relevant to what’s going on in today’s America. She always wanted to see that preserved for future generations because it’s a story worth telling.”

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