What was going on at the Whitcomb Hotel

IMG_3625detailThe Whitcomb Hotel is one of these grand-old-lady buildings with a past that’s often forgotten or, at best, remembered selectively. One less remembered fact is that it served as West Coast headquarters for the systematic exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, beginning in 1942.

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Whitcomb Hotel, side view

In a way the Whitcomb’s story is reminiscent of the history at Moscow’s Metropol. It’s not so dramatic — the Metropol was besieged for six days in 1917 and later hosted many of Lenin’s speeches — but there’s something parallel in the buildings’ 20th-century histories as hotels and head offices by turns. Both buildings are huge old piles created at the turn of the last century to serve as respectable long-term residences and meeting places as well as for overnight stays. Each has been an administrative center for painful and harmful official decisions, has outlasted a period of badly faded elegance, and today serves tourists and business travelers who may know little about previous occupants.

Above is a picture of the Whitcomb building seen in profile from Eighth Street, just to show how very far the Whitcomb extends into the block from its broad Market Street facade.

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Whitcomb Hotel, front view

The easiest part to find of the Whitcomb’s history has to do with its very first years. Under construction following the 1906 earthquake, it was converted at city officials’ request to a “substitute city hall”. Despite its conversion to a hotel in 1916, “the original jail cells are located in the basement”.

You have to use search terms specific to the incarceration of Japanese Americans to arrive at the building’s story during World War II.

The Whitcomb housed the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) beginning in March 1942. As the Densho Encyclopedia recounts, both entities were concerned with the tracking and detention of Japanese Americans and administration of their confinement. Placing special restrictions on previously free people; bringing the restricted people, mainly by bus, to “assembly centers”; sending the assembly center inmates, mainly by train, to remote inland concentration camps. Keeping them there under guard. Setting conditions for their departure.

There are frequent references to the Whitcomb in a well-known official account of Japanese Americans’ incarceration: Lt. General J.L. DeWitt’s “Japanese evacuation from the West Coast, 1942: final report.” For example, it recounts with bland approval, “Almost overnight the Office for Emergency Management acquired office space in the Whitcomb Hotel, supplied and equipped these offices, and engaged qualified personnel to meet the requirements of the Director.”

A site of conscience in the neighborhood

The Whitcomb Hotel is in my neighborhood. It’s part of the faded elegance, now re-burnishing, at the corner of Eighth and Market Streets in San Francisco. For years we all knew it as the Ramada; now it has reverted to its old name. IMG_9412 Siting memo Whitcomb_detail

In Denver, at the National Archives, it was jolting to find the Whitcomb’s familiar name and address printed in the letterheads of routine but chilling memoranda about the creation of concentration camps.

This one, for example, in April 1942. (Image at right.) On the WRA’s Whitcomb Hotel letterhead, WRA Regional Director E.R. Fryer writes to John C. Page in the Commissioner’s office at the Bureau of Reclamation. He mentions as a “problem” the “free agent” status of Japanese Americans in inland Grant County, Washington, outside the coastal military zone as of that time. He notes the WRA is considering two Bureau of Reclamation sites for camp sites: the Black Canyon project in Idaho and the “Tule Lake Project in Siskiyou, County, California” (sic). (Click to enlarge the document image.) In fact the WRA placed three of its ten large camps on Reclamation lands. One was the Tule Lake camp — which, to be technically correct, was in the Tule Lake Unit of the Klamath Project, just over the Siskiyou County line into Modoc County. The other Reclamation sites were the northernmost inland camps, Minidoka and Heart Mountain.

IMG_9413 - War Civ Control Admin 1231 Mkt_detailThis memo (at left) is on WCCA letterhead at the Whitcomb’s 1231 Market Street address. It’s a cover letter transmitting statistics on the West Coast Japanese American population. “Unfortunately similar data for alien Germans and Italians are not available.”

The letterhead gives a phone number for the WCCA: “KLondike 2-2611.” Lots of local-government phone numbers and some South of Market private phones still use that “KLondike” prefix of “55”.

Once you know what to search for, more significant WRA and WCCA memoranda sent to or from the Whitcomb Hotel are easy to find. This collection of scanned documents is at the Online Archive of California. It opens with a memo from WRA director Milton Eisenhower at the Whitcomb in late March 1942 complaining of disorder “due to the fact that a large number of agencies had their fingers in the pie, and without any great amount of over-all planning as to what was going to be done with the Japanese after they were evacuated.”

A fine old conflict, a funny old world

The officials who were dictating memos that would send their neighbors to camps in the desert were part of a larger bustle that arrived on Market Street with the start of the war. They may have felt their work was analogous to that of other wartime bureaucracies. Or not. Reportedly Milton Eisenhower couldn’t sleep at night while he headed the WRA, and eventually he declined to continue the work. His successor, Dillon Myer, claimed to have slept perfectly well.

As shown in the photo below, looking west along Market, the Whitcomb is separated by just one large building from the former Furniture Mart, now Twitter headquarters. During World War II, the Mart building, which is also a blocky stone-faced Deco monster of a place, housed branches of the Office of Price Administration and the War Labor Board.
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At the Mart building, OPA employed Jessica Mitford, Doris Brin, and many others to enforce price restrictions for the duration. Mitford’s husband Bob Treuhaft was with the War Labor Board. In her second memoir, A Fine Old Conflict, Mitford gives a typically jaunty account of battling the Apartment House Owners’ Association over rent controls and innocently trampling the Fourth Amendment in a records search at a machine shop. She also recounts  physically tackling an Examiner photographer who meant to report on her status as a minor celebrity.

Ironies multiply here.

Jessica Mitford’s claim to fame at the time was being sister-in-law to the imprisoned head of the English Fascists, Oswald Mosley. Her family relation to an actual enemy leader (of whom she however disapproved fiercely) did not produce any restriction on her personal freedom of movement or residence — though her generic “alien” status did cause a brief hitch in her U.S. government employment.

Meanwhile, many in Jessica Mitford’s personal circle were Communist Party members or supporters.  Despite the Mosley business, the Communists let her join up.

Meanwhile the CP chose to suspend all of its Japanese American members after Pearl Harbor. Even devoted Communist waterfront organizer Karl Yoneda was suspended.

Yoneda writes in his memoir, Ganbatte, that he and other members who had been expelled for their ancestry “decided that this was not the time to register a protest” because they felt the “urgent priority” was to join the CP’s part of the war effort against overseas fascism. Later he realized he should have protested at once. Yoneda was threatened by some fellow inmates in Manzanar over his left-wing politics — where the FBI, unlike the CP, fully endorsed his loyalty. He got out of the camp system into the U.S. Military Intelligence Service, where he served with distinction.

A Fine Old Conflict, as far as it goes, gives a vivid picture of the “war work” world on Market Street, and of left-wing activists’ political environment during the war. Yet it doesn’t mention what was going on just a block away at the Whitcomb Hotel.

You wonder who heard what, who knew what, who said what, who spoke up quietly off the record, who consciously chose not to object. What could have been different. Why.

Minidoka and Topaz

J&I made a road trip of a visit to the Denver National Archives this month. Across the Great Basin and back.

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We traveled by way of the Topaz and Minidoka camp sites, where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Both camps are desert places. They can be farmed with irrigation, but not easily. Especially not Topaz.

Here are some images from the Topaz site. Topaz Museum director Jane Beckwith said the word spelled out in barbed wire was added, without permission, by antiwar activists who visited the site around 2003. It’s now part of the site’s history, hence left in place.

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Jane Beckwith said the 2003 activist group also placed an antiwar message on the flag at the Topaz camp entry site. Markers in that area include an honor roll for the Nisei soldiers of Millard County, Utah — the county that includes the Topaz camp site. Clearly the flag part of the protest offended some people.

Already it’s possible to look back at 2003 and say, that was in another time.

Her story reminded me of the mood at the 2002 Tule Lake Pilgrimage. To be clear, the Tule Lake Pilgrimage is always carefully authorized and pre-planned, and the 2002 event was no exception. But the 2002 Tule Lake Pilgrimage was full of marked, anxious, edgy focus on current events and current civil liberties concerns, giving such concerns almost as much emphasis as the past wartime camp history. Tule Lake events in more recent years have been a great deal more focused on history and memory, though always with a wary, well-informed sense for current tendencies toward scapegoating in the name of security.

Here is the soldiers’ marker at Topaz. There is a larger similar marker at Minidoka. There isn’t one (that I know of) at Tule Lake, although Tule Lake was a scene of some enlistments as well as refusals to enlist.

It remains remarkable that some young men agreed to go to war on behalf of a country that was imprisoning their families. It remains remarkable that some young men took the risk of refusing to go to war because their country was imprisoning their families. There will be more conversations about these choices for generations to come.

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Sites of former buildings at Topaz are marked now mainly by concrete and stone remnants of pathways and foundations. Even rocks have to be imported to the dusty former lake bed at Topaz. As a lifelong rockhound, Jane Beckwith can identify many of the stones by origin, hence can identify some of the wilderness places in the area where Topaz inmates may have been allowed to visit on hikes or collecting trips. Some of the rocks are very beautiful.

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At the Topaz Museum, which is in the nearest town of Delta, UT:

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A significant art collection there: Chiura Obata, Miné Okubo, and others from the Topaz Art School. Including some of Okubo’s work in a style very different from the cartoon line drawings of Citizen 13660:

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Also at the museum: a facsimile barrack. And a warning about mud. The cracked earth and dust at Topaz turns into awful sticky clay when damp. Jane Beckwith told us that irrigation farmers in the area had to build special drainage systems under their fields because of that mud. You have to scrape it out of your shoe treads with a stick.

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And then, later, J&I visited Minidoka up in Idaho.

In Twin Falls, the nearest big town, we didn’t see signs or tourist materials mentioning the incarceration site. Actually Twin Falls is quieter about Minidoka than the counterpart town of Klamath Falls, Oregon is about Tule Lake. That is saying something: Klamath Falls still isn’t generous with mentions, though it has improved a lot on the subject over the past two decades.

It’s deceptively green on the way to the camp site — one huge irrigated field after another. Grain, potatoes, corn. Bigger fields than at Tule Lake, which is in a fertile, smaller-scale basin where more emphasis has developed on high-maintenance specialty crops. You’d think Minidoka was more forgiving at first glance, but the weather records show a hundred degrees’ variation in temperature in the course of a year. And the superintendent of the Bureau of Reclamation project at Minidoka wrote about the camp site in August 1942: “The dust conditions in and surrounding the settlement are so extreme as to render the area almost uninhabitable.”

This odd juxtaposition of signs appears on the road to the Minidoka camp site, whose formal address during the war was “Hunt, Idaho”. I’m not sure what the wartime incarceration is supposed to have had to do with remnants of the prehistoric ground sloth. But it has been common, when an area’s first historical markers appear regarding Japanese Americans’ incarceration, for them to be placed alongside commemorations on other subjects — as if it feels safer to pad this particular uncomfortable, recent history with other material that’s more emotionally manageable or at least farther in the past. So maybe the prehistoric ground sloths are there as padding.

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There’s sagebrush in the unirrigated areas of the camp site.

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When you park there after a long drive, flies cluster around the dead-bug crud on your front bumper. There’s a 1.6-mile signposted walk around the part of the camp site that’s now under National Park Service management. It’s a parching walk without water.

This is a remnant of Block 22. The building on the right is a barrack. The one on the left might be a mess hall or workshop.

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Around Tule Lake, where we’ve spent more time, you get in the habit of looking for ex-barracks among the outbuildings of older small farmyards. We spotted a few in the general area of Minidoka. Here’s a very likely one, southwest of Twin Falls, Idaho. The main things to look for are the 20-foot interior diameter and the frequent small square windows.

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The space in that barrack section might once have been assigned to two families.

An odd thing to see in the rear-view mirror on a country road in America.

Filming “Manzanar” at Tule Lake in 1975

Three years ago, Laurie Shigekuni and I began a series of interviews with participants in the 1975 filming of the “Farewell to Manzanar” TV movie. Today the first installment of our article based on the interviews appears online in Discover Nikkei. It’s illustrated with photos taken on the set by the late Barbara Parker Narita. Links to the second and third parts of the article will go live on May 20 and May 21.

Last time around

I wrote this article for the Baffler in mid-2001 about San Francisco on the downward edge of a boom cycle. No boom is ever fully like the last one, but maybe it bears rereading in light of current talk about frothiness in the tech sector.

The article ends by saying J. & I had talked about moving. Funnily enough, we stayed put in our place South of Market.

Meanwhile the former Petopia building at 8th and Folsom, which is mentioned in my 2001 article, went through a whole lot of tenants. It was an a architect’s office some of the time. Sometimes it was hard to tell what exactly was in there.

For a while Lutheran Social Services ran its rep/payee office out of the north end of the ex-Petopia building. I’m nearly sure it was the subject of this 2013 Vice article, the one that said so many mean things about social service clients in “the Tenderloin”. (Brian Brophy and Kevin Montgomery answered that article very well here.)

Now the Petopia building is a tech office again.

Stay tuned.

Commodified marginality on Cannery Row

People in the tourist part of Monterey look at the expensive bronze statuary of the Cannery Row Monument without laughing. Apparently all the time, every day.

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The same mentality that took Steinbeck’s jolliest depiction of marginality and further sentimentalized it as a draw for tourists also sponsored this pole full of prohibition signs a very few blocks away:

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People are like oysters. We don’t deal with the abrasive bits — we cushion them in soft glowy stuff.

A little farther along, people on the pier were cooing and joking and barking back at a raft of sea lions. A few of the smaller sea lions were emaciated. Those pictures are too sad to show here.