New At Manzanar National Historic Site: Merritt Park Excavated
May 2, 2009 8 Comments
In late July and early August 2009, volunteers, including the family of Kuichiro Nishi, who was imprisoned at Fort Missoula, Montana and Manzanar during World War II, excavated Merritt Park at the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Nishi was a 56 year-old nursery owner and garden designer in West Los Angeles when he was arrested by the FBI. In June, 1942, he joined his family at Manzanar.
Internees transformed the monotonous conformity of camp into a community, including beautifying the landscape and Nishi used his experience as a nursery owner to make the desert bloom. Within two months of arriving at Manzanar, he participated in the construction of a garden with pools and a fountain in Block 22. He later convinced camp director Ralph Merritt to donate supplies and equipment for the community garden that was first named Rose Park, then Pleasure Park and was later renamed Merritt Park.
With its visually striking rock gardens, ponds, rustic bridge, gazebo, and diverse plantings—including roses that Nishi cultivated—the park became a sanctuary of tranquility for the Manzanar community. Couples were married in the park which provided an attractive escape from the drudgery of camp life. Today, home movies still bear witness to its peaceful beauty.
After Manzanar closed in 1945 and the Nishi family returned to Los Angeles to rebuild their lives, their temporary home at Manzanar was mostly reclaimed by the desert. As years went by, spring run-off from the Sierra Nevada snowpack periodically flooded the site, burying the camp’s gardens with silt and sand. Many clues in the landscape were rendered invisible under layers of dirt.
During the 40th Manzanar Pilgrimage weekend, April 25-26, 2009, many visitors to the Manzanar National Historic Site got their first opportunity to see the excavated garden, which was the largest of the internee-built gardens at Manzanar.
Here are some photos taken of the excavated garden (note: the bridges are temporary and are not historic representations):
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