Pink crape myrtles, red heavenly bamboo and bright green coyote brushes — these are some of the flowers and plants that once adorned the Japanese Memorial Garden at the Coachella Valley History Museum. But in the garden’s 36 years, many of them have slowly deteriorated or caught diseases and died, no longer doing justice to the legacy the garden is meant to commemorate.
The Japanese garden is an integral part of the museum, having been established in 1985, just one year after the museum itself. From the start, the garden’s purpose was to celebrate Japanese heritage and culture. It was also meant to recognize the struggles of early Issei pioneers, the first generation of Japanese immigrantsin the United States.
In the Coachella Valley, Japanese farmers were among the first to implement large-scale agriculture, starting as sharecroppers and eventually leasing, then buying, farmland in the east valley, according to Maureen Boren, a board trustee of the museum who is spearheading efforts to restore the garden.
“It was like 21 or 23 pioneer Japanese families, wanting to establish a memorial garden so that people would know their part in developing the valley. They were all farmers,” Boren said.
Japanese pioneers arrived in the valley in the early 1900s, said Boren, willing to work amid tough conditions under the desert heat. Their legacy is not only that of hard work, though, as it’s also tainted with the discrimination they often faced and was made worse after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
In “Coachella: A History of Coachella and its People,” published in 2020, author Jeff Crider wrote that the day after Pearl Harbor, 64 Japanese residents of Coachella pledged their allegiance to the U.S. publicly at the city’s Presbyterian Church.
Yet, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors still unanimously passed a resolution “requesting the military authorities to exclude all enemy aliens from Riverside County and also to remove all Japanese, irrespective of citizenship, from the confines of the county,” according to an article of The Coachella Valley Submarine from February 1942 that the book includes.
As a result, Japanese families from the valley were forced into an internment camp in Arizona.
While many Japanese families returned to the Coachella Valley from that internment camp and others, the Coachella Valley History Museum only has record of the 23 pioneer Japanese families that arrived from 1903 through 1929, Boren said. And, as newer generations moved on from jobs in farming, they also began to leave the valley.
Today, the U.S. Census for east valley cities shows that only 2.3% of the population identifies as Asian American.
“This garden was put in with a lot of love, in a way to memorialize what they went through during the war and being placed in internment camps,” said Gloria Franz, also a board trustee at the museum. “That’s a tough part of our history, right? So this is a way to thank them and make sure that we remember that they are an important part of our community and have been for a long time.”
Bringing life back to the Japanese garden
Boren credited Japanese pioneer families with raising the money to establish the Japanese Memorial Garden through a variety of efforts. These included hosting a haru matsuri, or spring festival, in which they served food and had entertainment. The families also provided all the laborers needed for the garden, reducing initial costs significantly.
She described the garden as “a little different” from traditional Japanese gardens since it is a memorial garden. She also said that the desert environment won’t allow for some of the plants typical to a Japanese garden.
“We had to eliminate the Japanese maple tree from the plan as they don’t do well in the desert. The other plants are conducive to our dry climate with proper irrigation,” Boren said.
The garden is located near the entrance of the museum along with several other memorial gardens — the Geissler Memorial Rose Garden and Dr. Carreon Memorial Desert Garden, all on the side of the Smiley/Tyler adobe home.
The estimated cost to refurbish the garden is $40,000 and currently, the museum has only half of that in place. The other $20,000 that has been secured is coming from a fund that the pioneering families and a local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League set up “right at the beginning,” in 1985, Boren said.
“Over time, when there was a person to be memorialized, who had passed away, who was part of the Japanese community, people would contribute to this fund. Any money that is donated in memory of or in honor of an individual of Japanese descent goes into that fund,” Boren said, adding that that money has helped pay forupkeep of the garden throughout the years.
Even so, the garden has aged, with some of its functional aspects, like the sprinklers, no longer efficient and its lighting system and ground covering also on the decline.
“One of the big trees finally died. I think it’s called a black pine. … It was, maybe, the catalyst where we finally said, okay, we can’t keep doing little patchwork to fix (the garden). It just wasn’t enough anymore,” said Franz.
Boren added that black pine trees are costly, with a price tag of around $3,000, but have a spiritual significance in Japanese culture that the museum feels the need to honor.
To resuscitate the garden, the museum sought out Keiji Uesugi, an architect who, alongside his father, Takeo Uesugi, restored the well-known Japanese garden at The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., in 2012. He is also a teacher at CalPoly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design.
Uesugi said he was first approached about the project by Boren, who showed him a photo album of the original garden. His vision for the new Japanese Memorial Garden is one that will both honor Japanese Issei farmers in the valley and lend itself as a space of comfort and relaxation for its visitors.
He said that as a 15th generation Japanese garden designer, he felt “extreme gratitude” in forming part of the project, meant to “honor Japanese Americans and their contributions to California.”
“I hope people will stop and stay in the garden for relaxation and mental wellness by taking advantage of the seating additions, which will offer views of the beautiful plants and handsome boulders that were carefully placed when the garden first opened,” Uesugi said.
Whereas before it was meant to be viewed from the walkway, Boren said the new garden will feature natural rock seating where visitors will find “an interpretive piece” that describes the elements of a Japanese garden. The museum also plans to have the walkway expanded to allow wheelchairs and make it more interactive for all.
Uesugi will work on the garden at “a very reduced rate,” according to Franz, and the City of Indio, which houses the museum, will cover some of the labor, but the renovation can’t move forward until funding and other needs are met.
Much of the fundraising is being done via letters to residents in the valley, asking for contributions starting at $250.
Franz and Boren are confident the museum will achieve its $20,000 target, given the accommodations some local businesses have already provided. For instance, the Best Western Date Tree Hotel in Indio agreed to sponsor the two landscapers that will work on the garden. They are from out of town and estimate that their work will take about six weeks.
Uesugi said he was aware that funding and budget are always a concern for museums, but hopes that the transparency he and the museum have shared about cost and long-term maintenance will make it clear it’s “an investment for years to come.”
The agreed-upon timeline to renovate the garden is by the end of the year.
Said Boren: “I’m hoping that maybe from this, we can put in an exhibit on our Japanese pioneers and their experience here. We have a lot of information and photographs, but it’s hard to find Japanese families that have family members still in the valley. We’re working on it.”
To find out more information about the Japanese Memorial Garden and donations, call (760) 342-6651.
Eliana Perez covers the eastern Coachella Valley. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @ElianaPress.