'Historically and culturally, this is really important'

GRESHAM, Ore. - A local Japanese garden that has been in decline for decades is getting a huge makeover thanks to the hard work of folks who believe the treasure needs to be restored for the community.

At Main City Park in the heart of Gresham, you'll find folks throwing balls for their dogs, going for a walk or pushing their kid on a swing. It's your typical city park, but you might not realize it has a rich history that has been lost over the years.

We're talking about Tsuru Island - a once lush and beautiful Japanese garden surrounded by a creek. Over the years it has become quite overgrown.

The garden was originally built back in the 1970s and was a big deal for the community back then, especially for the city's Japanese population. Slowly, though, the garden fell into decline. Although there was a huge effort to create Tsuru Island, tending to it afterward fell by the wayside.

Fast forward a few decades and the island has been overgrown with trees and other vegetation. Rather than a place where folks could go to admire nature's beauty or find respite from their daily troubles, it became a hideout for neighborhood kids and a secluded spot for the homeless.

But all that is changing with a full-scale effort to bring the Japanese garden back to the island.

Tomiko Takeuchi, a retired principal, came up with the idea. She is a Gresham resident who felt it was time to make a change.

Takeuchi admits she doesn't have much of a green thumb so she recruited a long-time friend, retired landscaper Jim Card, to help out. She said her friend was dismayed when he first saw the state of the garden.

"He walked in there and said 'this is a shame - there's no excuse for it,'" she recounted. She said Card immediately took out his pruning shears and began snipping right there on the spot.

A photo of Tsuru Island from a few years ago showing how overgrown it had become (courtesy of a scrapbook from the late Kaz Tamura, one of the original people who worked on the project).

Since then, Takeuchi and Card have been working to return the garden to its former glory.

"You can't believe the amount of people who have been coming here for 40 plus years and have seen this thing continually going downhill," said Card. "And they're so pleased and tickled to see something actually happening. And it's really a privilege to be able to work on something like this."

"We've had a lot of good intentioned people but these are the first ones who have shown a commitment and the desire to really make this thing happen," said Todd Jones, Parks Maintenance Supervisor for the City of Gresham.

"We had some of the original folks who built the island come to us a few years ago because they were obviously disappointed with the condition of the island," Jones added. "And we told them at that time 'we just don't have the resources.' And they didn't have the resources as well."

But once Takeuchi and Card got involved, the city stepped up to the plate. Staffing reductions and budget cuts make it difficult to take on projects like this, but Jones said he and his staff are doing what they can to see this through.

"I'm really encouraged and hopeful that we'll have a very nice facility," he said.

Getting Started

With everyone on board and some volunteers to help out, the group tackled the first big task - clearing the overgrowth. That step alone resulted in a huge change at the park.

"That was used as a hideaway for all sorts of illegal activities because you couldn't see back there," said volunteer Ron Ture. "And now the fact that we've cleared out and you can see through, I think will make a difference."

A few weeks ago, a giant crane was brought in to move some large boulders to the island as part of the transformation. We stopped by to watch the action and take photos.

A large boulder is moved to Tsuru Island on March 1, 2012 as part of the effort to restore the Japanese Garden at Gresham's Main City Park. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, Producer/Reporter.

Although the work is well under way to bring the garden back to the community, it's a long-term project that still has a ways to go. Organizers are operating on a five-year plan and are also developing ideas on how to keep the garden maintained once it's done. No one wants to see it go into decline again, especially after putting in so much hard work a second time.

What This Means to the Community

The restoration of the garden is much more than just bringing a bright spot back to the city. It's also something that means a lot to the Japanese community.

"Historically and culturally, this is really important," said Takeuchi. "It was built in the 70s by a group of Japanese farmers and they donated everything - built it and donated it to the city. And at the time there was kind of a pact between the two groups that they would work with each other to keep it up. Well the farmers got old and some of them moved away or died - there's only a couple left that were on the original building (of the garden). And then the city, with fund cuts and that kind of stuff."

"It's a real honor for those community members who aren't here anymore," said Cathy Harrington, the city's Neighborhoods & Community Engagement Director who has also been involved in the project. "I don't think people realize that this was a fairly large Japanese community."

"The Japanese garden is probably the most positive way to present the Japanese culture to a diverse environment," Takeuchi said.

Takeuchi also told us how Japanese gardens were an integral part of one of the darker times in American history - the Japanese-American internment. In 1942, Japanese Americans were relocated to internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Takeuchi's family was among those who were moved - she was a newborn when her family was sent to an internment camp. She explained that Japanese gardens at internment camps were not only a way to bide time, but also a way to cope with a very stressful situation.

"They used to build them right by the mess halls because you'd have to wait in line for so long to get in," she said. "And everything in a small scale so you could put a lot in it. Most gardens you can go into one corner and see something totally different than what you'd see in another corner. So it's built for visual appeal, but it's (also) for the serenity."

Takeuchi said she hopes Tsuru Island will provide people with a place where they can find peace, focus on healing and get away from the noise of the city. Additionally, as a former educator, she hopes that someday it will be used to teach school kids about plants, the environment and even give them a history lesson on internment. She also hopes the park can be a central spot for cultural events.

"If we can figure out in any way how to do these things, I think it ensures the future (of the garden)," she said.

Other Work at the Park

This is going to be a big year for Main City Park. Not only is work under way on the Japanese garden, but the city is doing a lot of upgrades for their Springwater Trail Spur project. The idea is to connect the park to the Springwater Trail Corridor.