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CULVER CITY : Homeowners, Players Call Time Out

October 09, 1994|MARY MOORE

Parks: Complaints of crime and crowds at Culver West handball courts have subsided for now.

Tension between neighbors and young people using Culver West Park has eased in the wake of the city's banning adults from a soccer field and threatening to close handball courts unless complaints about gangs, noise and drugs subsided.

The city's Human Services and Park Commission has threatened to close the courts in six months if residents continue to complain.

But the handball players say they are simply tolerating the situation. They said they believe residents assumed they were gang members solely because many players are Latino. Police say they have found no evidence that the park is attracting gang members.

"In order for them not to close the courts, we have to do what they want," said Jose, 20, of Venice, an avid handball player who would not give his last name. "If people come here and they want to drink or something, we tell them to go somewhere else to do it. Usually they just say, 'OK.' "

Instead of 100 people packing the park on some weeknights, now there are maybe 10 playing handball and another 10 shooting baskets. Soccer, which at one time attracted throngs to Culver West, is now gone altogether--it was banned last month by the Park Commission in response to complaints about crowded fields.

The commission's directive mystified some residents. Although soccer players generally outnumbered handball players in the park, soccer never had caused much disruption in the neighborhood, said Bill Sollima, who has lived on Moore Street since 1985 and has been leading the fight to close the handball courts. The problems with gangs, drugs and serious overcrowding started more than a year ago, he said, when the handball courts grew more popular.

Players seem convinced that discrimination fueled the residents' effort to clamp down on handball. Allegations about it being a gathering place for gang members and drug dealers are simply untrue, players said.

Pointing to the baggy denim shorts and purple T-shirt worn by his nearby friend, Jose, 23, of Mar Vista said: "You see a Latino dressed like this and you think what--that he's a gangbanger, right?"

"There are some gang members here sometimes from V-13 (a local gang), but this is not a gang hangout," Jose said. "We come here to play handball."

There are just two other handball courts in the area--one in Venice, which is always crowded, and the other in Oakwood, where a number of shootings have made it too dangerous to play, said Efran Martinez, 16, from Venice. Culver West, moreover, is the only court that has lights at night, the players said.

But Sollima and others are convinced that gang members have marked the spot as their own.

They point to two shootings near Culver West last November as proof it had been attracting a bad crowd, although police would not confirm whether the incidents were gang-related.

"This is V-13 turf. . . . I know what they look like," Sollima said. "They have tattoos . . . (the word) Venice drawn across their backs. It's not hard to figure it out."

There is no proof that handball is the root of any persistent gang problems at Culver West or any of the city's 17 other parks, Culver City police said. Few park-related incidents have been reported, and police officers make three to five rounds in the parks every day, said department spokesman Lt. Tom Gabor.

"That is not a V-13 spot," Gabor said. "The neighbors might feel that their lives are being disrupted, but when you have decent people in this community who want to play (handball or soccer) in a park, is it OK to tell them not to?"

Early last month, the Park Commission responded to the complaints of a group of residents by blocking off the handball courts with a chain link fence, although the commission took no action at the time to limit soccer. Within a week, about 20 of the handball players showed up at a Department of Recreation and Parks meeting to protest the closing of the courts.

At that meeting, the commission reversed itself, reopening the handball courts for a six-month trial period but then banning soccer for adults.

As long as the quiet continues on Moore Street, Sollima said, he is willing to drop his fight against the handball courts. In fact, he took the "For Sale" sign off his property a few weeks ago.

"I see it going in the right direction around here," he said. "On this handball thing, I'll just wait and see."

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