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Extending a hand to a faded East L.A. handball court

The Maravilla court, built in the 1920s, 'was holy ground' even when the neighborhood got rough. A local group is trying to buy it and reopen it as a community center.

February 14, 2010|By Hector Becerra
  • A group of Mixteca Indians demonstrates a different form of handball at an event to raise money to buy the Maravilla Handball Court in East Los Angeles.
A group of Mixteca Indians demonstrates a different form of handball at… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

About a year ago, Amanda Perez of East Los Angeles called a friend and asked her to come to an old handball court she was trying to save.

When Virginia Sandoval parked her car and beheld the red brick facade of the building, she cried.

The Maravilla Handball Court on Mednik Avenue was built with bricks from the nearby former Davidson Brick Yard, where Sandoval's father used to work and where she used to play as a girl. Sandoval, 66, soon joined Perez, 54, in her effort to preserve the court, which was completed in 1923.

"This place means a lot to a lot of people," Sandoval said Saturday. "I cried because those bricks were my father's life, that's how he supported us. And this handball court is part of our culture."

Louie Herrera, 53, used to play handball on the court. He fondly recalled Michi Nishiyama, who with her husband, Tommy, had owned the court since 1940. Nishiyama ran a grocery store next door and even organized dances at the property. She was known for her abiding tenderness, even when the neighborhood could be rough.

"You could be shot by a stray bullet outside, but this place was holy ground," Herrera said. "It was special. It was treated with respect. And Michi was an angel. She showed a lot of affection to the neighborhood."

Nishiyama died in 2006, and her husband a year later, and the Maravilla court began a rapid decline. Soon it was shut. For about a year, squatters haunted the fading court.

Perez said she was driving by and saw how bedraggled it had become. She recalled Tommy's and Michi's kindness, and this didn't seem right. She finally asked the couple's son whether his parents had ever been honored for their dedication to the neighborhood. He said no, and that clinched it, Perez said. She and some friends from the neighborhood decided to take action.

"That was it," she said. "I said, 'It's not too late; we want to honor your parents.' "

They formed the Maravilla Historical Society and, with help from the Los Angeles Conservancy, kicked off an effort to buy the property and reopen it as a community center and a handball court geared toward children.

Perez said they are hoping to raise about $100,000 by May to begin buying the property.

She has enlisted the help of Tony Huante, a legendary handball coach known for churning out national and world champions from working-class Eastside neighborhoods. Beginning Wednesday, the 81-year-old Huante will conduct clinics twice a week for children who want to learn the sport.

In December he organized the first-ever coed tournament for children at the Maravilla court. Huante has coached young players who became police officers, firefighters and doctors.

"We're going to teach you to be a champion," he told a group of children during the launch of the fundraising campaign.

In its early years, the handball court drew a diverse group of players: white, Latino, Armenian, Japanese American.

Many old players admit that the court wasn't always the place for children to be.

For a while it had a reputation as a hangout for gang members from the neighborhood. Some players drank beer there, and there was even a small gambling hall next to the court.

"There was a casino here 24 hours," Perez said, showing a small room with an ancient-looking refrigerator. "It was a boys' club."

But "this place is going to be for children," she said. "We've got girls signed up along with boys, and our goal is to make champion players here."

Sara Guerrero, 9, said she looked forward to attending the clinics. For almost all of its history, the handball court was open only to male players.

"You get a lot of exercise, and you get energy, and you get better," Sara said. "It's really fun."

hector.becerra@ latimes.com

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