Group works to preserve East LA's Maravilla Handball Court

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Truck driver George Del Rio stands in front of the El Centro grocery store. Del Rio, who grew up in the area, said he heard stories of the Nishiyamas, longtime operators of the store and the adjacent handball court, lending people money to pay rent or buy medicine for their sick children.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a dozen children took to the Maravilla Handball Court for games with their favorite instructor, 81-year-old Tony Huante. After years of sitting silent from neglect and abuse, the court once again sings with the thud of rubber balls thwacking nearly 90-year-old bricks in a rejuvenation of the oldest handball court in East Los Angeles.

“This is just the beginning,” said Huante, during a break from playing. “We are going to do our part to save this place.”

It’s like the old days again at the Maravilla handball court on Mednik Avenue. The tall brick walls of the court built in the 1920s still stand tall, the faded red sign saying “Maravilla Handball Club” still hangs in the same place, but now the court will resonate once again with the thud of balls slamming against the walls.

As part of a project to revive the court that had temporarily fallen into neglect and disrepair, the newly-formed Maravilla Historical Society is encouraging children from the community to attend handball classes at the court.

As part of a project to revive the court that had temporarily fallen into neglect and disrepair, the newly-formed Maravilla Historical Society is encouraging children from the community to attend handball classes at the court.

The aim is twofold – to restore some of the lost glory of this L.A. cultural landmark and to honor the memory of Michi and Tommy Nishiyama, the Japanese-American couple who ran the court and the adjacent El Centro grocery store for 65 years.

“Michi was a household name,” said Amanda Perez, president of the Maravilla Historical Society.

Perez grew up in the area and remembers older residents talking about Michi and her kindness, as well as the dances, Christmas parties and food giveaways she hosted at the club.

“The community didn’t see them as Japanese,” said Perez. “They were part of the neighborhood, part of the community.”

Truck driver George Del Rio, 50, who grew up in the area said he had heard stories of the couple lending people money to pay rent or buy medicine for their sick children.

“At the time when I met her, in the late '80s, I was homeless,” said Del Rio. “But Michi would give us credit. She would talk to us, never chase us away.”

In an area known for gangs and violence, the handball club was like a sanctuary.

The court was open only to men. Club members had their own keys, and they would come in to play, or to play cards in a small room adjoining the court. After a tiring game, it was common for players to head to the grocery store for Michi’s delicious sandwiches.

“She had a deli and she would make these sandwiches – fresh onions, tomato, lettuce, avocado, bologna, salami, ham, cheese,” Del Rio said.

Local resident Ronnie Villegas, 59, said Michi was an icon for Maravilla.

“Her love for the community was bigger than the community itself, and she would often be called upon to mediate in problems among the locals," Villegas said. "The store was not making much money, but they kept it open for the sake of the community.”

After Michi died in 2006, and Tommy a year later, the homeless moved into Maravilla. When a car crashed into the front of the store, it had to be boarded up. Vandals took items from the property and littered the place.

When Perez and her team first moved in, after the police had removed the squatters, she remembers clearing the junk they left behind: bags of trash, mattresses, clothes.

“A lot of things were taken away by vandals, including vintage magazines and newspapers from the 1930s," Perez said. “I could see the place falling apart.

“When I pulled over to check it out, it touched my soul. This is the heart of Maravilla, and it looked completely dilapidated.”

She found out that the couple had died, and when she got in touch with their son to ask if the community could do something with the property to honor his mother and father, he asked if they would be interested in buying it.

Together with other residents, Perez formed the Maravilla Historical Society. They made a goal of trying to raise $100,000 by May.

Though the first fundraiser held last week was encouraging, the society has its work cut out.

Perez did not say how much money has been raised so far. But she did say that if she doesn't make the goal, the building will be put up for sale.

“I don’t know how we will do it yet,” said Perez. “But it’s going to happen. My faith is strong. I believe it will come through.”

Perez said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina favors some kind of landmark designation for Maravilla, but because the property sits in unincorporated Los Angeles, it cannot be nominated as a city landmark.

Maravilla could be nominated a state landmark, but that's more difficult, costly and time-consuming.

Also, the chances of rejection are high, because the court is more a local landmark, Perez said.

But the group is working hard to raise support, holding fundraisers, canvassing the neighborhood and raising awareness by word of mouth.

Perez, who has been working with at-risk children for the past 15 years, wants to set up a center to equip the community with coping skills, teaching anger management and how to deal with domestic violence.

Local resident Villegas said the change will be especially beneficial for the high risk kids in the area.

“Kids can cross a lot of boundaries here, and this will be a positive change for them,” Villegas said.

Huante will train children ages 9 to 17, twice a week, free of cost.

“In the last two workshops, I had about eight kids, but next Saturday I hope to have more,” he said.

Karen Mejia, 11, and her sister Jennifer, 10, practice handball there. Their father drives them from Compton to the court for practice on Saturdays.

“It’s better to be playing than drinking or being in gangs,” Karen said. “The best thing I like about playing handball at the court is that I can show that anybody can play. It does not matter if you are a girl or a boy.”

The girls' mother, Clara, loves the idea of preserving the court.

“It’s a good idea," she said. "Lots of kids can go and play there instead of being out on the streets.”

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