Handball Court and Market Captured Values of a Community
Maravilla Historical Society applies for historical landmark status for a beloved social gathering spot.
By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer
The stories of an entire community are preserved behind the red brick walls of the Maravilla Handball Court and the boarded up windows of the El Centro Market on Mednick Avenue.
The handball court was where Claudio Rodarte, now 66, reunited with his long-lost father. The girl he was dating said her father knew a man who fit the description of Rodarte’s father – a popular handball player everyone called El Perfumado.
Lea esta nota en español: Una Cancha y un Mercado Captan los Valores de una Comunidad
Fifty-year old George Del Rio wishes he had a recorder with him when he sat all those years ago in the market next door to the handball court, chatting with Michi Nishiyama, the proprietor of the two buildings who made “delicious sandwiches” and read Japanese-language newspapers, which intrigued him.
And even today, when it is quiet inside the handball court, 77-year old Luis Saenz enjoys sitting and picturing the action that used to take place there, marveling at the memory of his father and his friends hitting a small leather ball through the air at lightning quick speeds.
Members of the Maravilla Historical Society who are working to designate the two buildings built in 1928 and 1946 as historical landmarks, hope that through their efforts many more of these memories will be brought back to life.
The Maravilla Historical Society, together with the Los Angeles Conservancy, nominated the two buildings, located across the street from the Maravilla Housing Project, as California historial landmarks. The Los Angeles County Historical Commission also endorsed their application at a recent meeting where the historical society and the conservancy gave a presentation.
Thirty-two year old Maravilla Historical Society Board Member Ed Revelles is part of the younger generation working to revive handball and the history of the two buildings. “Growing up I remember being touched by the legacy and the stories” of the handball courts, Revelles said. “Even as a child I remember wanting to be a part of that story.”
After joining the historical society, Revelles had the opportunity to talk to elders who frequented the handball courts. Even though they went through hard times, “not one of them held back from sharing their special memories and stories, all recounting their best days as a child at the handball court,” he said.
At the meeting, Del Rio said the handball court and the market are as significant as the Hollywood sign. The only difference is that a sign “doesn’t do anything,” he said.
In recent months, the society has held monthly “tiendita” markets and movie nights. The Oldtimers Foundation of Southern California and the Maravilla Handball Court Club hold their meetings there. Young handball players are again learning the ancient sport of handball, which has roots in diverse traditions.
The handball courts, and the Nishiyama family who ran the market, are well known to the Maravilla community.
The courts were built slowly, brick-by-brick, by workers at a nearby brickyard; and generations of fathers and sons created friendships and memories while playing handball. The Maravilla Handball Courts was one of the most popular courts in the area, and people from all over Los Angeles, and even from out of state, would come to play there.
Ray Loza said the stereotype when he was going to the handball courts was that “only bad people, only people who go to prison, play handball,” resulting in many other courts being knocked down. The truth was, handball was a “game of tradition, a game of physical as well as mental health,” he said.
The game was played by the Mayans, he said, but it was also played by fathers, sons and their friends. “I think it was about the camaraderie of the handball players, those moments of coming together and greeting each other,” hearing about each other’s children, grandchildren, and eventually even great grandchildren. “Oh, I think that’s a blessing,” Loza said.
Michi and Tommy Nishiyama, the long-time renters and later owners of the market and handball courts, were well-known to most people who grew up in the neighborhood for their community Christmas parties, social activities and generosity. Michi, who came to Maravilla after living at an internment camp, was especially loved. She offered financial help and allowed people to pay them back later for food purchased at their store. In return, as Michi got older and frailer, the community took care of her, bringing her dinner and putting guardrails in her home.
The Nishiyamas passed away about five years ago, and according to Amanda Perez who grew up in the Maravilla community, she was dismayed to notice three years ago that their buildings had been boarded up and were in disrepair.
Perez made plans with others in the community to clean up the place to honor the Nishiyama’s memory. Since then, their mission has grown beyond a cleanup project. They formed the Maravilla Historical Society and set about preserving the handball courts and the market. They hold fundraisers, and have received a $2,000 preservation grant that was matched with $2,000 of their own money.
Despite their efforts, the buildings are showing their age and require preservation work. They cleared out the trash and debris, tidied up the market and handball courts and created a welcoming meeting space for the community, but the termite-eaten wood flooring and the chipped paint hint at the poor condition of the buildings. A faded real estate sign still hangs outside on the sloped brick wall of the handball court. The historical society is currently leasing the space and hopes to buy the building in the future.
A goal of the historical society is to use the site to teach Maravilla youth to record the stories of their elders. The site is within walking distance to several schools and senior centers, and the society hopes to develop programs there to serve those two groups.
“I’ve learned in working with youth, as well as adults, there’s a lack of self esteem of knowing your history. I’ve learned along the way that once you empower them with … their true story … it enhances their wellbeing,” said Perez, who lived in the Maravilla community, and has worked as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor.
She added that it is “really valuable to be able to see a diverse community come together and just embrace each other like they embraced the Nishiyamas.”
Perez said the East Los Angeles County Library has a strong collection on Chicano history, but it is missing the stories of the community. Many people today, especially the youth, are cut off from the history of where they live.
Many don’t realize that Maravilla is a type of flower, that there is a lake behind the CHP headquarters where people used to wash their clothes, that Cesar Chavez Avenue used to be named Brooklyn Avenue, and that inside the mom and pop market and handball court on Mednick were people who “captured the values, the everyday lives of the community,” Perez said.Print This Post
November 24, 2011 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.