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Monday, June 29, 2009

Old homies play tribute to history, handball and a woman named Michi

On Saturday morning, over steaming bowls of menudo served in Styrofoam bowls, the members of the Southern California Old Timers gathered within the brick walls of the Maravilla Handball Court in East Los Angeles. This group of mostly older, former prisoners and veteranos from barrios across Southern California had come here not only for their 20th Annual Menudo Breakfast. They were also here to help preserve the handball court, built in the early 1920s, and to honor its history and the memory of Michi Nishiyama and her husband, Tommy Shigeru, the Japanese-American couple who ran the place and the adjacent grocery store for decades.

The court on Mednik Avenue served as an unofficial recreation center, gathering place, gambling hall and, at times, refuge not only for members of the Maravilla Handball Club but for nearby residents and members of the Lomita Mara and other gangs.

"The attraction was the game plus the people," said Ronnie Villegas, 59, who grew up in the housing project across Mednik Avenue. "It was a safe place to come from the projects and from the police. It was a shelter. They [cops] would look in the door but wouldn't come in."

When word came down that Maravilla Handball Court might be sold, some former and current residents decided to try and save the wedge-shaped community landmark, said Amanda Perez, founder of the Maravilla Historical Society.

"It was built by homies and the community brick-by-brick."

The newly formed Maravilla Historical Society, which recently leased the shuttered court and store, has a long way to go before it raises enough money to purchase and restore the property. But Perez and others say the handball court remains one of the enduring and most visible landmarks in an area where many older buildings have been demolished over a decades long effort to revive the Maravilla section of East Los Angeles next to Monterey Park. Handball teams from other Los Angeles barrios traveled here for tournaments. "There are many good stories here," said Perez. "We want to preserve it as a landmark so our children remember our history."

But the story of the Maravilla Handball Court involved more than just the Mexican-Americans and Chicanos who slammed a hard black ball against white-washed walls for hours at a time. In this case, the building represents for many the mingling of Latino and Japanese immigrants on the Eastside. The Nishiyamas purchased the court and the adjacent market about 60 years ago, said their son, Thomas. The market was officially known as El Centro Grocery, but most everyone called it Michi's because she seemed to be behind the counter all the time. Her husband, who had lost one arm, often joined the Mexican-American players on the handball court. Michi, Tommy and their children became part of the barrio.

"It used to get crowded here - it would help business at the store," said Thomas Nishiyama, who grew up in the small house behind the market.

While the Maravilla Handball Court did have a reputation as a gang hang out, it also hosted years of community Christmas parties, soap box derbies and Las Vegas trips. But the club and market have been opened only sporadically in recent years following the death of Michi and Tommy.

"That lady was for me was an icon for this community," said Villegas, who now lives in West Covina. "Here is a Japanese lady who gave to a community that was not part of her culture. They loved her. This is our way of thanking her."

Top photo by Rick Morton


  1. What a wonderful article! I work right down the street from the Maravilla Handball Court. I have often wondered about it. Great story and photos. Thanks!

  2. I am the 3rd generation to have been around and known miss mitchie and tommy, my daughter was the 4th and last generation! I miss them so much as well as her daughter Notiko! They have helped feed us as well as many other in the neighborhood with her "black book" of all who owed her. I love you Mitchie n Tommy and appreciate all you have done! jenny hernandez

  3. I was looking for information on the Maravilla Handball Courts, a structure with history dating back to the 1920s. I was pleasantly surprised to find this article, which is very informative, but confused as to why this website calls itself the "EastsiderLA," with its focus is on Echo Park. Wouldn't it make more sense to call this site the "NortheastsiderLA" website, especially since the creator acknowledges that Echo Park is in the Northeastern part of LA (as well as Heritage Square, Eagle Rock, and other neighborhoods that are highlighted herein on this site)? I appreciate the article on this Eastside historical site, but I'm irked that Echo Park and Silver Lake have now for a couple of years unfairly tried to lay claim to the name "Eastside" of LA.
    The name "Eastside" is a touchy subject, and for good reason. The original "Eastside" (Boyle Heghts, unincorporated East Los Angeles, City Terrace, and Lincoln Heights) name has been co-opted because it is recognizable and saleable. Moreover, it is misleading for Echo Park, Silver Lake, and whatever other hipster-filled part of LA to lay claim to a name that has so much history where it was first used.
    Anyhow, again, interesting article, but if you are going to continue to lay claim to the moniker "Eastsider," you should strictly focus on the one and only, original Eastside of LA, which is southeast of Echo Park on every map.

  4. If you were to split the city into 2 parts, east and west, where would that line be? Where does westside begin and end?

  5. Virginia Haro Rodriguez...my grandfather was owner of Maravilla handball court and El centro Market in the 1940's my dad Joe R Haro help my grandparents Martin and Lucy Haro to help pepole around this area to establish credit to buy groceries and a place for men to hang-out at the handball court, my grandparents remodel the handball court and rebuild El Centro Market
    they had 4 children my father Joe Haro,Sid Haro,Rosie Haro Ramirez & Romona Haro Navarro. My grandparents sold the handball court and market in 1948 to Tommy Shigerie and moved up north to san jose area.

  6. Just found this and it is Beautiful ...Looked at your Photo's and Found My Dad,Lupe Govea,,he played till he was 79 with a racket and ball,but started out with a Hard Ball for the gane which I still have 2 or 3 of them...,,he loved the game..I have neg's of 4x5 B&W of a chritmas party in the 60's,..So happy that Maravill can be saved...this is truly a Historical Place..cause i think this may be the last one,,the one on North main st,,was taken down about 10 year's ago,,I have photo's of that on facebbook ,of the men playing [[my dad] and a group shot of them,,Rita

  7. I lived in Maravilla from 1953 to 1958 and have many fond memories even though it was considered a rough neighborhood. I went to Riggin Ave. and then we moved when I was in 7th grade. And also, I come from a family of gringos! We still had fun, Karen - 4831 E. 1st St., Belvedere plunge, and lots of friends.