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