December 28, 2017

East Los Angeles Handball Court Links Community to the Past

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Preservation magazine.

Amanda Perez will be quick to tell you that the Maravilla Handball Court and El Centro Grocery have long been considered landmarks by residents of East Los Angeles.

The brick handball court was built by the community in the 1920s and attracted top handball players from around Southern California for decades. The court and the small market next door, which opened in 1946, had been operated by beloved locals Tommy and Michi Nishiyama since the 1950s. But it was more than a place to watch a game and find the best sandwiches in town, says Perez, who grew up in the neighborhood: “This has always been the heart of the community. This was where folks would come together and exchange thoughts.”

When Michi died in 2006 and Tommy the following year, the court and market were closed and boarded up.

“Looking at it just tugged at my heart,” Perez says. So she and several others formed the Maravilla Historical Society and began reviving the site, now owned by the Nishiyamas’ son.

But while the community considered the site a landmark, there was no official designation protecting it. And with the shaky economy and recent development in the area, residents feared for its future. So the Maravilla Historical Society and Los Angeles Conservancy teamed up to nominate the site as a state landmark. It also became part of the National Trust’s This Place Matters campaign.

Maravilla Handball Court

photo by: Los Angeles Conservancy

Restoration of the Maravilla Handball Court, the oldest remaining handball court in Los Angeles, began in 2008.

In August 2012, neighborhood residents celebrated when the State Historical Resources Commission voted to list El Centro Grocery and the Maravilla Handball Court on the California Register of Historical Resources.

With landmark status secured, the site hosts tournaments and lessons on the handball court, and art exhibitions, movie nights, and parties—such as the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration.

“There’s always something going on here,” Perez says. “I say, if you’ve got an idea, we’ve got the space.”

In the future, she hopes to develop programming to address neighborhood needs, like access to healthy foods and programs for youth and senior citizens.

“We want to keep this a place for the community,” says Karina Muniz, who, as the former community outreach coordinator at the Los Angeles Conservancy, helped with the nomination process. “This site represents a link to the past and a vision for the future.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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