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The State of the Fences 

by Christine Lee

The last time you came to the Venice courts, you remember playing a few sets that were complete junk, then you got a gatorade from Ali, the sunglass vendor across from court 4?

Ali, Venice Beach vendor

Ali

You got back on the courts and suddenly your strokes started to click. You remembered to step into the ball, instead of backing up. Your weaker shot got better and lo’ and behold, you let those “out” balls go. You won that set, barely lost the next, and then the third set was settled in an amazing 10 point tie breaker that you and your partner, some European dude who’s been playing for the last 10 days straight, freakin won! You limped from the courts, bathed in the golden light of a Venice Beach sunset, which is like no other in the world, and you scored a barstool at James Beach where you drank the sweet nectar of victory.

Now in that memory of paddle bliss, did you ever think, but wait a minute – those fences sure looked like they’ve seen better days?

Nah. why would you?

The chain link is part of the scenery of the Venice courts, like the palm trees, the sun, the breeze, the players like pirates from the tennis world, and the beautiful people strutting by – it all blended into our edgy and free public country club. Until now.

Now, it’s clear that not paying dues has taken it’s toll.

The fences are currently in a dire state of disrepair. Never before have the fences been considered to be such an important part of our game –  they perform a basic need that keeps us from chasing balls all over Venice. They are visual reminder of our history and a metaphor for our future if we do not continue to come together as a community.

A brief history of the fences gleaned from Daryl Lemon (American Paddle Tennis Association), early bird, and generous keeper of the sand blower, is that courts 4-11 were part of the LA City parking lot and were built on asphalt which is why the white painted lines crack from the heat. Courts 1-3, known as the “pro courts” were added later in 1987 and were built on concrete slab which is why they have no cracks at all.  The steel fences were put in around 1972 with the original courts and were not replaced until about 2010 and have a black plastic coating. According to Daryl, the current fences were supposed to not rust, last longer, and also cushion the impact for players who often collide with the fences during heated points. Today it looks like the fences have staged their revenge for playing “fences” all these years.

 

Now,  take a look at the video link from The Huell Howser show shot in 2004  – at 4 mins 20 secs in the timeline – you will immediately notice the gleaming steel fences and clean green and red clay colored courts. Just seeing the courts in their younger years is like finding the photo of a grandparent as a young person. And if you continue to watch the clip you’ll see a few veterans who still play today: Laurence Braude and Emiliano Saccone . Listening to players talk about paddle is like finding lost members from a family or tribe that you’ve never known but uncannily identify with. Players in this clip say the word “addicted” several times and it’s easy to comprehend that the euphoric way the generations feel about our sport has not changed throughout the decades. Sadly our venue has.

Timeline of Decay

Though the courts could not be considered perfect prior to the pandemic, it’s fair to say that the acceleration of decay happened during the pandemic. 

When the pandemic first started in February of 2020, the courts were limited to singles play. They were locked and closed from March 27th until June 12 and were re-opened only for singles. Our venue was the only area opened for recreation in the entire park. Nets were taken down from the basketball courts, the handball courts became homeless encampments, bleachers were put where Venice Football Club used to hold their soccer matches. Beaches and parking lots were closed.

In 2019, Pop Paddle Venice team ran five successful tournaments that re-invigorated the paddle community so when the courts were re-opened in June 2020, players were hangry for exercise and for an outlet from the pandemic. Our community was absolutely ecstatic and the courts were busy because paddle was the only game in town.

Oct. 31, 2020 Moncef, Brian Wan, Wulff, Wes Burrows, Scott Doerner, Ernesto Russo. 1st Street Paddle Singles Tournament

It is during this time, August 2020, that Daniel Wulff launched his first Street Paddle singles tournament for men and women. It was a rather joyous time at the courts despite the fact that we were in the midst of the pandemic and no one knew what lay ahead. Since most benches were taped off, people brought their own chairs, we’d sit six feet apart, masked, and watch all levels of matches. It didn’t matter that the weekend crowds weren’t there to witness, we had each other.

So while our community experienced a re-birth and resurgence thanks to new and veteran players from all levels interacting more than in the last five years, the rest of Venice was witnessing an episode that resembled an apocalyptic sci-fi movie like Road Warrior or The Maze Runner.

According to retired Recreation Coordinator, Robert Dunn, the homeless encampments swelled to about 225-250 people living on the grass embankment between the boardwalk and the bike path. Their numbers steadily crept up over the years but with agencies and homeless shelters closed, our beautiful park became the fulcrum of filth and disfunction. The morning players like Shelly Markman and Paul Small say never in their 25-30 years of playing paddle have they seen the courts in this state with new holes appearing every day as a result of the “night people.” Our courts were by no means in perfect condition prior to the pandemic however from August 2020 to now, the slide to decline has been quick. Even as the park was cleaned up and the homeless encampment  removed for Mike Bonin’s re-opening of the Venice Park last August 2021, the deeper issues of the unhoused and mentally ill still continue to affect our courts.

Calvin by Robin Antiga

So what’s happening with the fences?

Pop Paddle Venice (Leslie, Katrina, Wulff and myself) have sent many emails about the fences to Venice Rec & Park and have met with newly appointed Senior Recreation Director Melody Valenzuela and Superintendent Sonya Young-Jimenez. They are new to their positions as of June 2021. They know that the fences are a liability and they have put our cause at the “top of the list” for the Park Board. Bids have been made and Pop Paddle Venice has been very clear: we do not think the existing poles need to be replaced which would mean closing the entire park for many months (think of Muscle Beach). The fencing could be replaced in stages for instance: repair courts 1-3 first, or do the back courts 8-11 while the others stay open for play.

Can we replace the fences ourselves? Many have asked if they can start a Go Fund Me campaign for the fences. But, the answer is no. All contractors must be city approved. And quite frankly the money probably exists. If the Dept of Rec & Park needs the funds, they would ask our Council Member Mike Bonin’s office (District 11) for Quimby Funds. These funds are from fees that developers must pay to cities that can be used to purchase and develop land and/or recreational facilities. A call and email have been made to Bonin’s office however it has not been returned. Bonin has decided not to run for re-election next June. His term ends the following December. We will be hearing from candidates for council member in the next few issues.

We are in bureaucratic limbo. It’s fine line between raising the red flag of safety and having the courts closed completely. Our fear is that if the courts are closed and completely overhauled, then when they re-open they may not just be paddle courts. The fences have also come to mean something on a historic preservation level – they help to define and delineate our sport as different from that other “p” sport. The very fact that paddle needs to be contained in a cage may be an important detail that keeps that other sport from taking over our courts.

The fence paradox: how do we mend the fences that can divide our community. 

The current state of the fences are also a reminder of the social fabric of the courts. Even though the paddle courts look neglected and sad, our community probably has more players than just before the pandemic. The activity we are seeing today has been built on a history of a lot of people who have worked really hard to play and harness the interest in our sport into a movement. And this is the tricky part – thanking everyone who has given their heart and soul to our game and continue to do so today: Daryl Lemon, Scotty Freedman, Kenny Lindner, Scott and Austin Doerner, Michelle Greco, Mitch Kutner, Jerry Pham, John Coray, and many others. Forgive me that I am not taking the rest of the article to acknowledge and give proper homage to all. Please read the this link from the Pop Tennis site to understand our sport’s complex history.

The current fences are reminder that if we do not mend and take care of them, they can fray and break apart. Let’s face it, we are never going to be that mainstream sport that puts a paddle in the hand of everyone who passes by. We’re the kind of people who want to play and we want to play with our friends! That isn’t to say there aren’t ambassadors who give their time like Gino Bejarano, Fernando Wulff, Richie Lebost, and many others. In general no one can stay at the courts all day to make sure everyone feels loved and welcomed. But there are ways to preserve our sport and make our community more inclusive.

One positive actions being implemented is that Street Paddle has added an Anonymous Suggestion Box where you can submit your comments, thoughts, and ideas. If constructive, we will reprint them here in The Paddle Times to give voice to authentic concerns. I’ll turn to you, our community, to weigh in and help solve some of the problems that inhibit our sport. Here are a few responses from a test suggestion box we ran last month:

“We need to reduce the barrier to entry for new players entering the game, perhaps more venice paddle “sports days” or pro-am (pro + amateur) exhibitions, not sure but entering the game when you don’t know anyone seems excessively difficult and shouldn’t be. Seems pickle has a giant advantage over pop in this regard.”

another suggestion:

“There is a feeling of a clique mentality among some players who tend not to welcome outsiders to the courts they usually play at. The community would benefit from mixing up a bit more, even if that means playing with someone weaker sometimes.”

Lastly, another positive action is that the Street Paddle site is the first landing page for all things paddle. There is a calendar of all paddle tournaments nationwide, locations to play, people to contact, an ever changing online ranking system, and a link to see some awesome paddle highlights on Paddle Legends and more.

Street Paddle has harnessed energy of our entire community wanting to be a part of something meaningful which bridges the divide of age, race, social and economic status, and even athletic ability! The Venice Courts may never be perfect, to say the least, but there is no other network of courts like it in the world. We are not be able, as mere players, to change the hardscape of the courts due to bureaucracy, but we can work to make our environment stronger and to accommodate our player’s desire to improve while feeling socially included too.

Someday the fences will blend back into our idea, or reverie of what it is like to play paddle at the Venice courts. We will cease to see them as derelict reminders of the pandemic. We won’t view their sad state as any kind of metaphor for our community. In fact we won’t see them at all.

And they will do what they are meant to do: stop the damn balls from escaping.

Until then, let’s get out there, play hard, and have fun, but please -be careful of the fences!

 

Fence art by Robin Antiga

Peace Paddle by Leslie Martino

8 Comments

  • Matt greenberg says:

    Wow! Great piece – got me thinking – since the site is called Street Paddle, maybe we can build some temporary ball blockers for the larger holes and they can have “street” art on them from the Venice locals – we can buy the supplies – cardboard, etc and have some
    Locals spruce them up
    With cool pop tennis logos or sunsets, or cool phrases?

    • Hey Matt- would like to hear more about this!
      We presented a temporary solution to Rec & Park but they were supposed to get back to us about doing it – last week. We’ll keep on them for an answer.

      Thx for your thoughts

  • Sydne says:

    Very well written.
    Great ideas.
    Thx.

  • Tran says:

    “Fencing Limbo” indeed in such a political climate. Never thought how the fences distinguish pop tennis 🎾. Those lob shots just got more meaningful in a competitive way.

    What are different ways to care for the frail fences that are within the City of LA Parks and Recreation guidelines that are deemed temporary acceptable?

    • Editor Christine Lee says:

      Tran, I wish we knew – honestly we shouldn’t have to care for the fences but we have submitted a temporary solution until they are fixed. Still waiting…

  • Steve Gumplo says:

    Great topic and blog Christine! Love the artwork Robin and Leslie!

    • Editor Christine Lee says:

      Thanks Steve! Looking forward to hearing about your ideas for gathering signatures for various petitions.