Bill Brothers was standing near the Venice shore in a crisp baby-blue tennis outfit with matching socks. Grinning broadly and waving to nearly every passer-by, the man who is known around the beach as "Mr. Paddle Tennis" didn't look like the kind of guy who'd pick a fight.
But Brothers finds himself battling bureaucrats these days. His beloved Venice Recreation Center, an outdoor athletic complex wedged between Ocean Front Walk and the beach, is a wreck and Brothers doesn't understand why it's taking the city so long to fix it.
"All I hear is that they're conducting studies, endless studies," said Brothers, who works in real estate. "I walk over and I just look at it. The courts need resurfacing. There are just a few fences. The lawns have died. Even a tree that could last in the desert didn't survive here. It's ridiculous."
An avid paddle tennis player, the 36-year-old Brothers has committed himself to getting the center restored. At a recent tournament, he collected complaints on more than 200 post cards and mailed them to Los Angeles City Council President Pat Russell. The following week, he took a city Recreation and Parks commissioner on a tour. At other times he vents his frustration by picking up a big broom and clearing away the mountains of dirt and sand on the courts.
Brothers said his efforts have yielded minor improvements. He credited the city Recreation and Parks Department with fixing storm-damaged benches and faulty water fountains. The problem, he said, is that officials have yet to address the fact that the park needs an overhaul, from the paddle tennis courts to the children's play areas.
"Progress is being made but it's slow," Brothers said. "It's difficult to get anything accomplished. You have to be persistent."
Brothers pointed out numerous problem areas on a recent walk through the 10-acre park. Concrete walkways surrounding the courts and fields have been rendered unusable by hills of sand. Fences are gnarled. The handball court is cracked and jagged. The gymnastics area has rusted equipment. The paddle tennis courts are dangerously slippery from wear. Fences are missing at the children's park, allowing transients to wander through easily or sleep near the rides. Graffiti cover almost every wall.
Kathy Martin, an aide to Councilwoman Russell, whose district includes Venice, said Russell is aware of the problems facing the recreation center. Martin said that Russell has been meeting with James E. Hadaway, director of the city Recreation and Parks Department, to encourage quick action.
"We're looking at the entire area," Martin said. "Basically, the maintenance hasn't been up to par. . . . Pat (Russell) has instructed the Parks and Recreation Department to come back with an overall plan for the area, including maintenance, upgrading and expansion."
Martin also agreed with Brothers' assessment of the athletic facilities.
"Part of the problem is that it's used by so many people," Martin said. "It is used and probably abused. It has been through a lot of wear and tear. . . . But Mr. Hadaway has made a commitment to improve the situation and I think it's all going to come together."
Hadaway and others familiar with the city's system of parks say that Venice Recreation Center is among the most neglected. It is also one of the busiest and most conspicuous. Located near the southern tip of Ocean Front Walk, it borders one of the most heavily traveled tourist paths in Southern California. The Muscle Beach area is usually crammed with weightlifters and weightlifting fans. The paddle tennis tournaments draw capacity crowds and the playing courts are packed seven days a week.
Hadaway agreed that Venice Recreation Center needs major improvements but said work has been stalled because of disagreements within the community.
Seeking a Consensus
"There are a lot of things we'd like to have done," Hadaway said in an interview. "We've been trying to get a consensus on what to do about Venice for probably 10 years. . . . It's not a question of money. It's just a question of what we should do."
Community discussions have centered on what to do about the Venice Pavilion, a 7,000-square-foot auditorium within the recreation complex that is rarely used. Because of the unlikelihood of resolving the pavilion controversy soon, Hadaway said it may be wiser to address the rest of the recreation center's needs separately.
"It's well used and it's worn out," said Hadaway, who frequently passes the complex on his beachfront bicycle rides. "It's 20 or 25 years old. In my judgment it's beyond putting on coats of paint."
The recreation and parks chief said he favors a complete face lift for the center. Asked about specific plans, Hadaway said he would like to refurbish the eight paddle tennis courts and add four more, install new playground and gymnastics equipment, add to the weightlifting area, double the number of handball courts, add a basketball court and rebuild all restrooms.
If such a project were approved, Hadaway said construction could be completed by next summer. The estimated $750,000 cost would be covered by a special park improvement fund financed by private developers. One of the keys to speedy action, Hadaway added, is community support.
Although Hadaway has not officially proposed refurbishing the center, Arnold Springer, a member of the Venice Town Council, said he does not foresee objections such aplan. He agreed that community discussions about the pavilion's problems may have slowed action on the rest of the recreation complex and said most people would probably agree that improvements are warranted.
"The center needs to be kept up," Springer said. "The things Hadaway is talking about are not objectionable. . . . The sports people have a legitimate concern about keeping up the facilities there. . . . I think it's a good idea to have a public hearing on this in Venice and clear the air."
Standing near the paddle tennis courts one day, waiting to lead another official on a tour of the facility, Brothers said he was encouraged by reports that the improvement drive was gaining momentum. But he wasn't prepared to jump over the net in a victory celebration yet. Picking up his favorite broom, Brothers started to sweep the courts, noting that it takes a lot of work just to keep the facility usable.