Next weekend will be Del Rey’s version of “Friday Night Lights,” but the game will be soccer, not football.

The Del Rey Cup will kick off at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24 at Mar Vista Gardens as part of a series of recreational activities that are being initiated in the public housing complex.

The two-day soccer tournament, which will feature four teams, will pit a team from Mar Vista Gardens against a championship squad from Fresno in the inaugural game Friday night.

The mood surrounding the tournament in the complex is festive, said Enrique Fernandez, who spearheaded and nursed the sporting initiative through a series of obstacles leading up until game day.

“There’s a lot of excitement right now, a lot of intensity,” said Fernandez, a member of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council for Area G, which includes Mar Vista Gardens. “It’s like a new beginning for us.”

The first 25 families that attend the opening day ceremonies will receive school supplies donated by the Del Rey Neighborhood Council. Fernandez said various dignitaries are also scheduled to attend, including Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Del Rey.

“Healthy activity is paramount for young people, and this kind of activity can help relieve any feelings of isolation and being disconnected from the community that some young people may have,” the councilman, who once worked as a psychiatric counselor, explained. “So I’m very thrilled that the tournament will be held at Mar Vista Gardens.”

Fernandez says having lighting installed at the public housing complex has not only allowed children and teens who live there to use the rehabilitated recreational facilities but it has also become a deterrent to crime.

“For a long time, there was no way that we could take advantage of the large playing field that we have,” Fernandez, who has lived in Mar Vista Gardens since 1969, said. “Now, we have kids playing outside in the summer and the lights also keep the area well lit, which can keep crime down.”

Angel Castellanos, an assistant coach for one of the Del Rey teams, said he would like to see the soccer tournament played annually.

“That would be best, because it would bring a lot of young players to Mar Vista Gardens to play,” he said.

Hosting the Del Rey Cup in Mar Vista Gardens can also be the complex’s chance for a second act among other Del Rey residents as well as the surrounding communities like Mar Vista and Culver City, said Mark Redick, past president of the Del Rey council.

“Mar Vista Gardens has come a long way in recent years,” Redick, whose council supported the idea of the Del Rey Cup and committed to funding the venture, noted. “I want to applaud Enrique Fernandez for bringing this remarkable initiative to the forefront.”

For years, Mar Vista Gardens, which was built after World War II, was ravaged by shootings and alleged gang activity. But improved social services, along with stricter changes in housing rules and an increased law enforcement presence has helped drive out many of the Culver City Boyz, a Westside street gang whose members resided in the housing complex, residents noted. That transformation has given residents like Fernandez hope that its image can be rehabilitated just like the athletic fields.

“A lot of people have a negative view of what Mar Vista Gardens is and what goes on here,” Fernandez said. “But I tell people who live here and people outside as well that if you value Mar Vista Gardens, you’re going to value Del Rey.”

Fernandez sees the addition of lighting for the athletic fields, which was paid for with Quimby funds from Rosendahl’s office, as one of the building blocks to the housing development’s resurrection. Until recently, he said he was practically alone in his belief that lighting for the athletic field could be obtained.

“Many residents didn’t believe me when I told them that I would try to get new lights for the park,” he recalled. “Now we have softball tournaments with (the Los Angeles Police Department), which I think minimizes the tensions that people have sometimes with the police and former gang members who are trying to walk a straight line.”

Rosendahl learned of the dearth of lighting at Mar Vista Gardens when he was working with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) to bring a postal carrier back to the public housing complex after the Housing Authority for the city of Los Angeles (HACLA) and the U.S. Postal Service decided to suspend mail service following a shooting incident in 2008. As Rosendahl was addressing a group of residents, one young man mentioned that the parks did not have lighting.

“I remember him saying, ‘Councilman, it would be really great if we could get better lighting,’” Rosendahl recalled. “So I’m proud to have played a role in helping to get those lights for their athletic fields.”

Mar Vista Gardens Recreation Director Robert Dunn said the tournament will also serve as the annual kick-off for the development’s soccer season and agrees with Redick and Fernandez regarding the opportunity to showcase Mar Vista Gardens’ recreational facilities.

“We have state-of-the art lighting for our field, and that’s important because traditionally, we’re entering the season where it will soon be dark at 5 p.m. and our athletic season outside would be over,” he said. “Now we can run until 9 p.m., and I’m getting calls from other organizations asking if they can use our facilities because of the lighting.”

A challenge to the Del Rey council elections in April was a roadblock that Fernandez had to overcome due to the fact that no funding could be allocated during the period that the challenge was heard by the city clerk’s office. Once the new board was seated, it allocated $1,600 to assist with the players’ uniforms.

Fernandez credited Redick and new council president Eric DeSobe for enthusiastically endorsing the concept behind the Del Rey Cup.

“Eric and the new council have been very supportive,” he said. “Mark was a big inspiration to me also, as well as (former board member) Theresa Luo.”

Redick, who as president sought to involve Mar Vista Gardens more in participating in the neighborhood council, commended Fernandez for his work on bringing the soccer tournament to fruition.

“What really makes me proud is Enrique’s effort in bringing more young folks into this,” he said. “Hopefully, through this effort, they can soon feel that they are a part of a vibrant community in Del Rey.

“I think the Del Rey Cup is a precursor of better things to come.”

So when the lights come on for the first game, Fernandez said he will be wearing a smile with enough wattage to light up the field.

“In many ways, this is a debut to the larger public,” he concluded. “One of my goals was to make Mar Vista Gardens a larger part of Del Rey, and this is our chance.”

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