Del Rey Cup builds on youth sports to reintroduce Mar Vista Gardens to police, employers and neighbors

Story by Gary Walker • Photos by Maria Martin

Young athletes from Mar Vista Gardens squared off against students from John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica in the opening match of the Del Rey Cup

When Enrique Fernandez started the Del Rey Cup soccer tournament in 2010, his intention was to draw some positive attention to the Mar Vista Gardens public housing complex, which was trying to rebrand itself.

“By having a couple of days with local kids playing soccer, [organizations] giving out school supplies, and inviting people to come and see what how we’re trying to improve things in Mar Vista Gardens, we hoped that people in our community would look at us as a part
of the community, not just a place where shootings happen,” said Fernandez, a member of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council who grew up in Mar Vista Gardens.

Fast forward to 2018 and the tournament has become one of Del Rey’s most heavily attended community events. Soccer matches involving youth from Mar Vista Gardens and teams from area schools are still the centerpiece of Copa del Rey, but the community resource elements that bring everything together are for more than decorative components.

Last Saturday’s Del Rey Cup was an occasion for residents to interact with their representatives on the neighborhood council, learn about job openings at local businesses, and have friendly conversations with some of the police officers who patrol the area.

LAPD Pacific Division officers joined members of the departments’s SWAT team not to make arrests, but to make community connections. Young children were invited to climb in and out of a SWAT vehicle and ask the officers questions about their jobs. Nearby, patrol officers took a knee for a conversation with a group of elementary-age girls who’d brought them oranges and water.

Scenes like these would not have happened 10 years ago, said LAPD Pacific Sgt. Kevin Lowe. The public housing complex was still grappling with a decades-long history of frequent gang violence and heavy police presence. But the Del Rey Cup has given birth to the Del Rey Collaborative, a mutual effort among community leaders like Fernandez and Pacific Division brass to improve relations between residents and LAPD.

“This is the perfect situation for us. The community gets to see us in a new way, and we get a chance to get to know them and do some real community policing,” Lowe said. “This all happened because of [the Del Rey Cup], and we see this as a real good opportunity to create positive interactions.”

This year, Northgate González Markets gave away more than 500 bags of coupons and free merchandise, passed out job applications and even conducted interviews with prospective new hires for their nearby grocery store on Inglewood Boulevard.

“We’re here because we know who are customers are, and this gives us a chance to see them one-on-one and get to learn what type of things that they want to see in our store,” said Northgate Regional Manager Eddie Gonzalez.

Back on the Mar Vista Gardens soccer fields, John Adams Middle School defeated the Mar Vista Gardens home team 5-3 in a hard-fought, come-from-behind victory that culminated in an overtime penalty kick shootout.

Fernandez nodded approvingly as he looked about at parents cheering along the sidelines for their children’s teams, milling among the 30 different vendor and city department booths, and children scampering in and out of the SWAT truck.

“This has become something really special. It’s not just a Mar Vista Gardens event anymore,” he said. “This is a Del Rey event.”