SANTA ANA, Calif. — On a sunny day in Santa Ana, Bulmaro "Boomer" Vicente is enjoying a good game of handball with his cousin. 

"I grew up playing handball since I was a kid," Vicente said.

What You Need To Know

  • Handball courts are a topic of debate in Santa Ana

  • The courts at Chepa's Park were removed more than a year ago after neighbors complained about criminal activity

  •  Hundreds of residents have signed a petition to bring the courts back, saying they help keep kids active and out of trouble

  • The city of Santa Ana is in the middle of a park's master plan and is looking to gather input from the community

He says he regularly plays at courts in both Santa Ana and throughout Orange County. For him, this is much more than just a sport.

"It was one of the sports that really motivated me to be active in school. I remember telling my dad to drive me to school really early so I can get a handball court, so I can play with my friends," Vicente said.

This community has helped him grow and meet new people, which is why he's been fighting to protect it, he said. At Chepa's Park in the Logan Neighborhood, planters now stand where the handball courts used to be. Vicente said they were suddenly torn down a little over a year ago after some neighbors complained the courts were bringing criminal activity to the area. 

Vicente feels that's a misconception.

"The irony is that it really prevents a lot of those kids from really entering that path," he said.

He's one of the hundreds who signed a petition to bring the courts back, but it's a different story for Leigh Chalkley, who lives right next to the park. When he first moved here six years ago, he didn't want to ruffle any feathers.

"They played music. They barbecued. They had a great time, and there was a real camaraderie," Chalkley said.

But he admits since the courts have been removed, he's noticed a huge improvement in the quality of life.

"The park's being used for families. The play area is being used more," he said.

He's one of a few dozen neighbors that signed an opposing petition in March to expand the open space and the play area for children at the park instead of bringing back the courts.

"Open space has to be used and managed properly," Chalkley said. "To be honest, I really couldn't do anything on the weekend in my backyard because it was just like a big party going on all the time."

Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento said the three-wall handball courts often obstructed views from the street, so criminals could hide their activity. There is now a security camera to improve public safety.

"It does bother me...having to spend money to rebuild something that was once there, but I also think if it is rebuilt, it could be designed in a better way, where maybe the dangerous element is removed," Sarmiento said. 

The city is in the middle of a parks master plan to determine what residents want to see in their parks.

"We'd like to have a more thorough, robust canvassing of all the residents and neighbors that not only live in that area but all throughout the city," Sarmiento said.

For Vicente, these walls are welcoming in a city very much divided on the issue.