True community happens naturally. It can’t be forced. It’s a tangible kind of energy that exists between people, unifying them, binding them to one another.
At the Peter D. Gill Memorial Park tennis courts in Milpitas, that energy, that community, is wildly present.
A group of individuals gather at these courts as many as seven times a week to engage in exercise, skill-building, and socialization.
“This is a great community here,” said player Minh Le, who has been playing at the courts since 2003. “We gather weekdays after work hours, and also weekends in the morning. Sometimes we throw a barbecue and potluck. It’s a tight group.”
At about 60-80 people, the group, who refer to themselves as the Hillview Tennis Group, is the largest community of tennis players that gather in Milpitas. They started forming organically about two decades ago. Players from all ages and backgrounds come together, motivated by their deep love of tennis.
However, this group of players may soon be displaced.
As part of the City of Milpitas’ summer recreation program, a Tennis Academy will be coming in and teaching youth lessons, taking up two of the park’s three tennis courts. Granted a permit by the City of Milpitas, the Academy plans to start teaching on June 12.
As a result, the dozens of players who have been frequenting those courts for the past two decades are worried that they will lose the community that has long served as such a positive force in their lives.
“We would have preferred for the city to come and talk to us about what was happening,” said Le. “Or at least give us notice, and let us know about what’s going on. We never had any say.”
The players learned about the Academy coming in only after they saw signs put up at the courts about the upcoming lessons. After checking with the City, they discovered that two of the courts will be occupied by the Academy, Monday-Thursday, between 4pm and 8pm — the same hours that the group plays on them.
“This has been my main court for 20 years,” said player Tan Nguyen. “I used to play and learn at the Hall Park courts behind Curtner School. And then I moved here. The group just started building, with a new person here and there, year after year. We grew.”
Tan Nguyen has been playing at the Gill courts from the very beginning, before any kind of community existed there. Players in the group refer to Nguyen as the “Captain,” saying that he has naturally stepped into the role over time. Nguyen also serves as the point person between the group and the City, informing the City whenever a light goes out, or any kinds of problems arise in the courts. He also takes it upon himself to clean and maintain the courts, week after week. He even collects $5 donations from the group, and uses that money to supply them with a never-ending flow of tennis balls.
“I’m here seven days a week,” said Nguyen, who has lived in Milpitas for over 30 years. “Without this, I don’t know what I’d do. I’m worried.”
Nguyen’s house is mere steps away from the park, and can be seen from the tennis courts. Other players mention how dedicated he is, how so much of his life revolves around this community. In fact, in the mornings, when no one is around, Nguyen often walks by the courts, tidying things up in order to ensure presentability for the players later in the day.
When the players found out about the Academy coming onto the courts, they enlisted one of their players, Michael Vu, to speak out at a May 15th City Council meeting, voicing their concerns about a public space being reserved by the City for classes. Since Vu is an attorney (in San Jose), players felt he would be a strong spokesperson for their group, although he doesn’t represent them at any official capacity.
During “public comment,” Vu proposed the idea of the City making use of the many tennis courts at Milpitas High School instead, which the public doesn’t have access to.
After Vu spoke, the City mentioned that they would look into it and see what could be done.
“On the day of the Council meeting, Director of Recreation Renee Lorentzen indicated to me that she has to wait to see the number of students who will be registering for the summer program,” said Vu. “And only then can she determine whether or not the permit can be adjusted. So maybe they’ll grant just one court instead of two courts. We’re still waiting, because we have no data or records relating to the number of students attending. I hope that before June 11, we’ll hear from the City of Milpitas. There has been no contact so far.”
Player Tuong Bui
Tuong Bui, a player at Gill Park since 2009, knows this story all too well. He used to play tennis over at the Hall Park courts, located on La Honda Drive, until the City began a recreational program there.
“At first it was okay. They took just one court. But then over time, it became two courts. Then three,” said Bui. “So we had one court left.”
Bui, along with a few dozen other players, had no choice but to migrate over to the Gill courts. And he’s now worried by the possibility of having to migrate again. Some players even bought their homes based on the close proximity to the Gill courts.
When asked how he felt about the tennis group’s concerns, Mayor Rich Tran said, “Our city parks are for community recreation and should be open to the public and to the neighborhood. That kind of private class or program shouldn’t be designated at our neighborhood parks.” The Mayor also added, “As our region continues to grow in population and urbanization takes place, our park spaces are trying to keep up with the growth of the population. It’s an issue that I’m going to continue working on in Milpitas. A byproduct of this growth is this conflict that happens between residents and City-organized programs.” The City Council meeting, during Vu’s public comment, was the first time that Mayor Tran had even heard about the issue.
When asked if this was common practice, for a City to take over access of public space, Vice Mayor Marsha Grilli wrote in an email, “It is always difficult to accommodate the needs of all our residents. I don’t look at it as the City ‘taking over’ but trying to provide opportunities for our youth and their families. We hear repeatedly that we need to provide programs for the young people.”
Tan Nguyen, the “Captain”, along with other players in the group, do understand the value of teaching younger generations the sport of tennis.
“If there’s a kid who wants to learn, Tan will take the time and he’ll teach them,” said player Tuong Bui, who even occasionally brings his own kids and grandkids to the courts to play.
Every year, the Hillview Tennis Group organizes a tournament at the Gill Courts, in which all of their players get to play and compete for trophies. The plan was to host another tournament this Summer, but if things don’t change with the City’s recreational program, that tournament will be cancelled, interrupting a yearly community-building ritual that the players have always loved participating in.
Bui won a first place trophy at the 2013 tournament, an accomplishment that he is deeply proud of. He hopes the tournaments continue.
But it was just last month when the City of Milpitas put up yet another new sign at the Gill Courts, which reads:
Gill Park Tennis Courts
City of Milpitas Recreation
Tennis Classes – Year Round
One court will remain open
at all times
Thank you for your cooperation
The players at Gill Park who assumed the lessons would only be at the courts throughout the Summer are now concerned that the City will be using the courts year-round. They certainly hope this doesn’t turn out to be the case.
Players at Hall Park have also seen this new sign recently put up at their courts as well, and are wondering how this will impact them over the Summer and beyond.
In the City of Milpitas Facilities Manual for both indoor and outdoor facilities, their Tennis Court Rules and Etiquette section reads: “City-sponsored programs have first priority on tennis courts at all times.”
The players at the Gill Courts understand this, but at the same time, they’ve been playing and helping to maintain the courts for two decades. Many players mentioned that they have no problem working with the City to figure this out, but express their disappointment over the City’s lack of communication with them about this matter from the get-go.
“The gradual development of camaraderie… the friendship among players..it’s very good,” said Michael Vu. “We have Vietnamese players, along with Indian players, and also Cambodian, Filipino, and Chinese players. There’s a variety of ethnic backgrounds here. We all met each other here on the courts and have become friends. We invite each other to our homes for parties. At the end of our tournaments, there’s a reception and we all go to a restaurant to co-mingle and socialize. For us, this is a deep-rooted community.”
Milpitas’ Recreation Services Department has no official comment at this time.