Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Compton, California Enjoys a Surprise Revival


"In the 1990s, mention of the city of Compton inspired many various reactions, some violent, some respectful. But to many, the idea of Compton was toxic. In the 1990s, Compton schools were crumbling, drugs were rampant, and street gang tensions had escalated into what historian Josh Sides described as “a brutal guerilla war.” The city became the U.S. murder capital, surpassing Washington with one homicide for every 1,000 residents. In 1989, a 2-year-old was gunned down in a drive-by as he wandered his front yard; a 16-year-old was shot with a semiautomatic weapon as he rode his bike.

The image of Compton as a defiantly violent ghetto was crystallized by N.W.A., whose 1988 album, “Straight Outta Compton,” went multiplatinum, even though it was banned by many radio stations. The record even attracted the attention of the FBI, which felt the group was inciting violence with its song, “Fuck tha Police.”

Two decades later, reports indicate that Compton has a new lease on life. The community is still poor and unemployment is more than twice the national average but the number of homicides is at a 25-year low, half of what it was in 2005. There are fewer gunshots and more places for kids to go after school. Alongside the liquor stores and check-cashing stands are signs of middle-class aspiration: a T.G.I. Fridays, an outbreak of Starbucks and a natural-food store. Along the way, blacks became a minority in Compton, which is 60 percent Latino today.

The change, say community members, is palpable. Residents walk dogs, they go out at night, graduation rates are higher, and a recent canvassing effort counted more than 25 nonprofits targeted specifically toward youth. The hope is that these improvements will change the city back into what it once was.

In 1952, Compton received the National Civic League’s “All American Cities” honor, and by 1960, the city’s median income was almost twice that of Watts, with an unemployment rate of less than a third. In 1963, the city elected its first black politician, Douglas Dollarhide, who would later become the city’s first black mayor. “I have wonderful memories of growing up here,” says Judge Kelvin Filer. “The street that I was raised on was straight out of ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ with African-Americans. We played Little League, were in the Cub Scouts, and all went to the same church.”"

Read the complete story, "Straight Into Compton", here.

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