Here comes Aja Brown — pronounced “Asia” for those who haven’t heard about the 31-year-old mayor of Compton elected in a landslide vote last month. The young black men sitting at a shady picnic table in Wilson Park on North Rose Avenue know exactly how to say it. They’re stunned to see the cover girl–gorgeous, wonky USC grad, in high heels and a navy blue dress, walking past them with her trademark air of understated confidence.
“Hey! That’s Aja Brown!” one young man shouts, as if he’s spotted a film star.
“Hey! Mayor!” calls out another.
Brown smiles and says hello but maintains her purposeful stride past a pickup basketball game and toward the 12,000-square-foot skatepark that iconic skateboarder Tony Hawk helped finance nearly four years ago. There, young guys in long pants and T-shirts zoom up and down concrete embankments in the hard, hot sun.
The existence of the skatepark is a sign to Brown that Compton — L.A.’s culturally famous yet woeful and corruption-marred suburb — can be fixed. Keenan Louis, a bare-chested 22-year-old who has just finished a sweaty basketball game, has that very thing on his mind. “No offense,” he yells to Brown, “but don’t be like Omar!”
That would be Omar Bradley, the self-described “gangster mayor” of Compton, who served two stormy terms between 1993 and 2001 — presiding over the city’s devastating decline. Obnoxious, unpredictable, sometimes charming, Bradley behaved threateningly toward journalists and others. He was convicted of corruption in 2004 and did time, but last year Judge Madeleine Flier overturned Bradley’s conviction, citing a Supreme Court ruling that a politician wasn’t corrupt if he didn’t know the anti-corruption law.
“I won’t!” Brown responds to Louis with her easy smile. Then she murmurs, “Those are words I should put up in my office.”
Louis shouts back at Mayor Brown: “We got to build it back up!”
Don’t be like Omar. Build it back up. That’s exactly what many in Compton are praying Aja Brown will do.
“The Hub” or, in rappers’ parlance, “CPT,” is a 10-square-mile city of 97,000, whose 65 percent Latino and 33 percent black residents espouse a peculiarly hard-core form of pride and loyalty to place.
Sixteen miles southeast of downtown L.A., Compton produced such world-class rappers as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, The Game and Kendrick Lamar, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams and Hall of Fame baseball player Eddie Murray. And there’s the groundbreaking album Straight Outta Compton by legendary group N.W.A.
Once dubbed the United States’ “murder capital” by Bloomberg News, Compton nurtures a deep, historical distrust of “outsiders” — yet it was the local Bloods (Pirus), Crips, Tortilla Flats and many others who bloodied and terrorized its streets, and its parade of inept, often scandal-ridden, homegrown politicians who helped drive out the middle class and shatter the town’s tax base. The state of California was forced to take over Compton Unified School District’s shoddily run schools in 1993, and in 2000 Omar Bradley controversially disbanded the police department, handing over law enforcement to the Sheriff’s Department.
Last summer the city, with a 25 percent poverty rate, teetered for a time at the edge of bankruptcy. Mayor Eric Perrodin blamed it on “possible fraud, waste and abuse.”
For years, the City Council and school board have been controlled by an ossified and often paranoid black old guard, which rebuffs the Latino majority. But after a long acquiescence to this arrangement, on June 4, the town’s mostly black voters chose reform candidate Brown, 63.7 percent to 36.2 percent over Bradley, who was trying for a comeback, thanks to Judge Flier’s ruling. Voters that day also elected Compton’s first Latino city councilman, Isaac Galvan, 26, like Brown a political newcomer.
Brown, who took office on July 2, is like no mayor Compton has seen before — nor, for that matter, any city in L.A.’s tattered old southeast suburbs.
Her grandmother Lena Young, a nurse Brown never knew, was raped and murdered in 1973 in a brutal home invasion — in Compton. Brown was raised in the 1980s and ’90s in Altadena by a single mom. But in 2009, after parlaying her undergraduate and graduate degrees in urban planning from USC into a successful career in municipal economic development, Brown pointedly chose Compton as her home — and her project. Her husband, Van, an oil industry safety inspector, backed her up.
“There’s a new optimism in Compton that I sense,” says Kerry Allison, pastor at Church of the Redeemer, “that Compton can become something. And by electing [Brown], Compton was saying that.”
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose sprawling district covers Compton and who backed Brown for mayor, offers, “She’s a breath of fresh air, and Compton needed that. And the people wanted it.”
The old guard sees things differently. After all, the woman is an outsider.