DREXELL JOHNSON TRIED NOT TO MAKE this all about race. Yes, the real estate development company, Orange County–based Prism Realty, slated to build a 600,000-square-foot commercial and residential facility on the site of a former auto plaza in Compton, is run mostly by white people. Yes, Johnson insists that construction contracts should not go to companies that hire undocumented Latino workers. And it’s true that Johnson habitually refers to Vince Evans, the former USC quarterback turned real estate manager, as a “handkerchief-head Negro” for collaborating with Prism and for allegedly delaying meetings with Johnson’s Young Black Contractors Association (YBCA), a nonprofit organized in the mid-’90s to encourage black participation in the construction industry.
But at a press conference last month, Johnson insisted he cares only whether Prism — now named Prism-IQ to include Evans’ company, Inside Quarter Enterprises — provides jobs to the local community, not whether those jobs go to blacks or Latinos in Compton. “If there’s a thing called outreach,” he said, “[Prism-IQ] should be reaching out to both blacks and Latinos. But how long are their arms, and in what direction are they looking?”
Evans has since met with Johnson and other members of the YBCA to discuss the process of submitting an application to Compton’s Community Redevelopment Agency to work on the project. (“I must say that his approach was a little out of the ordinary,” Evans says, “but as a human being I wanted to offer him respect.”) But that has done little to quell Johnson’s anxiety, which even at the press conference seemed to have less to do with Evans than with the fear that illegal immigrants will take even more decent-paying work from black people.
Held outside the fenced-off auto plaza site, Johnson’s event featured Ted Hayes, the homeless activist who recently suggested blacks sign up with the vigilante Minutemen to control the border. “Black people in this country,” announced Hayes, “being that we’re former slaves,” have “a moral duty to stop the global slave trade.” Sandra Moore of NAACP Compton warned that if Prism-IQ awards subcontracts to firms that hire undocumented workers, “I will bring two thousand of my closest friends” to the site in protest. And Johnson himself returned to the immigration issue almost reflexively.
“I’m not against those people,” he said of the Latinos marching in the streets for immigrants’ rights. “They’re good people. I love the way they stand up and march together. We used to do that. But I have worked adjacent to them, and what would happen was, they would be forced to work 12 to 13 hours a day, and I was looked upon to do the same thing, and I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think big companies should have the right to exploit these people.
“It’s the same thing [blacks] went through years ago,” he said, “walking behind a mule and working for $2 a day. That’s what’s happening to the Mexicans right now.”
GIVEN THAT LATINOS ACCOUNT for well over half of Compton’s residents, Johnson might have done better to focus less on immigrants — or even Evans’ presumed responsibility, as a black man, to the black community — than on how much Prism-IQ’s proposed development, scheduled to break ground next winter, will actually contribute to Compton’s meager city revenues. From the start, the Gateway Towne Center, to be built on a now-vacant 46-acre site adjacent to the Crystal Park Casino, has been studied, planned and rubber-stamped under the public radar. Compton’s city officials, eager for the revenue the development would bring, have given Prism-IQ such enthusiastic support that last year they neglected to inform the Compton Creek Task Force that the shopping plaza would be built next to the slowly recovering stream they’ve worked so hard to augment with bike paths and equestrian trails. (Members of the task force discovered the plan only after the final environmental studies had been circulated, allowing them no time for comment.)
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Said Preston McCormick, the president of the engineering firm All Flow Solutions, whom Johnson introduced as “the white member” of YBCA, “It just seems like eventually they’re just going to put a wall right down [Artesia Boulevard] and say, ‘This site doesn’t belong to the community anymore.’ It’s not a good business strategy. Because it’s a known fact that if you include people in the community it has a synergistic effect. The guy down the street talks to his neighbor and says, ‘I’m working down at the site.’ And as momentum builds, they’re going to have pride in it, they’re going to frequent it, they’re going to bring their families. They’re going to say, ‘Look what I built.’?”
In the words of Compton resident William Gonzalez of Gonzalez Communications, the developers are “people who won’t even buy a sandwich in this community.” Rumors swirled at the press conference that Prism-IQ has cut a deal with the city that its merchants, which may include Home Depot and Target, will be exempt from sales taxes for the first five years after Gateway Towne Center opens. But Compton City Manager Barbara Kilroy emphatically denied any sales-tax giveaway arrangement. “It’s against the state law for one city to lure revenue away from another that way,” she said. “And even if it weren’t, we wouldn’t do it.”
Lately, there are signs that any wall between Prism-IQ and Compton’s residents may be giving way. Two weeks ago, Evans stood up at a Compton City Council meeting to invite community participation in the Gateway Towne Center project and to announce that it was open to contractors’ bids. The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a state agency armed with several million dollars in Proposition A money dedicated to restoring tributaries to the Los Angeles River — including Compton Creek — has initiated talks with Prism-IQ that people close to the project describe as both “sensitive” and “positive.” “We are working in a capacity that brings reasonable satisfaction to both the people concerned about the creek and the developers,” Evans told me, adding that those concerns are not mutually exclusive. “I am excited about how we can bring beautification to the community,” he said. “We are dedicated to a plan that incorporates nature and green space.”
Evans and Johnson confirm that they will meet Friday, May 12, to discuss potential contracts for YBCA’s members. Johnson, however, remains suspicious. “He came to the table saying he wanted to do the right thing,” Johnson said of Evans. “Now we just hope he doesn’t try to flip the script on us.”