Photo by Ted Soqui
It was my father who first told me Compton was not a good place to go after dark. That was about 20 years ago, but he was actually talking about the Compton of the 1940s, long before West Coast gangsta rap began flavoring radio playlists, long before hip-hop became a musical phenomenon and then a cultural paradigm that soured our national self-regard around the edges and, with characteristically grim satisfaction, flattened the mindless bubbly of American pop. My father is 70 now and knows something about grimness and bursting bubbles. He went to Fremont High School in South L.A. when it was reluctantly starting to integrate; instead of sock hops and steak bakes, his most vivid high school memories involve being burned in effigy and running home each day after classes as if the devil were at his heels. When I first heard these stories, I naively asked my father about cities like Compton near Fremont High: Was the tenor of those neighborhoods any better?
He looked at me like I was crazy. “You kidding?” he said. “Blacks didn’t go south of Slauson. You didn’t go to Compton. And you certainly didn’t go there after dark.”
There, I had it: Compton was the original racial-bogeyman town in sunny Southern Cal — except that back then, it was a place where whites
This was a perfectly normal, even noble arrangement at the time — whites guarding the sanctity of their communities — and it was never, ever newsworthy. Which makes the irony that much deeper that Compton has become a famously menacing black town some 50 years later.
When Compton shifted from white to black, a changeover ultimately assured by the 1965 riots in adjacent Watts, the violence became black too. Whites lingered in local government up through the early ’70s, but Compton never really stood a chance once it became a black town; color made its violence assume a more insidious shape, regularly delineated in local papers as dark, criminal and intractable. As the postwar industrial base that had fueled the first version of Compton dried up and blew away like so much bad topsoil, and Proposition 13 dulled the bright, if never quite sterling, public school system and other tax-based concerns, large gang sets like the Crips, the Bloods and the Pirus took root where other things were fast withering; in 1975 we danced the Crip Walk, the first popular expression of gang life that I can recall (though I didn’t recognize it as such — to me, the Crip Walk was nothing more or less than the Four Corners or the Texas Hop). Still, Compton toiled gamely on in the shadow of its nickname, the Hub City, its greatest sin not that it was black or downscale, but that it was unspectacular.
I went to Gardena High School in the late ’70s and regarded Compton as merely one of many nondescript South Bay locales, along with Lomita, Harbor Gateway and Carson, that my fellow students trekked to and from by bus and called home. Of course, we were all more or less middle-class, and relatively few of us were in gangs; those who were lived on the fringes, and the rest of us had the middle to ourselves.
But in the following decades, the middle swiftly gave way to extremes, and Compton tilted off neutral ground to land rudely at the bottom of this new, meaner configuration. The stage was set in the ’80s as poverty settled in and the exodus of the nouveau black middle class from traditional black strongholds of Central L.A. intensified, leaving it somehow more fallow than it had been in my father’s segregated time. Then crack cocaine came out of nowhere and blindsided the black community, while gangs armed themselves accordingly in the new drug wars. The blustery but genial patter of proto-rappers like Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash weren’t telling the big story brewing on the West Coast — that of dreams gone bad in a city that still blithely promised the good life for all. For too many black people, and for Comptonites in particular, the once-possible Los Angeles had dissolved into lost angles. Something was bound to be said. What N.W.A did say with its seminal 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton, was not political so much as simply pissed off — where in the world were our pools, piles of money and palm trees? Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E demanded answers not with dance hooks and clever entendres but with thudding beats, scowls and stare-downs. Gangsta rap became L.A.’s unsparing new look, its glitter upstaged by its native grunge; the City of Angels’ troubled doppelgänger, which had been locked away for years in an attic called Compton, had broken out and was now free to roam the Earth.
Then more civil unrest erupted in Central L.A., the second time in 30 years and the worst incidence of unrest in U.S. history, and black people were again demonized in the press. But this time something different happened: The newly established Compton took the demons and made musical swagger out of them. Pimps, ho’s, homicides, Uzis, bottom lines advising niggaz to get busy getting something for nothing — this was riot chic that made the minimalism movement of the ’90s, with its runway creed of stark-is-good, look like so ‰49 much intellectual indulgence. Keep it real became the wildly appropriated ethos of millennium’s end, the rallying cry of everybody from mack daddies to McDonald’s. We all know what happened next, and what’s happening still: N.W.A and its innumerable gangsta spinoffs from all over the country, then from all over the globe, made lots of money, sparked many cultural debates and commanded many a mic.
But the little ghetto that started it all — Compton — remained, well, unspectacular.
The town that launched a thousand albums struggled mightily to launch even the modest economy of yore. Put another way: People might have felt mighty tough singing about Compton, but nobody wanted to tough it out living there unless they had to. (What, with all those homicides and Uzis? Certainly not.) End of story, or at least of Chapter 3.
In 1993, Compton elected a young mayor, Omar Bradley, who fancied himself the political version of gangsta-rap impresario and native son Suge Knight. Bradley strove to be an old-fashioned civil rights activist in modern Fubu dress — pretty ambitious, actually — but he wound up collapsing under the weight of his own thug tendencies, which were eagerly reinforced by the media but generally reviled by his own constituency. Bradley’s downfall was that he played to the press more than to the public, though it might have been worse — lots of young black men in Compton who had no ambitions to match Bradley’s and no visibility to speak of suffered similar fates of implosion.
There is a hopeful development under way, which improbably involves the second great demographic shift in the city’s history, from black to Latino; in a town mythologized in music for its turf battles, two ethnic groups are working cautiously toward each other for the benefit of a city sorely in need of new alliances. There is now a black mayor elected with strong Latino backing and the support of multiethnic clergy. The surprise ending might be that Compton, the place where people still fear to tread after dark, winds up being a local exemplar of racial cooperation and pie sharing that everybody has talked about since the unrest of ’92 but virtually nobody has made happen yet. Such triumph might not be quite enough for Compton to overcome an infamy that feels, sadly, entrenched at this point. But for my father, who grew past the terrorism of his adolescence into a tireless foot soldier in the battle for the advancement of colored people all over L.A. and beyond, it would make all the difference in the world.