The following blog entry contains strong language and is intended for mature audiences
Compton is an infamous city that is practically synonymous around the world with the South Los Angeles region in which it’s located. Due in large part to the mythologizing and glamorization of N.W.A. and their gangsta rap followers, Compton has also become a byword for urban squalor and gang violence even though (not to make anyone feel old) nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the release of “Straight Outta Compton” and the city has, naturally, changed a great deal in that time. Nevertheless, the media continues to exploit the aging and increasingly irrelevant image as if Compton is frozen in time. Recently, a program on The History Channel hilariously claimed that “going to Compton is a death sentence for non-blacks.” Not only are most residents of Compton non-black Latinos, there are small but visible groups of Belizeans, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans and Tongans.
COMPTON IN LEGEND
To get a sense of the popular perception of Compton, I checked out Urbandictionary. A sampling of cartoonish definitions probably written by people who’ve never set foot there include “This area is very poor and revolves around gang violence, sex and drug dealing,” “The police basicly [sic] gave up patrolling and cleaning the city up,” “the gang capital of the nation,” “Cops are afraid to roll through the streets of Compton since many pigs have been taken out,” and “Wear the wrong colors and the crips and bloods gonna kill your bitch ass.” More reasoned definitions, likely based on firsthand experience include, “Despite popular misconceptions, the people of Compton are on the whole friendly and welcoming, and do not all deal drugs and gang bang which has been so cunningly potrayed [sic] in the bullshit corporate machine” and “A place that isn’t actually that bad, although it has bad areas it’s definitely NOT the most dangerous place. My friend lives in Compton, and theres [sic] not even that many black people anymore it’s mostly just Mexicans.”
COMPTON IN REALITY
Now for the facts. Compton is located on South LA’s Eastside. It’s surrounded by Willowbrook to the north, Lynwood to the northeast, Paramount to the east, Long Beach and Rancho Dominguez to the southeast, Carson to the south, and West Compton to the west. It completely surrounds the community of East Compton. Neighborhoods include Downtown, Leland, Richland Farms and Sunny Grove.
Pendersleigh & Sons‘ Official Map of Compton (spelling of Rosecrans since corrected)
Although Compton and South Central are often used as synonyms, there’s actually seven and a half miles between them. There are roughly 95,000 residents, about 40% of whom are black. 57% are Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran). The crime rate, though regrettably high, is lower than that of Cleveland, Richmond (California), Oakland, Flint, Detroit, Camden and St. Louis, Missouri (which has the dubious distinction of being the worst of the worst according to the CQ Press).
Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the area was home to the Tongva. After first contact, the Tongva were left alone for a couple hundred years since there didn’t appear to be any precious metals in the area. Eventually, the Spaniards returned and claimed the land for the Spanish Crown. In 1784, 75,000 acres of land in the area were sold to Juan Jose Dominguez. He named the ranch Rancho San Pedro and planted a tree, the so-called Eagle Tree, to mark the northern border of the rancho.
Amazingly, it still stands at the intersection of Short and Poppy, respectfully spared the Compton Varrio 3‘s ugly “CV3” tags that otherwise tarnish nearly every surface in the vicinity. It contains an historic marker and plaque placed by the Native Daughters of the Golden West in 1947.
GIBSONVILLE AND COMPTONVILLE
After having been part of Mexico for 27 years, the US conquered California in 1848 although the Dominguez family remained in control of the land. In 1865, the Dominguez family sold 4,000 acres in the current-day Compton region to Francisco Pliny Fisk Temple and Fielding W. Gibson, who founded a town named Gibsonville. In 1867, a minister and spiritual counselor, Reverend Griffith Dickenson Compton, led a group of thirty immigrants from Stockton to the area to establish a Methodist Temperance Community. The 4,600 acres of land that they purchased from Temple and Gibson became known as Comptonville.
INCORPORATION AND EARLY COMPTON
In 1888, Compton donated his land to be the site of a new town and on May 11th the city was incorporated and named after the group’s founder simply as Compton (as there was already a Comptonville in Yuba County). One of Compton’s stipulations was that a portion of the town, Richland Farms, remain zoned as agricultural.
Rather amazingly, the farms are still there. One the day of our visit, we were lucky enough to be approached by 32-year Compton resident Melvin Thompson, who created one of the many horse sculptures that adorn the farm and ranch homes of the urban oasis. He told us that for thirty years he’d worked at Mobil Oil, making statues of the Pegasus mascot for the company before retiring.
COMPTON’S AGRICULTURAL ERA
In the 1890s, Compton’s economy diversified from domination by grain production to alfalfa production, fruit orchards and dairy cattle. For a long time, Compton and the southeast Los Angeles county region were referred to as the Dairy Cities or Dairyland. In the 1900s, Compton became a major producer of pumpkins.
In the 1910s it became a major producer of cauliflower and sugar beets. Many of the early farmers were Dutch and Portuguese immigrants and Compton remained mostly white for decades to come.
BLACKS IN COMPTON
In 1930 there was just one black resident of Compton. Until 1948, racist housing codes limited most black Angelenos’ housing options to the crowded area between the Slauson, Alameda, Washington and Main. After the 1948 case of Shelley v. Kraemer, restrictive covenants were outlawed and middle class blacks began to move into the western portion of Compton. The eastern side of Compton actually remained mostly white until the 1970s; pretend Texan and former president George Bush and his family even lived there at the time. Some of the resentful white residents formed gangs like The Spook Hunters to terrorize blacks, especially in Compton, Downey, Huntington Park, and Lynwood.
In response, blacks formed groups including The Devil Hunters, The Slausons, The Businessmen, The Farmers and The Gladiators to combat the racists with a language they could understand, violence. The violence worked and by the 1950s, Compton’s black population was firmly established with most of Compton’s white population having relocated to Artesia, Bellfower, Norwalk and Paramount.
Compton remained white enough to be one of the major country music centers of the west coast through the 1950s. Bert “Foreman” Phillips had been promoting country and western swing barn dance programs for some time at the old Town Hall building (400 South Long Beach Boulevard) when after promoting country and western swing acts in Sacramento and Bakersfield, promoter William B. Wagnon, Jr, acquired the lease and launched Town Hall Party.
Beginning in the autumn of 1951, the program was broadcast on Pasadena‘s KXLA-AM, Los Angeles’ KFI-AM, and KTTV-TV. Guests included Tex Ritter, Johnny Bond, Wesley and Marilyn Tuttle, Tex Williams, Joe Maphis & Rose Lee, Jenks “Tex” Carman, Eddie Kirk, Merle Travis, Fiddlin’ Kate, Freddie Hart, Mary Jane Johnson, Les “Carrot-Top” Anderson, Lefty Frizzell, Skeets McDonald, Dortha Wright, The Collins Kids, Eddie Dean, Smiley Burnette, Jimmy Wakely, Sons of the Pioneers, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, comedian Texas Tiny and many more. In the late 1950s, the program embraced rock ‘n’ roll and featured greats like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. It ended its long run in 1961.
MIDDLE CLASS FLIGHT
One of the results of the 1965 Watts Riots was most of the remaining middle class white population leaving. Another less-recognized consequence was most of the black middle class leaving too, moving in large numbers for the more desirable Carson, Inglewood, Ladera Heights, View Park and Windsor Hills. The remaining black and white population was mostly working class. In 1969, Douglas Dollarhide became the first black mayor of a California city. In 1973, his successor, Doris A. Davis, became the first black female mayor of an American city. By then, Compton was over 90% black.
1970s – THE RISE OF GANGS
The Compton-founded Pirus had existed at least since 1969, named after the street on which they formed. In 1971, in order to counter the growth and spread of the Crips from Florence to the north, the Pirus united with The L.A. Brims, The Swans, The Bishops, The Bounty Hunters and The Athens Park Boys to form a new gang, The Bloods. Most of Compton’s future famous rappers (as well as Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic) were born in the 1960s and grew up in a decade that was largely infamous for the mostly-territorial violence between Crips and Bloods that blighted Compton in the 1970s.
1980s – COMPTON ELECTRO
After the 1982 release of Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force‘s “Planet Rock,” Compton became the west coast’s hotbed of electro. Compton was home to Arabian Prince, World Class Wreckin’ Cru (comprised of Shakespeare, Dr. Dre, Cli-N-Tel, Michel’le, and DJ Yella) and Detroit native The Unknown DJ. They, and Los Angeles electro acts like LA Dream Team and Egyptian Lover all performed at west coast hip-hop godfather Alonzo Williams‘s club, Eve After Dark, a mere stone’s throw from Compton. Alpine Village, in West Carson, also hosted DJs Dre, Rodger Clayton (of Uncle Jamm’s Army) — both proponents of West Coast Electro.
Since both venues were located in unincorporated Los Angeles County communities, both were under the jurisdiction of the thinly-spread county sheriff’s department rather than the more watchful eye of city police departments. The hedonistic scene at both venues often raged until sunrise with club-goers wearing the outlandish early-80s styles popularized by Rick James, Cameo, Whodini and the like. Most of the area’s electro acts made their first recordings in 1984 and ’85. The fantastical electro era unfortunately proved short-lived and was soon overtaken by a more worldly rap sub-genre.
At exactly the same moment as west coast electro was peaking came the introduction of crack cocaine. Another form of rap from the east quickly stole electro’s thunder, the gangsta rap practiced by Los Angeles transplant/New Jersey-native and former electro artist Ice T, Philadelphia‘s Schoolly D, and Compton native Todd “Toddy Tee” Howard. Compton’s Mixmaster Spade (Frank Williams) had attended school in New York for a short time in the late 1970s where he was introduced to rap. Once rap came to Los Angeles, he and Toddy Tee cut “Batterram” in 1985 and “Just Say No” the following.
Though more indebted to The Beastie Boys than gangsta rap, Compton resident Ice Cube formed C.I.A. (Cru’ in Action!) with K-Dee/Kid Disaster and Sir Jinx. In 1986 they recorded “My Posse” for Alonzo Williams‘s Kru’-Kut Records, also home to Yella and Dre’s World Class Wreckin’ Cru and Arabian Prince. That year, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince and Ice Cube joined forces with a small-time drug dealer, Eazy-E, and formed Compton’s most famous group, N.W.A.
Eric “Eazy-E” Wright started Priority Records with the help of Jerry Heller, a former manager to stars including Elton John and Marvin Gaye. Priority’s first release was 1987’s N.W.A. and the Posse, a compilation of tracks from N.W.A, Eazy-E, Rappinstine and a group that had relocated from Dallas, the Fila Fresh Crew. Though at first the group members favored pastels, Jheri Curl and Flava Flav-style neck clocks, they soon adopted the soon-to-be ubiquitous west coast gangsta rap uniform of black baseball hat, T-shirt, and jeans popularized by fellow Compton rappers MC Ren and MC Chip. The same year Compton’s King Tee (Roger McBride) released his debut single, “Bass.”
After Ren joined N.W.A., the members crafted Eazy-E’s first single, the epic, Ice Cube-penned “Boyz in the Hood,” which with it’s shockingly (for the time) blue lyrics, recognizably west coast touches and representation of Compton put both Compton and Gangsta Rap on the map. It sold 200,000 copies and Compton became indelibly associated with gangsta rap.
Shortly after N.W.A. and Eazy-E achieved notoriety, Compton’s Most Wanted and 2nd II None began making music with a similar bent and attitude. Though Compton’s Most Wanted’s MC Eiht was a Tragniew Park Compton Crip and Eazy-E was a Kelly Park Compton Crip, both Compton groups eschewed explicit gang affiliations, sticking to the Ren and Chip look.
Although the members of 2nd II None did little to disassociate themselves from Bloods, it wasn’t until their friend DJ Quik appeared on the scene that a rapper made it so brazenly clear that he was a gang member, in Quik’s case, a Tree Top Piru. From dropping the “c” from “quick” out of disrespect to Crips and frequently wearing Blood colors, his ties were obvious. In some ways, the rap industry’s subsequent idiotic obsession with authenticity can be traced to Quik, who is much more notable for his (and 2nd II None’s) pioneering contributions to the G-Funk sound, open-minded approach to collaboration and long string of brilliant songs.
By 1992, when Quik dropped “Jus Lyke Compton,” Compton’s reputation as the center of the gang universe, however inaccurate, was cemented. The classic song offered insightful observations (e.g. “Moving on to St. Louis, where they country as fuck / With gold teeth in they mouth, but they still know what’s up”) wrongly assumes that the gang violence he sees in other cities is wholly a result of Compton’s reputation. Quik reacts to the scrapping he sees with surprise, asking “In Missouri? Damn, how could this happen?” For the record, The Hogan Gang, Egan’s Rats, The Bottoms Gang and The Macks were all banging in the STL back when Compton was a dusty farm town.
If the point wasn’t made, songs like “California Love,” “Compton Lif,” “Compton Nut,” “Compton BMW,” “Compton Hoe,” “Compton Quad,” “Compton Bomb,” “Compton Cali,” “Compton City,” “Compton Cush,” “Do Compton,” “Compton Cyco,” “Compton Loop,” “Compton Love,” “Compton Plug,” “Compton Story,” “Compton Fever,” “Compton Stank,” “Compton 4 Life,” “Compton Blocks,” “Compton’s Love,” “Compton Compton,” “1-900-2-Compton,” “This is Compton,” “Compton & Watts,” “Compton Drummer,” “Compton to N.O.,” and many more re-affirmed the myth of Compton. And Compton-born rappers like Tweedy Bird Loc, Kurupt, Dresta, Nationwide Rip Ridaz, Coolio, Game, Kendrick Lamar, Greydon Square and Schoolboy Q have done little over the years to challenge impressionable rap listener’s perceptions, even as the images they peddle and the changing reality of Compton grow more disconnected.
LATINOS IN COMPTON
The crack epidemic began to decline in 1990 although the gang violence it fueled raged on, with killings-fueling-killings long after the crack’s popularity waned. By then long-abandoned by most middle class blacks, in the 1990s, many working class blacks began to move away as well as violence marred the city, peaking in 1992. Filling the void left by black flight were Latinos, most having recently arrived from Mexico and El Salvador. By 2000, Latinos outnumbered blacks in Compton by more than 15,000. Interestingly, just as whites held onto all of Compton’s City Council seats long after the city had a black majority, today blacks hold all the seats long after the city became a mostly Latino one. This lag in representation has been noticed by a group of Latinos who are currently suing Compton over political representation.
It’s interesting to think about the static image of Compton, forged in the 1980s crack era, that grows increasingly inaccurate as the 21st century rolls on. In part it’s undoubtedly due to the continuing popularity of the long-gone gangsta rap era and its lasting global impact. It’s also probably due to the fact that most older black and white Americans (shaped as they were by the black civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s) cling to bipolar notions of race, with Latinos (along with Asians and Natives) ignored as if invisible. The best way to get an accurate picture of Compton today is to go there.
When I told people I was, for the blog, many joked about getting shot or needing to roll with a black escort, their impressions understandably colored by the Compton of pop culture rather than the Compton of reality. I headed there over on President’s Day with a decidedly non-threatening and mostly caucasian posse of (hapa) Diana Ward, Amber Moncrief, Will Fleming and Timothy Latham (although Tim does have a black power fist tattooed on one of his lily white arms). Aside from a young prostitute and several people driving through, we were the only white people we saw yet although we spent several hours there (ultimately walking over ten miles) we were offered greetings, introductions, access to otherwise off-limits areas, smiles, free beverages and even a ride to the blue line station by complete strangers. We were shot at exactly zero times and we all returned to Los Angeles completely intact, if a little bit sore from all the walking.
Compton is a cheap hamburger mecca… I guess. I don’t eat meat but there are burger joints everywhere and cooking meat was the predominant smell in the air (along with the occasional whiff of weed).
We went to Loui’s (a burger joint). I got a grilled cheese. Um, not exactly the kind of place where Jonathan Gold is going to rave about (it was American “Cheese” on white bread) but the fact that they had orange, strawberry and raspberry soda earned them some stars (although they were all out of orange… and why no grape?). I’ve also been to Bludso’s BBQ, where as a vegetarian I loaded up on pass arounds.
There are also a lot of BBQ and chicken places. Besides the usual chains, Compton is home to #1 Chinese Food, #19 Chinese Food, AAA Juice Bar, Central Fish Market, China Wok Express, Cliff’s Texas Style Burritos, D & A Pit Bar-B-Q, Del Amo Burgers, El Pollo Dorado, El Porton Mexican American Food, Ella Mae’s Cuisine, Greenwich Village Cafe, HappySweet Bakery, Hit the Spot Hamburger, Home Fish, Honey’s Kettle Fried Chicken, Hong Kong Express, Jezzy Taco, La Costa Restaurant, Loreto’s Fried Turkey, Los Equipales Grill, Los Tres Pollos, Louisiana Fried Chicken, Mi Ranchito Restaurant, Mom’s Burgers, Naka’s Broiler, Oasis Restaurant, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, Oscar’s Bar, Pacific Noodle House, Panaderia Y Pasteleria San Juan De Dios, Picosos Mexican Grill, Pollo Campero, Pollos Asados Vick’s, Pronto Pizza, Ruben’s Bakery and Mexican Food, Salads 2000, Shimai’s Bistro, Sub Connection, Sunshine’s Chinese & Korean BBQ, Tacos El Unico, Tacos El Unico 10, Tacos Mexico, Tacos Y Mariscos Puro Sinaloa, Tacos y Mas, Tam’s Burgers, Tenampa Bar, Tom’s Junior Burger, Winfrey’s Pit Barbecue, Wing Stop and Zogo’s Burgers.
Compton has a couple of nice parks. We passed through Wilson Park and were treated to an auditioning drumline.
The Compton Creek Bike Path is another welcome strip of green space in this largely industrial suburb. There’s also Cressey-Gonzales Park, Kelly Park, Lueders Park, Roy Campanella Park, Sibrie Park, South Park and West Park.
Compton’s home to a couple of museums. The Heritage House was closed on the day we came. Built in 1869, it’s the oldest house in Compton.
Another museum is Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, located in the Compton/Woodley Airport.
The Compton Airport opened on May 10, 1924. At the airport visitors can take flying lessons, look at antique aircrafts, and attend lectures from surviving members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
The Compton Cricket Club, aka The Homies & the POPz, is the only all American born Exhibition cricket team in the world today. Unfortunately for us, they’re in Australia right now. Other Compton organizations included the Compton Chess Clinic, Compton Junior Posse, MLB Urban Youth Academy and Peace4Kids.
COMPTON CULTURAL EVENTS
I’m sure there are several but the only one I know of is the Mardi Gras Parade. Oh yeah, there’s a tree lighting ceremony around Christmas… I’m sure there are more. Help me out here, OK?
Compton is home to two interesting cemeteries, Woodlawn Cemetery and Angeles Abbey Cemetery. In 1887, bodies from Wilmington Drum Barracks post cemetery were moved to Woodlawn. The Civil War era cemetery has been a Los Angeles County Historic Landmark since 1946. Angeles Abbey Cemetery contains several Taj Mahal-inspired structures with elements of Byzantine, Moorish and Spanish architectural styles. The main mausoleum was was built in 1923 and the cemetery’s owner gave us a spontaneous tour and told us that the impressive structure had been used as a filming location in Constantine, National Treasure and other films and TV shows.
To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:
- Imperial County
- Kern County
- Los Angeles County
- Angeles Forest
- the Antelope Valley
- the Channel Islands
- the Eastside
- the Harbor
- Mideast Los Angeles
- Northeast Los Angeles
- Northwest Los Angeles
- the Pomona Valley
- the San Fernando Valley
- the San Gabriel Valley
- the Santa Monica Mountains
- the South Bay
- South Los Angeles’s Eastside
- South Los Angeles’s Westside
- Southeast Los Angeles
- the Verdugos
- the Westside
- Orange County
- Riverside County
- San Bernardino County
- San Diego County
- San Luis Obispo County
- Santa Barbara County
- Ventura County