Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Straight Into Compton

By the 1990s, the mere mention of the name Compton had become so toxic that the nearby southern California suburbs had the city of 100,000 erased from their maps. Its schools were crumbling. Drugs were rampant, and street-gang tensions had escalated into what historian Josh Sides describes as "a brutal guerilla war." The city became the U.S. murder capital, per capita, surpassing Washington with one homicide for every 1,000 residents—and the details were numbing. 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 the rap group 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, "F--- tha Police."

Check out this photo gallery of Compton's history.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the community was a magnet for migrants seeking suburban tranquility and blue-collar jobs. Trouble brewing in nearby Watts helped spur the settlement of middle-class blacks in Compton—which became known as "Hub City" because of its central location (today it sits amid five freeways and two ports). George and Barbara Bush lived here for a brief time—in 1949, while the senior future President Bush was working as an oil-field-supply salesman.

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, according to Sides, a professor at Cal State Northridge, whose research on Compton was published in the 2004 book, "LA City Limits." In 1963, the city elected its first black politician, Douglas Dollarhide, who would later become the state's first black mayor.

But the Watts riots of 1965 shattered that calm; white business owners fled so fast. In their wake were deserted storefronts and boarded-up homes. The black middle-class population also bolted. Unemployment shot up, along with the crime rate. The Crips were founded in South Central in 1969; the Bloods followed, on Piru Street in Compton, adopting the red color of their local high school, Centennial.

Conditions spiraled downward; a 1982 Rand study declared the city "a disaster area." And that was before crack came to town. Between 1984 and 1991, gang violence in L.A. County increased by 200 percent, with half of all black males between 21 and 24 said to be affiliated, according to a 1992 report by the district attorney's office. By 1991, Compton had its highest number of homicides on record, with 87—or three times the per capita murder rate of the city of Los Angeles.

The tension culminated with the Rodney King riots of 1992, in which more than 50 people were killed. But then the fever broke. Amid the bloodshed, the Bloods and Crips agreed to a truce, and the violence began to subside, slowly but surely. Crime in Los Angeles began declining in 1995 in most major areas; in 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported that, in Watts, gang-on-gang slayings over turf or gang clothing had "virtually disappeared." By 1998, despite having one of the densest gang populations in the country—there are an estimated 65 gangs and 10,000 gang members packed into Compton's 10 square miles—the city's murder rate was its lowest in more than a decade, with 48.

As the economic climate worsens we should all be mindful of how this hip-hop culture plays a part in making life better or worst. Hopeful cities like Compton will not relapse into turmoil. Lets save this music and our communities as well. Peace to all the folks out there working in the communities to help the youth of today.

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