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Returning to Compton

"Going Back to Compton" by history professor Albert Camarillo

A recent article entitled “Straight Into Compton” on rekindled memories of the city of my youth, a place I now regularly visit as an academic.

I grew up in Compton, the city where my family’s roots extend back nearly a century. Like so many other children of immigrants, I yearned to fulfill my family’s aspirations through educational achievement. I left the city in 1970.

When I returned in 2000 as an academic, a history professor from Stanford University, what I found was a city striking in its familiarity to my memories of the past, and yet altogether different. Compton is a “city of color” (a term I use to refer to urban and suburban areas that have majority populations of minorities) that is often misrepresented by media as a dangerous and violent community of drugs and gangs.

Although there are in fact gangs in Compton, it is still fundamentally the community I remember, a city populated by hard working people reaching for a modern day version of what we commonly refer to as the American dream. The Compton I knew as a small child was predominantly white except for the Mexican American barrio where I was born. However, by the time I finished middle school in 1963, the city was divided into the West side, overwhelmingly black, and the East side, predominantly white.

The small barrio was located on the boundary between these segregated sections of the city. The three faces of Compton – white, brown, and black- that I came to know during the 1960s, are no more. Now there are two – black and brown. The Compton of my youth was like many cities throughout the United States that were struggling with America’s racial divides during the civil rights era.  Developed as a white working class suburb, it contained a small population of Mexican Americans in a segregated barrio, but it was not until after World War II that African Americans were even allowed to live in this community. 

Throughout the 1950s, however, blacks rapidly moved into West Compton. Then the door of opportunity was thrown open for them in the wake of the nearby Watts riots of 1965. As whites fled en masse, blacks replaced them. African Americans claimed Compton as their own, the first municipality West of the Mississippi River entirely governed by blacks. They sought exactly the same opportunities –affordable homes in a safe community with good public schools to educate their children— which whites and Mexican Americans had sought before them.

African Americans and Mexican Americans, however, understood that not all opportunity was created equal. Blacks inherited a city in the post-civil rights era that was suffering from a declining commercial and real estate tax base. When whites fled their homes and abandoned their businesses, it was like a rug pulled out from under the new African American majority. The city’s infrastructure began to deteriorate. Over the next two decades African American political leaders contended with an under resourced city exacerbated by an epidemic of drug use that ushered in gangs and violence.

During this same period, the 1970s through the 1990s, I pursued a career in higher education, and although I no longer lived in the area, I read about Compton’s problems with dismay. I was determined to go back to understand the community I remembered so fondly. The Compton I returned to in 2000 was vastly different in many ways from the community I left in 1970, at least in terms of demographics, but it retained its quintessential character as a city that drew people –especially a new wave of Mexican immigrants-- who sought a better life for themselves and their children. The Compton in which I came of age had been defined by what I call racial/ethnic borderhoods, neighborhoods largely defined and boundaried by race.

Whereas most Mexican American people of my youth were once contained in a barrio borderhood, just as blacks had been on the West side until 1965, now Latino immigrants and their children reside alongside African Americans in every neighborhood in the city. They have replaced blacks as the predominant majority population. The newest population of Mexican residents is working hard to make life in Compton a stable and safe place for their children, just as earlier generations of African Americans and white Americans did before them.

Today, however, Latinos, African Americans and a smaller population of Pacific Islanders have to fight against years of persistent distortions about the character of the city stemming from the time Compton became known in the media as the “murder capital” of the nation, a reputation as a ghetto of gangs, drugs, and violence. They are pushing back, albeit not without tension, conflict, and misunderstanding among themselves.

But these tensions exist alongside efforts to bring residents together. This is the important story about the city that must be told. Compton is a city that reflects more than just the demographic changes that have swept across the nation. It is a city struggling to rebuild an economic foundation in the wake of an economy where low wage, service sector work largely replaced skilled, unionized employment that had once attracted people to the Los Angeles metropolitan region. 

Growing unemployment, higher levels of poverty, and a public school system attempting to educate young people against considerable odds have characterized Compton for a generation. Given these conditions, it is no surprise why gang life continues to lure young people who see little value in pursuing education and who have little hope of acquiring jobs that pay a living wage. Although these problems are part and parcel of those that face many other cities across the nation, they have all combined to create unique challenges for Compton.

Despite the problems that continue to confront the people of Compton, despair and hopelessness do not define this once infamous American city. On the contrary, every time I visit the city and speak to ordinary folks, leaders of non-profit organizations, religious leaders, teachers in the public schools, or teenagers involved in after school programs, African American and Latinos alike, I sense an ongoing commitment to make the city a good place to live. This commitment, this ideal, existed in the Compton of my youth and it lives on in the city today.

Albert Camarillo is Professor of History and the Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service at Stanford University.

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