Don’t believe the hype around “Straight Outta Compton.”
Reading commentary on the new movie about the groundbreaking rap group N.W.A., you might think the biggest problem facing Compton is its unfair and outdated reputation for violence and gangs. But today Compton may have an even more stubborn problem: it’s boring.
The Compton depicted in the hit film is scarily entertaining — a mix of menace and schemes and murder. In this, it fits decades of musical portraits of the city — “bodies on top of bodies, IV’s on top of IV’s,” in the words of Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar.
Give credit to these artists. Turning this city of 10 square miles and fewer than 100,000 people — into a national icon of the ghetto was one of the great marketing tricks of our age. But it’s a profoundly peculiar success — because for all its cultural cache, the real city remains almost invisible.
Indeed, the real Compton does not fit the ghetto cliché. Compton is poor, but it’s a working-class suburb, defined by its single-family homes; only 19 percent of its housing is multi-unit, compared to 31 percent across California. Compton’s south side, along the 91 Freeway, is a thriving business district that includes the corporate offices of leading grocer Ralphs.
While musicians have portrayed Compton as an upstart, it is actually one of Southern California’s oldest cities. Griffith Compton and other pioneers arrived in 1867 from Stockton. For most of its history, Compton was the “Hub City” connecting Los Angeles to the north and Long Beach to the south, and serving as a stop in the rise of Southern California families — first poor whites, then African Americans after the war, more recently Latinos.
But perceptions of Compton have been formed by media reports on crime, ethnic conflicts, and corruption. As a young Los Angeles Times reporter covering Compton a decade ago, I was one of those reductionist media sinners.
Then as now, Compton’s leading citizens have eagerly corrected misimpressions of the city. Today, the facts are on their side. Surveys show Compton is a good place to start a business. It has seen sharp declines in violent crime.
But, outside the city, the old impressions of Compton have held, and that’s not entirely the fault of reporters or rappers. Civic leaders haven’t advanced a compelling counter-narrative of what makes Compton special. Instead, they’ve been touting the development of the Gateway Towne Center, a fine mall with familiar chains (Home Depot, Target, 24 Hour Fitness, Starbucks). That desire for normalcy is understandable. But it’s boring.
To distinguish itself, Compton needs attractions entirely its own. It could redesign shabby major thoroughfares to attract patrons to local small businesses. Compton could better capitalize on the transformation of the county’s transit system, with more projects like its King Transit Center, which offers retail and office space along the Blue Line.
Compton also must more creatively exploit its rap notoriety. On the movie soundtrack album Compton, Dr. Dre raps, “We need a little bit of payback.” So does Compton; entertainers who profited from telling Compton’s worst stories should be pressured to devote dollars to creating destinations there. Dr. Dre, a member of N.W.A., is already donating his new album royalties to establish the first-class performing arts venue the city desperately needs.
It’s time to build a Compton as interesting as its reputation.
Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.