Compton, Calif., takes a stand against violence


COMPTON, Calif. — Violence has long been part of life in this city on the gritty south side of Los Angeles. In the birthplace of gangsta rap, nightfall once brought gunfire and wearing the wrong color could get you killed.

Gang activity is still a fixture in Compton’s 10.5 square miles, but the gunfire is no longer as frequent, the drug dealers are not as prevalent and some residents even boast of a comeback.

“I remember a time when you could buy dope on the next corner all day long. At 5 p.m., the shootings would start,” said community activist Royce Ester. “It’s nothing like it used to be back then.”

The notoriously high murder rate once propelled Compton to No. 1 on a list of the nation’s 20 most dangerous cities. But that rate has now been slashed by more than half — from 65 killings in 2005 to 28 in 2008, the lowest since 1985.

Millions of dollars have been spent on townhome developments and new shopping centers with national chain stores, and residents are reclaiming neighborhoods from gangs.

But Compton is still beset with urban ills.

About 28% of the 100,000 residents are poor. Robberies and burglaries are rising. Prostitutes strut along a thoroughfare, and streets are still menaced by no fewer than 65 gangs that have some 10,000 members.

“We’re making a lot of progress, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said Capt. William Ryan, who heads the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department station in Compton.

The plummeting homicide rate shows that the strategy of combining a gang crackdown with community outreach is paying off, Ryan said. But he acknowledged that violent crime is down nationally.

Two decades ago, progress wasn’t even in sight. The Bloods, Crips and Latino gangs warred over a galloping crack cocaine trade.

Homegrown rappers started glorifying Compton’s underworld. One group was called Compton’s Most Wanted. Another scored a hit with “Straight Outta Compton.” The music caught on as gangsta rap, and the city was popularized as gang central.

Through the 1990s, the city struggled with other problems. The state took over the school district, citing lousy academics and a $20-million budget hole.

Flamboyant Mayor Omar Bradley, who was fond of gangster glamour, was convicted of corruption. The City Council disbanded the police force, blaming high crime on ineffective policing.

The new decade has seen schools returned to local control, the election of a prosecutor as mayor, and public safety provided by the sheriff’s department.
Mentors and investment

A hard line on crime has been key to the improvements. A sheriff’s task force targets the four toughest gangs. That strategy goes hand-in-hand with neighborhood crime watches, patrols to protect kids walking to and from school, and a weapon-exchange program that has encouraged residents to turn in about 1,200 firearms for $100 supermarket cards.

Deputies also direct science and mentoring programs, as well as an after-school center offering boxing, dance, homework help and field trips.

“These are kids who have never been to the beach,” Ryan said. The shore is less than 10 miles away.

A wave of investment has flowed in. Three townhome developments have gone up in the last few years with $250,000 units.

The $80-million Gateway Towne Center opened in 2007, with Home Depot, Target, Best Buy and other retailers reviving a 50-acre eyesore last occupied by auto dealerships 30 years ago. The arrival of the center brought some 3,000 jobs. Much like Detroit, Compton’s primarily white population fled in the 1960s after riots in adjacent Watts, and the city became mostly black. In the 1990s, crime drove many black residents out. Latinos and other immigrant groups such as Samoans moved in. The city is now 60% Latino.

Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles, suggests enlisting famed native sons, such as Detroit Piston Arron Afflalo, to promote the city.

Posted by on Mar 1 2009. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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