Photo: Ted Soqui/APImages

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Can This Millennial Mayor Turn Compton Into L.A.’s Next Hot Neighborhood?

An outsider with a strong policy background wants to attract new residents to the most unlikely place. It’s going to take more than charm.
Feb 5, 2014· 13 MIN READ
Donnell Alexander was a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine, LA Weekly, and the SF Bay Guardian and authored the memoir "Ghetto Celebrity."

Two floors skyward, a black woman less than a decade removed from her USC urban planning studies was running Compton. And she was waiting.

I’d come to Compton to talk to its mayor about what’s going on in this old city with a young population and an outdated reputation for all manner of blackness. I’d covered L.A. as a newspaper reporter in the ’90s, during what everybody hoped was the tail end of a dark period for a wide swath of the metropolis east of Western Avenue and south of the 10 freeway. And though, more recently, I had heard the anecdotes spun by Richard Sherman and Kendrick Lamar, I’d also heard something more complex was going on.

Behind schedule, I rushed up from the civic plaza and into the mayor’s office to shake hands with 31-year-old Aja—pronounced “Asia,” à la the Steely Dan album—Brown. In the June 2013 mayoral election, she outperformed Omar Bradley, the self-described “gangsta mayor” who ran again despite having served a three-year sentence for corruption after leaving office, by a margin of nearly 2–1. Four months into the gig, she had already made some bold policy changes. Just three years ago she and her husband were watching Brick City, a documentary series on efforts to revitalize Newark, on Netflix. Now she smiled broadly upon being described as a West Coast, female Cory Booker. Brown looks like a china doll, all cheeks and chin and big, brown eyes.

Brown moved behind her desk, her focus and affability striking in light of the city’s reputation for oxidized political machinery.

“What was the election linchpin,” I asked, “in terms of your setting off political connections? Because you’re an outsider…”

Then, at once, we completed the sentence: “…in many ways.” 

“As we say it together,” Brown added. We laughed.

“It’s the elephant in the room,” she said.

One of them, I thought. We went on to discuss the policy, popular in bigger cities of late, of coming down hard on soft crimes, as well as the role of a nearby church, whose clergy includes a pastor who doubles as Compton’s sheriff, in lifting an international stain from the municipality’s name.

But Mayor Brown was more interested in discussing her plans for Compton than in boasting about her church. On NPR, in the pages of Vogue, and in other media outlets not famous for covering Compton, she’s talked up her city, even going so far as to call it “the new Brooklyn.”

“Can Compton realistically have that Brooklyn function, here in L.A.?” I asked, adopting the role of skeptical reporter. “It’s really an apples-to-oranges comparison.”

The mayor’s phone rang. She retrieved it, glanced at the device’s face, and maintained an expression of wonder while looking up to offer an answer.

“When I look at Compton and all of the great advantages we have here, the institutions in the region, it’s definitely poised for new investments and new growth and just expansion,” Brown said. “I believe that Compton is on the cusp of a great transformation.

“Most people understand Brooklyn’s history. Brooklyn was one of the worst cities in the nation. When most people thought of Brooklyn they thought of crime and blight and deterioration. But now, in just about a seven-year period of change they think of ‘new’ and ‘fresh,’ and kinda trendy and swanky.”

It’s a nice narrative, and fitting to transpose to California, because California goes in big-time for stories about itself. The Golden State likes to tell the one where its urban centers are a kind of Paradise Lost. It offers misunderstanding and the Fates as the reasons that places like Brown’s fell into dysfunction. It's something like a bald-faced lie.

(Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Housing policy in Los Angeles and other California cities explicitly excluded African Americans from buying homes where they wanted to, resulting in racial segregation into the postwar era as surely as if they were in the Jim Crow South. Compton experienced white flight in the 1950s, and with income and educational attainment among the black population—much of which had arrived from Southern states in search of equality under the law and jobs in L.A.’s shipyards and factories during World War II, and was less than a century removed from enslavement—generally lower than those of whites, and the white-dominated county power structure not exactly eager to dole out services to a group of people it had already dissed once, that Compton and similar communities managed to thrive for a while is a testament to their residents’ drive, spirit, resilience, and determination.

Citing ballot measures such as 1964’s Proposition 14, by which a majority of Californians voted to preserve the exclusionary policy, University of Oregon associate professor of ethnic studies and political science Daniel HoSang explains how California's government and citizens kept at it as Washington and even much of the South were moving in the opposite direction:

“The run of racialized ballot measures across post-war California history…demonstrat[es] the ineluctable relationship between racial subordination and the broader failures of the state,” HoSang writes in Boom: A Journal of California, a quarterly published by the University of California Press. This continued at least through Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in 1996. Outsiders such as Brown—and she’s not the first, just the most recent and most media-genic — have long sought to remedy “patterns of segregation and exclusion in housing, employment, and education [that] have exposed fundamental flaws in the state’s civic culture and public sphere: gaps between needs and resources, deficiencies in accountability, and shortcomings in state capacity to provide public goods,” HoSang writes. “These Californians envisioned an inclusive political community premised on a broadly guaranteed right to contribute to and make claims upon the opportunities and resources of the state.”

Since its early 1960s heyday as an exemplar of black bougie-ness, Compton has been in protracted decline. After the 1965 Watts riots, Los Angeles tried to forget about the sister city it geographically surrounds. The scourges of crack and its associated violence, which some attributed to part of a conspiracy to depopulate the area of African-Americans, took Compton and much of Southern California prisoner in the mid-1980s. Then came the 1987 album that birthed gangsta rap, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, and it was pretty much a wrap after that. The city’s elected officials didn’t help the reputation, with corruption investigations dogging City Hall and the police department for the next 25 years.

Brown is working simultaneously to bring new investment to town, and to make Compton the kind of town people want to invest in. To overcome her city's recent history and bring about a Brooklynesque revival, though, she would do well to remember that the Barclays Center wasn't the start of what happened in Brooklyn but the result.

New Brooklyn began—two decades ago, really—with young creative-class types getting priced out of Manhattan. The early-adopters' friends held going-away parties for them as if the soon-to-be-departed were moving to Uzbekistan—only to trail them a couple of years later and wish they'd gotten in before rents and property values jumped 10 percent.

Today in Los Angeles, similarly, a recovery in the real estate market has driven home prices skyward and rental vacancy rates down. The formerly high-crime neighborhoods that first gays, then artists and the creative classes, infiltrated in the early 1990s, when Beck lived in Silver Lake, now boast million-dollar homes, just as the neighborhood in Brooklyn where Biggie Smalls used to sling crack and about which white people would tell scary stories of the time they fell asleep on the subway and woke up at the Knickerbocker Av stop is now home to young professionals in the publishing industry.

Imagine if Southern California’s creative class lived in Compton, hopping off the Metro Blue Line to do some farmers market shopping and then biking back to the crib. Imagine Compton blooming like Williamsburg with a whole lotta soul, one of those places whose retail strips get written up in Condé Nast Traveler. (OK, sure—but white folks in North Portland sounded bananas at one time, too, right?) For that to materialize, Aja Brown must decide which among various elephants in a range of rooms are worthy of her acknowledgment, and which she ought to ignore.

Imagine if Southern California’s creative class lived in Compton, hopping off the Metro Blue Line to do some farmers market shopping and then biking back to the crib. Imagine Compton blooming like Williamsburg with a whole lotta soul.

An effervescent twin daughter of a single parent, Brown grew up in Altadena, which in its early days, according to local folklore, was home to the help that worked in neighboring Pasadena’s mansions. She earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy from USC, then a master’s from the school’s urban planning program. "People have two schools of thought," she says. She may have delicate features, but she’s tangibly unfinished, her jagged syntax signaling a homegrown character. "Either you want to grow up to make lots of money, or you want to grow up and make an impact. I decided that what I wanted to leave as my legacy was making people's lives better."

Brown trained for the mayoralty in the Inglewood Planning Department before joining Compton’s Redevelopment Agency in 2009 with a vision of rebranding and rebuilding a city so many others had given up on, one to which she had complex ties: Her maternal grandmother was raped and murdered in a 1973 Compton home invasion.

Brown’s husband, Van, a petrochemical manager, was by far the biggest contributor to last spring’s campaign. In the small-ball field of Compton politics, a meager amount of money, a platform that emphasized family values, and a lack of name recognition were enough to get her in the running.

Helping her get from in-the-running to in-the-office was her church, Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist. “I had strong support from my local church,” she said, answering my question about the key to her election victory. “My husband and I had labored and were really strong in community service. They got behind us, and we started a grassroots effort.”

In the evenings, before entering politics, Brown would attend Bible study at Faith Inspirational, two blocks from City Hall. More than a place of worship, it’s a critical partner in the revival of Compton, one that's seen such efforts before; the church’s website carries a banner that reads, “Taking Back Our City.” Aja and Van ran the church youth program, showed family-friendly movies at a local park on summer nights, and took kids on group outings to Disneyland (20 minutes east) and the California Science Center (20 minutes north).

If Brown’s ambition had stopped there, she could have made things easy for herself. But she would take on much more.

Here’s the thing, though:

The investors that Brown seeks—and the gentrifiers that could follow, precede, or come with them—have become acquainted with Compton through rap songs and videos that promote its top attributes as, in essence, cheap chicken joints, Molly-poppin’ party people emblazoned with above-the-shoulder tats, and homies who spill 40s on behalf of drive-by-shot gangbangers. Never mind Eazy-E’s prime or the heyday of The Game, take a peep at the video from au courant MC Problem, and you’ll have a sense of the ongoing PR crisis Compton’s new mayor must handle on the regular.

The city has a fighting chance—if Brown can capitalize on local assets that don’t have record deals: From the Blue Line stop (a transportation luxury in L.A., and site of the new farmers market), it’s a 28-minute electric train ride to downtown, which also has more to offer these days. Just southwest, the ramen restaurants of Torrance offer fare as delicious as anything outside Asia. And that JetBlue flight to JFK is a lot less daunting if the ride to LAX starts in Compton rather than, say, Echo Park.

Aja Brown's isn't the first effort to improve Compton's image. In 2009, a public campaign tried to build local pride. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

The future of Compton, whatever happens, is often dropping in from the edge of the bowl at Wilson Park. Despite its reputation, Compton isn’t a black city anymore: Two out of every three Compton residents are Latino. The average age is 28. On any given day the park is packed with teens whose jeans are skinny, not sagging, doing grinds and ollies. They look like their smartphones might play the Mars Volta’s prog rock or the EDM stylings of Dave Nada; they probably wouldn’t know a DJ Quik track if it struck them in the earbud. Even a cursory look at Wilson Park makes clear that the most difficult aspect of making a gangsta rap video in Compton today would be editing out all the Latinos.

“Our youth still like rap, but there are other kinds of music,” observed Stephany Ortega, a 28-year-old teacher and Compton school board candidate. In a phone interview and a Facebook message exchange, the alt-rock fan described coming of age in gangsta rap’s glory days and relocating from San Pedro in 2009.

A second-generation Mexican American, she met Mayor Brown last winter at a candidate forum and was blown away by the aspiring politician’s youthful energy and a policy background that struck her as atypical of a Compton politician.

Compton’s Latino majority has been politically underserved for decades. Because many are immigrants without voting rights, for a long time the political old guard felt it could get away with ignoring their concerns. Compton’s first Latino city councilman, Isaac Galvan, only took office in the election that brought in Brown. Ortega drove Latino voters to polls in June—making sure to tell them to vote for Brown.

Mohammed Martinez, a longtime Compton resident of Palestinian and Mexican stock and former host of a talk show on a local left-progressive radio station, said he became sold on the new mayor on Sept. 15, Mexican Independence Day. Down by City Hall arch, approximately 200 people marched and celebrated. 

“She was the only elected official to come out and meet us,” said Martinez. “Right there she commanded the respect of the black and brown communities. There will come a time when we will disagree with her; she doesn’t coddle our community. She is fair. She has come through for us.”

“She was the only elected official to come out and meet us. Right there she commanded the respect of the black and brown communities. There will come a time when we will disagree with her; she doesn’t coddle."

Mohammed Martinez, local activist

The most pressing needs of the current majority, according to Ortega, directly affect Wilson Park skaters and their siblings. Local schools are short on certified translators—not just in the classrooms of Compton Unified School District but in administrative positions as well. Students who speak English as a second language are prone to missing out on classroom learning. Their parents struggle to parse messages sent to their Spanish-speaking homes.

Ortega believes her adopted home’s long-term goals depend on this issue being remedied, and here is where the two challenges facing Aja Brown—her agenda to infuse the city with fresh blood and the reality that will face her whether or not she succeeds—come together: As Ortega rightly noted, “people will want to move to a place where children can get a good education.”

L.A. neighborhoods that could serve as models for what Brown wants Compton to become, Los Feliz and Silver Lake, owe a lot of their resurgence to their public schools. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question—did the schools get better, attracting better-educated, more-affluent residents, or did better-educated, more-affluent residents demand better schools—but what’s not up for debate is that today, property values continue to rise in those communities in part because of the high test scores at the local elementaries.

Brown looks at the language issue from a perspective that might have made the old guard’s heads explode. “We really have to make sure,” she insisted, “that we teach Spanish to African American kids.”

¿Qué? It’s tough to imagine black folks who still haven’t made peace with the clout of the Latino neighbors they compete with for jobs (or in the shadowy gangster conflicts) reacting affirmatively to this notion.

“I think five years ago there was more recalcitrance to that idea,” Brown continued. “But everyone I speak to about it today is like, ‘You’re right.’ There’s almost an unfair advantage as we teach English as a second language in our schools and don’t have the same investment for African American kids.”

Compton gentrification, pie-in-the-sky wish that it seems now, will look quite different from that of Williamsburg or Silver Lake, or even North Portland, when or if it comes about.

Over four decades, when they weren't neglecting the city's growing Latino population, Compton’s political leaders were busy ruining the city’s finances. An audit in 1977 found the city $2 million in debt. Operating from that deficit, Compton was unprepared to fight the rise of crack cocaine street sales, its attendant gang violence, and the loss of tax revenue that the tax-cutting initiative Proposition 13 would lay on all of California. The police department was disbanded. Street cleaning fell to once a month. Rappers continued to throw up gang signs in music videos.

More than $40 million in the red when she took office, Brown amortized the debt immediately—“It wasn’t really $40 million,” she said—arranging a 20-year accounting schedule that allows Compton to pay down the amount while enacting spending cuts. The move showed a political dexterity not much familiar in town. The mayor canceled contracts with vendors she saw as extraneous and put the kibosh on projects she believed the city couldn’t afford or didn’t need, such as plans for a new police station in a town now policed by county sheriffs. Brown worked with unions to develop a furlough schedule that will keep City Hall open more days than would be possible without it. And last month, Compton moved to annex the neighboring community of Rancho Dominguez in pursuit of substantial new tax revenues. The moves have been met with near-universal acclaim.

In the end, though, Brown’s success at implementing her vision will likely hinge on a most basic human concern, one that cuts crosswise with white America’s deep-seated fear of a black planet: security. Though Compton’s crime rate has dropped 60 percent over the last decade, before a puzzling spike last summer, the crime rate is still twice the national average.

“I think that safety, the sense of well-being, of community and having a sense of social responsibility is tied to the financial future of Compton,” Brown said. “In terms of individuals and businesses and even private companies and nonprofits, when they decide to invest in a certain area they are looking and the potential to, of course, reap a higher return on their investment in comparison to another area,” she said. “We’re really hoping to have a community policing model that empowers our residents to really be engaged with law enforcement, to provide the information to soft crimes that are necessary for us to reduce our crime rates.”

(Photo: Ted Soqui/APImages)

The friend I brought to Faith Inspirational, a Native American Jew, drew some stares from the 50 or so assembled for Bible study on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Maybe their eyes bore down because of the young man’s tribal ear gauges. Or maybe it was the camera he carried—depleted news staffs have brought both Los Angeles Times and community coverage to historically low levels. It could simply be that the predominantly black church doesn’t get many Native American Jews inside these walls. Not yet, at least.

The mayor was out providing sheriffs with turkey dinners, but she was expected soon enough. Presently, 10 minutes before the study’s official start, four mic’d women onstage sang out in a raw and accomplished way. About half the crowd stood up to clap and join in:

Rejoice and sing

Bless the Lord at all times

He has done great things for me

There is little question that Aja Brown is viewed as one of those great things, and not just because she slashed their city’s debt.

“God gave us the vision of taking the city back decades ago. It seemed impossible,” said Deacon Wilbert Johnson. “We didn’t know what it would look like when she came.”

Brown allows that Compton can’t really replicate Brooklyn. Her actual model for the town’s recovery is Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, just south of her old Altadena stomping grounds and once riddled with prostitution and hard drugs. A team of world-class planners figured out how to make a strip of that street into a shining shopping destination; it now attracts young and old from along the Foothill Freeway exurbs in search of a city vibe on a Saturday night. The mayor watched the transformation play out while getting her master’s.

“I don’t believe any city should aspire to be like any other city,” Brown said, “because every city is so unique. It’s truly just a metaphor for revitalization.”

Here's where Mayor Brown and a host of platinum-selling rappers agree: Compton has no peer. Is there another American city of under 100,000 residents whose fame resonates as far and as loud? And if Altadena's finest does indeed manage to get her Don Quixote on, she could become more than the West Coast, female Cory Booker. As Kendrick Lamar might say if he were a political reporter from Portland, Aja Brown would then be a good mayor in a rad city.

An earlier version of this article stated that the quarterly journal Boom is "the magazine of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability." Although published by University of California Press and edited by the director of IoES, Boom itself is not affiliated with IoES. TakePart regrets the error.