Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Are We Ready To Step Into The Inner Ring?

Kelly Park
Compton, California
Hello Everyone:

Over the weekend, the N.W.A. biographical movie Straight Outta Compton made its debut; crushing its box office competition, earning a staggering $60.2 million. (  The title comes from N.W.A's 1988 "gangsta" rap album which put the city of Compton, California in the spotlight.  Emily Straus writes in her article "Straight Outta Suburbia" for The Atlantic, "A rap album made Compton an icon of urban decay, but the struggles of that California town are common to inner-ring suburbs.  The double-platinum album's song lyrics and music videos emphasized street and economic devastation, portraying Compton as brutal and lawless."  Compton and similar inner-ring suburbs do not fit into the suburban stereotype of happy families, living in nice single family homes in quiet, clean, crime free communities.  Indeed not.  The album cover featuring Eazy-E pointing a gun directly at the viewer contrasted against the sparkling blue California sky upends this image.

Straight Outta Compton
N.W.A. 1988
The movie and Dr. Dre's new album, Compton, the city has once again been thrust onto center stage.  N.W.A.'s brutally merciless vision still defines the city for many American.  In 2011 Sports Illustrated and CBS News produced a joint special report about gangs and schools only reconfirmed Compton's status as an urban jungle.  The report took its title from the album and presented students using sports participation to survive in gang-infested communities.  N.W.A. made Compton a signifier "urban decay and inner-city crime."  However, there is more to Compton's story than gangs and urban decay-"a hidden history of the 'other' suburbia."

While N.W.A's videos featured the gritty streets and back alleys, however, if you pay close attention, you can see modest-single family with front gardens that run counter to the ghetto image in most peoples's minds.  Compton is also known as the "Hub City" because of location near the exact geographic location to the geographic center of Los Angeles County. (  The area was settled in 1867 by a group of 30 families, led by Griffith Dickenson Compton.  In 1868, the settlement built a multi-purpose building which served as a schoolhouse, church, and a place for civic meetings.  The settlement took the name Compton in 1869.  On May 11, 1888 the City of Compton was officially incorporated into Los Angeles County. (Ibid)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Compton, California

Emily Straus writes, "Compton may be legally incorporated as a city, like all California municipalities, but it's actually a suburban town...But this never fit into what became the middle-class suburban model: a deep tax base, good schools, and an overwhelmingly white populace."  Rather, Compton is symbolic of inner-ring suburbs which grew up " central cities as single-use, residential-only subdivisions."  These types of suburbs do not have strong business districts which limit their commercial potential; they are populated with aging housing stock that diminish their attraction to higher-income earners.

Compton, like other inner-ring suburbs, like other inner-ring suburbs, was denied affordability and accessibility made them susceptible to racial turnover.  In the fifties, the city was majority white but by the 1970s, it was majority African American to majority Latino in the nineties.  The demographic shift coincided with Compton's "progressive impoverishment; by 2000, 28 percent of the town's residents lived below the poverty line, double California's 14.2 percent figure and more than twice the national 12.4 percent.  Further, the town's reputation as a "black city" inhibited any potential entrepreneurial ventures.  The cherry on top  was "The cultural associations of N.W.A and gangsta rap..." which limited any prospects for outside investment in the community.

House for sale
Compton, California
Emily Straus writes, "Without strong business or residential-revenue streams, Compton and similar inner-ring suburbs around the U.S. spiraled downward."  The inner ring suburbs got caught up in a vicious cycle of deindustrialization and disinvestment.  This resulted in these communities inability to maintain their infrastructure.  Desperately needed reinvestment was hard to obtain which forced Compton and like communities to resort " a variety of superficial, and ultimately unsuccessful solutions to their endemic problems."

Despite its nationally (in)famous reputation, Compton's situation.  Ms. Straus makes an analogy between Compton and other inner ring suburbs, including Ferguson, Missouri.  Like Compton, Ferguson also experienced racial and economic changes, "...going from 99 percent white in 1970 to over 67 percent African American in 2010.  By then, Ferguson's unemployment exceeded 13 percent, and the number of residents living in poverty had doubled in only a decade."  Further, Ferguson also experienced business disinvestment coupled with falling residential real estate values. To add insult to injury, when businesses did open shop in Ferguson, they were protected by tax exemptions, leaving the town's poor to shoulder the burden for services.

Straight Outta Compton
The story of Compton or Ferguson is emblematic of other suburban stories.  Like every town, across the United States, Compton was built with a good deal of hope and was home to waves of different ethnicities looking for better lives.  However, the reality of the place was a cold hard slap to the face of many of these ethnic groups.  Their suburban dreams slipped away, blocked by misguided housing policies, deindustrialization, disinvestment, and segregation.

Emily Straus speculates, "N.W.A put Compton on the map in 1988-too soon for most Americans to understand what they were really seeing."  After the fires of Ferguson, Straight Outta Compton is reacquainting America with Compton's ongoing struggles and hopefully focus attention on the unique plight of inner-ring suburbs.  It is not a coincidence that Straight Outta Compton opened the same week as the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts Uprising and the one year anniversary as Ferguson.  Like Compton, Watts is an inner-ring suburb that has suffered the same plight as Compton.  Emily Straus is correct when she wrote that 1988 was too soon for Americans to fully understand what they were looking at.  The good times atmosphere of the first half of the eighties still lingered.  That era of good times is long gone and hopefully, we can begin to deal with the unique challenges facing the inner-ring suburbs with greater awareness.

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