Modern Compton & The Shifting Big City


For a lot of people, the name Compton evokes the classic image of an ’80s or ’90s city slum. Indeed, this is the image that defined the LA suburb for a generation and was immortalized by some of the earliest artists to define the rap genre. And with this summer’s Straight Outta Compton film— arguably the single biggest surprise hit of the year at the theaters—the area was thrust back into the public eye once more. The run-down (and accurately depicted) nature of Compton as it was presented in the film provided a clear commentary on the conditions that helped spark some of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in musical history.

But in the aftermath of Straight Outta Compton, there have also been some interesting things written about how the neighborhood has changed in between the events of the film and the modern times during which it was released. This is a particularly fascinating article on this subject, and it quotes city manager Johnny Ford as saying, “the Compton of 25 years ago is not the Compton of today.” The article went on to illuminate a falling homicide rate in the notoriously dangerous suburb in addition to other positives. Those include various government programs and tax incentives designed to help businesses grow in the area and provide Compton’s children with more opportunities to pursue hobbies and social activities.

The same article, however, goes on to quote Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Urban Policy Roundtable of LA, as suggesting that Compton isn’t actually undergoing major changes. Rather, Hutchinson argues, the city has had a functional middle class and governance system for years. However, he says it’s characterized unfairly due to its high African American population and the fact that the public—in Hutchinson’s view—likes to talk about an area’s struggles when those struggles relate to race.

Hutchinson’s point of view is easy to understand and is almost certainly accurate at least to a degree. But if we have a fascination with Compton as a slum, or oppressed area, it’s probably as much a product of outdated fictional themes about city class segregation as it is about modern racist tendencies.

For almost the entire history of literature, fictional works that deal with cities as their primary settings have preached themes of class oppression, and city slums that wallow in the shadow of greater urban areas. From A Tale Of Two Cities to 1984, many of us grow up reading about indulgent upper classes living above the proletariat masses squandering their lives in poverty and crime.

In film, too, such themes were established very early. Fritz Lang’s iconic silent film Metropolis dealt almost exclusively with white Europeans, but it nevertheless showcased a disastrous class divide between a booming city center and its oppressed slums. Not only has the film become an iconic example of class symbolism in fiction, but even its haunting images of what was then a futuristic city concept have endured. Numerous modern musical artists (including Madonna and Lady Gaga) have invoked the film for symbolic purposes. This online gaming platform even includes a “Metropolis” game with shadowy, evil-looking images of an imagined city. The game invites players to “make it big” in the city, which makes it appear to have a hint of positivity. However, the imagery clearly pulls from Lang’s work in that it’s brighter at the top of the buildings and shadowy at their bases.

All this is to say that while there’s undoubtedly an element of racism at the core of society’s obsession with labeling Compton as a noteworthy slum, it’s also one of the few cases in which a clear example of the condition so often preached in fiction has been thrust into the public’s attention in a real way. Because Compton produced superstars of the music industry, it’s always been under the magnifying glass, and its status as a troubled, violent slum in the shadow of one of America’s greatest cities is like fiction come true.

But if Compton really is changing for the better, it may begin to reflect not an altered fiction, but a genuine shift in how we seek to protect our cities from stark class divides. Along these lines, this intriguing article discusses not necessarily how to avoid the city/slum issue, but how a century’s worth of intentional urban planning is beginning to result in more efficient, intelligent urban areas. The pieces theorizes that cities used to happen “by accident,” out of necessity or convenience, but that architects, planners, and various other people involved in their construction and maintenance are now designing them to best serve the environments and populations to which they belong. LA is held up as an example.

People can debate to no end why Compton is viewed the way it is, or how much it’s changed since the events portrayed in Straight Outta Compton. But the fascinating thing moving forward might be whether the slowly but surely changing nature of big cities ultimately makes the film a look at the past rather than, as previous fictional pieces about urban areas have been, a glimpse of the future.