By Nick Allen
It is quarter of a century since Straight Outta Compton, the seminal gangsta rap album, made a ten square-mile area of Los Angeles synonymous with gang violence and murder.
A lot has changed in Compton since then and, sitting in her office at City Hall, Mayor Aja Brown sees good times ahead.
At the heart of her optimism is a truce between the Bloods and Crips, the two infamous gangs associated with the place, which has contributed to a dramatic fall in violent crime.
Earlier this year Mrs Brown, who at 32 is one of America’s youngest mayors, began reaching out to Compton gang leaders through former members. She ended up meeting in a community centre with 50 leaders from dozens of local gangs.
Some of them had refused to be in each other’s presence for decades, but they agreed to keep the peace.
“Seeing people decide to choose love instead of hate is phenomenal,” Mrs Brown said of the meeting. “It’s amazing to see the evolution and the transformation. It touches my heart.
“Gang activity really originated in this area because they (gang leaders) had the power to start it. But they also have the power to finish it and stop the negative cycle.
“It’s real redemption when you can have people who were notorious for tearing down their community helping to build it up.”
Members of Los Angeles’ chapters of the Blood and Crip gangs (Reuters)
Following that meeting a committee of gang leaders now gathers weekly. Sometimes they argue, but they come back the following week. Some are going on leadership courses and the mayor hopes they will be able to travel to other trouble spots in the US to help diffuse violence.
Mrs Brown has a very personal motivation for wanting to turn Compton’s gang violence around. In the 1970s, before she was born, her maternal grandmother was murdered in a home invasion there. She saw the effect on her own mother.
She is proud that what she has achieved so far was done, not through heavy policing, but conflict mitigation. The last several months have seen a reduction in violent activity of about 65 per cent, she said. For her, seeing people jogging at night is a key indicator of success.
A motivational sign in LA
Despite being on course for its safest year in decades though, Compton still has its share – more than its share – of violence. Two weeks ago a 16-year-old boy, Lontrell Lee Turner, was gunned down less than a mile from City Hall. He was on his way home from church.
In 2014 there have been 26 homicides in a city of 100,000 people, meaning the murder rate is more than three times the overall average for Los Angeles.
But at the height of the city’s most violent period 25 years ago there were nearly 100 murders in a year, so it has fallen by nearly three quarters.
Last year hundreds of guns were handed over in a Compton shopping centre car park when police offered to pay up to $200 for each for them.
Armed with degrees in public policy and urban planning, Mrs Brown, whose husband works in the petrochemical industry, won last year’s Compton election in a landslide. Her first budget was in surplus and debts are being paid down. The city’s tax base is solid.
Her goals for turning the city around now include attracting large businesses to bring their headquarters to Compton, and to draw in young families to live there.
An e-commerce development project is due to break ground next year creating 1,000 jobs, and vocational training courses and job placements for residents are in train.
The residential property market is surging, up more than 10 per cent in the last year, as people are priced out of other Los Angeles neighbourhoods. Properties are being snapped up by investors and professional house flippers have started targeting the area. Compton’s first home with a price tag of $1 million recently went on the market.
Key to attracting companies and families is Compton’s geographical location close to LAX airport, Long Beach port which is the second busiest container port in the US, and near office buildings in downtown Los Angeles.
Mrs Brown said: “In California they’re not making any more land. And with the high cost of land, from a business standpoint, being able to move your goods quickly and cheaply makes Compton an attractive place to be.”
At 32, Aja Brown is one of America’s youngest mayors
“And traffic is so horrible here in Los Angeles, and getting worse, that if you want to have a quality of life not on the freeway, you may want to live nearer where you work. I think people are getting to grips with that. I think Compton is a really attractive place for young families.”
Wherever she goes though Mrs Brown still gets asked about gangsta rap. On a recent trip to the UK an official told her Compton should “keep making that gangsta rap.” She said: “I cracked up. Because, of course, all rap music comes from Compton! I thought it was really funny.”
Instead, she sees the controversial music genre as a “snapshot of a decade period in this city’s 126 year history.” She added: “It was real because they rapped about the life they lived. But you really have to be proud of the process and the evolution.”
Dr Dre, “Compton’s first billionaire” (Getty)
She points to the evolutionary example of Dr Dre, who produced Straight Outta Compton. He is now a billionaire businessman – sometimes called “Compton’s first billionaire”. Earlier this year he sold his company Beats Electronics, which makes ‘Beats by Dre’ headphones, to Apple for $3 billion. Mrs Brown has offered him a key to the city of Compton.
“I think Dr Dre really evolved and really is a great role model for young people that have had to survive and thrive against all odds,” she said. “He was able to turn his life around and create an empire and become a successful family person.
“I poll kids all the time. I ask them ‘Who is Dr Dre?’ And they say ‘He’s a businessman, the creator of Beats by Dre.” Are they using his headphones to listen to Straight Outta Compton? “No, they are not.”