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It's 100 years for the Robbins' family in Compton and Councilwoman Jane Robbins sees no reason to leave.

August 20, 1987|WILLIAM NOTTINGHAM | Times Staff Writer

Jane Robbins believes it began with a misunderstanding. When sections of South-Central Los Angeles erupted in racial violence during the summer of 1965, public attention focused on a neighborhood bisected by a thoroughfare called Compton Avenue. The street's name echoed on television, over the radio and in newspapers, she said.

"Compton Avenue runs north and south and goes clear up to L.A.," Robbins explained. "You see, at that time it was (mostly) in the county; it didn't even belong to (the city of) Compton."

Nevertheless, she said, "Everybody said the Watts riots were in Compton. We didn't have any riots. . . . That's what gave Compton the bad name and instigated many things that would never have happened in this city."

Whether it was confusion over a street or the fact that Compton stood only a few dozen blocks south of the riot area, the city's economic stability crumbled when thousands of white homeowners fled to other cities. Downtown businesses quickly followed, leaving boarded-up buildings along Compton Boulevard, the city's main street.

And the retail hub became dominated by absentee landlords, who let operators bring in second-rate goods "that nobody in Compton would want to buy. . . ." The crime rate soared along with unemployment, and by 1982 the city was declared an urban disaster.

Robbins knows the story well, in fact, better than almost anyone in the city. Her family rode a train from Missouri to settle in Compton in 1887. Her father, an educator and farmer, was mayor in 1924. She was born in a small house on the city's east side 68 years ago, and for the last 45 years she has lived in a white clapboard home only a block away.

When other whites left, she, her husband, Robert, and their two daughters remained.

Now, in a city populated almost exclusively by blacks and Latinos, Robbins has spent the last 11 years as the only white member of the City Council. And as Compton prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday next year, Robbins is chairing the historic celebration committee.

"When I was growing up we had been a multi-ethnic city," Robbins recalled. "We had blacks that came down on the Red Car (from Long Beach) to school.

"Color meant nothing to me, it meant nothing to my family. . . . If a person was a nice person, you liked them. Didn't matter what their color was. Because we had Japanese, we had Chinese, we had Mexican, from the time I was in kindergarten."

A lover of light opera, Robbins wanted to use her soprano voice to forge a professional singing career, but her father, Clarence A. Dickison, was "of the old school" that considered show business to be a frivolous and unstable pastime. So he encouraged her to follow his path into teaching, which Robbins came to love.

By January, 1968, she had risen to become principal of a new elementary school named after her father. Her no-nonsense style and openness to various teaching innovations bred respect among students and parents alike. "We would have 900 parents at PTA meetings," Robbins said proudly.

"If there's one thing I've learned, it's that if you find something new and good, you don't ask permission, you just do it."

Robbins believes that her attitude apparently offended some in the Compton school system, because in 1978 she was suddenly demoted, along with 13 other administrators--11 of whom were white.

School district leaders, most of whom were black, complained that she was spending too much time at City Hall and away from her administrative duties. She went back to teaching, while she and six others filed a federal reverse discrimination suit. Three years later, they all won reinstatement.

After a few years, she retired from teaching to concentrate on her work at City Hall. But even her political career has had its close calls. In last June's council election, Robbins trailed by 16 ballots until the final precinct--the one surrounding Dickison Elementary--was counted. She finished with a 33-vote victory. It was the second-closest race in city history, the first coming four years earlier, when her winning margin was a mere 11.

Even if her opponents manage to defeat her next time, Robbins says she does not believe she will be the last white elected to serve at City Hall. Although she lacks firm figures, she is convinced that some of the city's redevelopment efforts have begun to make Compton attractive to those middle-class people who left it years ago.

"Suddenly, we are having white people moving back, merely because they can afford the new houses we have here that they can't afford in Orange County," Robbins said confidently. "They're slowly coming back in."

Recent census figures show that in 1980, 6.6% of the 81,286 population was white, while data for 1986 shows whites made up about 4% of the 88,096 residents. Income levels have shifted upwards; in 1980, 20% of the households reported income above $25,000, now that figure is 34%.

Chances are slim that the city will recapture its former stability anytime soon, she acknowledged. Beyond the redeveloping downtown, there remain severe problems of crime and poverty.

And she said a complete renaissance "won't happen until we can clean our skirts of some of the things that have been going on"--referring to election fraud charges against one councilman that recently led the whole body into a confrontation with a Superior Court judge.

And the city needs to "get twice as many positive things in the paper as we have negative."

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