It started with the Watts riots of 1965, when white business owners fled downtown Compton, turning the once bustling community of frame houses and minor commerce into a virtual ghost town.
Maxcy Filer remembers. "This may sound ridiculous," said the Compton city councilman, who moved to Compton in 1952. "But some people were moving out so fast they were leaving their doors open."
Left behind were deserted storefronts, boarded-up homes and a floundering economy. With the businesses went jobs. With unemployment came crime. Before long, many of the professional blacks who had flocked to the community known as the "Hub City" were also in flight--to Cerritos, to Torrance, to Carson. Anywhere but Compton.
But some, for a host of reasons, chose to stay. There remains today in Compton a small but thoroughly stubborn black middle class, pockets of people who seem as proud to live there now as they and others were 30 years ago, when Compton was a magnet for the region's upwardly mobile blacks. They have learned to co-exist with their city's blight and crime, which some of the residents maintain have been exaggerated by those who live elsewhere.
Johanna Martin-Carrington, a South Carolina native who moved to Compton nearly 29 years ago, has raised six children in Compton and seen five of them return to the community as adults. She said her neighbors who have stayed have done so for the same reasons--memories, and a sense of home that transcends actual walls.
"I have a girlfriend who lives in Irvine," said Martin-Carrington, a district manager for the U.S. Census Bureau. "She has a beautiful home. She's successful. But she doesn't know her neighbors. When I drive down the street in Compton, the kids move out of the street and say, 'Hi, Ms. Carrington.' My neighbors know me. (And) what is living?
"It always felt good to come home," she said. "And when I say home, I don't mean just coming home to a house. I mean coming home to a community. We are not trapped in Compton. We are in Compton by choice."
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, less than 3.5% of the households in Compton--a city of 92,000 just south of Los Angeles--earn more than $50,000 a year. These people tend to live in pockets scattered throughout Compton, side by side with neighborhoods that have seen the worst of the city's decline.
Sometimes the contrast between well-to-do and down-and-out in Compton is vivid. For instance, it is possible in Richland Farms, one of the premier neighborhoods where some residents still sell ducks and farm-fresh eggs from behind white picket fences, to find a spotless ranch-style home with a Mercedes-Benz parked in the driveway next to an empty lot where a makeshift memorial to a slain gang member has been spray-painted on a wall. Even some of the most solid citizens feel the need to arm themselves.
Cause for Hope
Those who have stayed now find cause for hope in the new businesses cropping up along Compton Boulevard, the city's main commercial strip, and the new housing developments on lots where apartment buildings had been allowed to deteriorate.
"I figure I have weathered the storm," said general building contractor David Briggs, who has lived in Compton 23 years. "I figure that Compton still has a ways to go, but it's coming back. So why leave it now? Why abandon the ship after you dock?"
A storm seems a rather gentle metaphor for what has befallen Compton. Two decades after the Watts riots, 25% of Compton's residents are on welfare, which the old-timers recall was not the case in the city's heyday. Its unemployment rate was 9.2% as of April, more than double that of the county. Violence is an almost daily fact of life, so much so that it seems most outsiders have come to equate Compton with gang murders.
Middle-class residents are often called upon to defend Compton's image from those who would dismiss it as a regional war zone.
It makes Marjorie Shipp angry. "When I go out of the area and I write a check, it's like 'Oh, you're from Compton.'
"(They) have to see two or three ID's to make sure that I'm legitimate," said Shipp, a teacher in the Compton Unified School District who lives in Richland Farms. "My kids say, 'I tell (friends) I'm from Compton and they frown on it.' And I say, 'You tell them you know who you are and it's OK to be from Compton.' "
Birdie Baldwin, 63, a retired nurse who lives with her husband down the street from Shipp, said that "at one time I had a way of saying, 'I'm from Richland Farms.' And if they kept asking, I'd have to say it's a part of Compton.
"It wasn't so much that I was ashamed," explained Baldwin, who has lived on an acre of land in Compton for more than 35 years. "I just didn't want them to condemn it. I didn't want to have to defend it."
It wasn't always this way.
Blacks started moving into Compton in the 1950s. It attracted the middle class--doctors, lawyers, postal workers and other civil servants, many originally from the South--people who wanted to move a step up and away from Los Angeles.