Sinetta Farley, president of the East Rancho Dominguez Neighborhood Association,… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)
Sinetta Farley takes a roller coaster ride down the streets of Compton, her dark blue Hyundai bumping along San Luis Street as deep potholes shake her car.
Then, she hits a smooth patch of freshly paved asphalt.
"Now we're in East Rancho Dominguez," says Farley, the self-proclaimed mayor of the unincorporated territory. "You can feel the difference."
For decades, East Rancho Dominguez has been trying to distance itself from its Compton neighbor. The community shed its East Compton moniker, then created a strong neighborhood association, headed by Farley, that provides a voice for the 15,000 residents.
But Compton recently announced plans to bring the two communities together and took the first steps to annex four parcels of land that make up East Rancho Dominguez. It is also eyeing Rancho Dominguez, a heavily industrial and commercial area, which would bring much needed tax revenue to the cash-strapped city.
"It would really put Compton in a position to improve its service levels and to be able to continue on the path to revitalization and recovery that we are on," Compton Mayor Aja Brown said. "So fiscally, it would be a great win for Compton."
The annexation of both Rancho Dominguez and East Rancho Dominguez would push Compton's population to 120,000, making it eligible for federal grants.
Compton officials say it's a logical move. The parcels are unincorporated islands, surrounded almost entirely by the city.
"People live in these county islands and they do everything — live, work, travel through Compton — but they have no influence in the government and in decision making," Brown said. "I think it's imperative to have that cohesion."
Leaders in both unincorporated communities are opposed to Compton's plans, which must be approved by the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission.
Farley said East Rancho Dominguez is happy with the services L.A. County provides, including recent street resurfacing, a new $7.5-million library and pristine parks. Becoming part of Compton, she said, could jeopardize everything the residents of East Rancho Dominguez have worked for.
"The city [of Compton] doesn't have the resources to keep up what we have," said Farley, who has called the community home for four decades. "Why annex us to a city that is already struggling?"
Robert Gwynn, head of the annexation committee for Rancho Dominguez, said Compton is using his community as a pawn because the city cannot afford East Rancho Dominguez without tax revenue from Rancho Dominguez.
"We come with money and Compton wants the money," Gwynn said. "They don't want the people."
Two years ago, Compton amassed a $40-million deficit after years of raiding its water, sewer and retirement funds to balance its general fund. The city had to lay off 15% of its employees and cut back on services such as graffiti removal, tree trimming and street maintenance.
But since Brown took office in July, the city has been inching toward recovery.
The budget is now balanced. The city set up a 20-year payment plan to settle its debt and has taken steps to improve residents' quality of life.
Still, gang violence and human trafficking continues to plague Compton. Two weeks ago, a 14-year-old girl was fatally gunned down while riding her bicycle. On Christmas Day, a man was found shot to death in a parking lot.
Neither unincorporated territory wants to be associated with the city, though they all share the 90221 zip code.
Yet besides the newly-paved roads, it's hard to distinguish East Rancho Dominguez from Compton.
Auto repair shops dot the streets, and the occasional graffiti tag and pile of trash blight the working-class neighborhoods. Both East Rancho Dominguez and Rancho Dominguez were once a mecca for professional African Americans, but in recent decades have shifted to become largely Latino.
There's a civic pride in East Rancho Dominguez that Farley says wasn't there when she arrived in 1972. Residents participate in monthly meetings and community events, and have a strong relationship with their county representative, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
"We stand to lose everything that we have gained — our continuity, our process, our identity, all of that," Farley said. "We have worked too hard to get where we are."
Other residents said the annexation issue boils down to simple economics. Compton residents pay higher property taxes and exorbitant water bills, they said.
"We don't want that hardship on us," said Bonnie Brown, 70. "There are a lot of seniors here living on a fixed income and we don't need the extra expenses."
Compton's annexation plans could come to a screeching halt if the city of Carson has its way. Rancho Dominguez residents have been fighting since 2005 to become part of the city to its south. More than 100 businesses sit on this prime industrial land. Two mobile-home communities house about 3,000 residents.
When Compton expressed interest in the community, Carson Mayor Jim Dear said he was shocked. Rancho Dominguez is Carson's birthplace and was part of the city's original incorporation application four decades ago, Dear said.
Carson is much further in its annexation efforts than Compton, and LAFCO officials said they will consider whichever application is completed first.
"We have cultural and historical ties to that area," Dear said. "I really don't think it's fair for Compton to interfere with a process that we have been working on for years."