Joe Mathews: Compton is much more boring than the movie

The wrong perception is that Compton is dangerous, says Hodari Sababu, who runs L.A. Hood Life and Hip Hop Tour. Joe Mathews agrees, saying the city is more boring than a new movie makes out.
The wrong perception is that Compton is dangerous, says Hodari Sababu, who runs L.A. Hood Life and Hip Hop Tour. Joe Mathews agrees, saying the city is more boring than a new movie makes out. Bloomberg News

Don’t believe the hype around “Straight Outta Compton.”

Reading commentary on the new movie about the groundbreaking rap group N.W.A., you might think the biggest problem facing Compton is its unfair and outdated reputation for violence and gangs.

But today’s Compton has an even more stubborn problem: It’s boring.

The Compton depicted in the hit film is scarily entertaining, a mix of menace and schemes and murder. It fits decades of musical portraits of the city – “bodies on top of bodies, IVs on top of IVs,” as the Compton hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar raps.

Give credit to these artists. Turning the small city of 10 square miles and fewer than 100,000 people into a national icon of the ghetto was one of the great marketing tricks of our age. But it’s a profoundly peculiar success, because for all its cultural credibility, the real city remains almost invisible.

Typical of the Compton genre, the new film is not really about Compton, but about talented people leaving town. Its brief glimpses of the city don’t make it look very tough; we see the pleasant mall outside City Hall and kids riding motorbikes down a nice residential street. The real Compton does not fit the ghetto cliché.

Yes, Compton is poor, but it’s a working-class suburb defined by its single-family homes. Compton’s south side, along Highway 91, is a thriving business district that includes the corporate offices of leading grocer Ralphs.

While musicians have portrayed Compton as an upstart, it is actually one of Southern California’s oldest cities. Griffith Compton and other pioneers arrived in 1867 from Stockton. For most of its history, Compton was the “Hub City” connecting Los Angeles to the north and Long Beach to the south, and serving as a stop in the rise of generations of Southern California families – first poor whites, then African Americans after the war, more recently Latinos.

But perceptions of Compton have been formed by decades of media reports on crime, ethnic conflict and corruption. As a young Los Angeles Times reporter covering Compton a decade ago, I was one of those media sinners who focused almost exclusively on mismanagement of the city and schools.

Then as now, Compton’s leading citizens have eagerly corrected misimpressions of the city. Today, the facts are on their side. Surveys show Compton is a good place to start a business. It has seen sharp declines in violent crime.

But outside the city, the old impressions of Compton have held, and that’s not entirely the fault of reporters or rappers. Civic leaders haven’t advanced a compelling counternarrative of what makes Compton special. Instead, they’ve been touting the development of the Gateway Towne Center, a fine mall with familiar chains. That desire for normalcy is understandable given the city’s reputation. But it’s awfully boring.

To distinguish itself, Compton needs attractions entirely its own. It could redesign shabby major thoroughfares to attract patrons to diverse local businesses. Compton could better capitalize on the transformation of Los Angeles County’s public transit system, with more projects such as its King Transit Center, which offers retail and office space along the Blue Line.

Compton also must more creatively exploit its rap notoriety. On the “Compton” movie soundtrack album, Dr. Dre raps, “We need a little bit of payback.”

So does Compton; entertainers who profited from its worst stories should be pressured to devote dollars to creating destinations there. To his credit, Dr. Dre, a member of N.W.A. and a producer of the film, is donating his new album royalties to establish the first-class performing arts venue the city desperately needs.

It’s time to build a Compton as interesting as its reputation.

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.