Straight Outta Suburbia

A rap album made Compton an icon of urban decay, but the struggles of that California town are common to inner-ring suburbs.

Charles Strawter / Flickr

The 1988 release of N.W.A’s “gangsta” rap album Straight Outta Compton vaulted Compton, California, into the national spotlight as a symbol of urban gang violence. The double-platinum album’s song lyrics and music videos emphasized street life and economic devastation, portraying Compton as brutal and lawless. Indeed, the then-six members of N.W.A stared menacingly from the album cover, as group leader Eazy-E held a gun, point blank, at the viewer. The threatening tableau posed unsettling contrast to the backdrop of cerulean California sky.

With the release of the N.W.A biopic and Dr. Dre’s new album, Compton, the town has again gained national attention. N.W.A’s vision has continued to define what many Americans know about Compton. As recently as 2011, Sports Illustrated and CBS News together produced a special report about gangs and schools that reaffirmed Compton’s status as a merciless urban jungle. The report, also titled “Straight Outta Compton,” used the town’s schools to show how students participate in sports “to survive in gang-infested communities.” N.W.A. managed to make Compton a persistent cultural byword for urban decay and inner-city crime. But a closer look at Compton’s history reveals a different story: a hidden history of the “other” suburbia.

N.W.A’s music videos featured mean streets and back alleys, but, in fleeting images, the viewer could also see that modest-single family homes with small lawns were also part of the landscape—counter to what most people think of as a ghetto. Compton may be legally incorporated as a city, like all California municipalities, but it’s actually a suburban town. It’s located near the geographic center of Los Angeles County, 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles. But this suburb never fit into what became the middle-class suburban model: a deep tax base, good schools, and an overwhelmingly white populace. Instead, Compton is emblematic of inner-ring suburbs, which developed next to central cities as primarily single-use, residential-only subdivisions. These suburbs lack strong business districts, limiting their commercial potential, and they contain aging housing stocks, which diminish their appeal to higher-income earners.

Affordability and accessibility denied inner-ring suburbs like Compton any aura of suburban exclusivity, and made them ripe for racial turnover. Compton went from being majority white in the 1950s to majority African American in the 1970s to majority Latino in the 1990s. These shifts occurred in tandem with the town’s progressive impoverishment; by 2000, 28 percent of the town’s residents lived below the poverty line, double California’s 14.2 percent figure and more than twice the national 12.4 percent. Compton’s reputation as a “black city” deterred possible business ventures. The cultural associations of N.W.A and gangsta rap were icing on the cake, limiting the prospects for external investment in the community.

Without strong business or residential-revenue streams, Compton and similar inner-ring suburbs around the U.S. spiraled downward. Caught in a cycle of deindustrialization and disinvestment, these communities could not maintain their infrastructure. What these inner-ring towns desperately needed was reinvestment, but when they could not obtain it, many, including Compton, turned to a variety of superficial, and ultimately unsuccessful, solutions to their endemic problems.

Though nationally known, Compton is hardly unique. It shares a sad legacy with other inner-ring suburbs around the country, including Ferguson, Missouri—a suburb of St. Louis. Ferguson experienced racial and economic changes, as Compton did, going from 99 percent white in 1970 to over 67 percent African American in 2010. By then, Ferguson’s unemployment exceeded 13 percent, and the number of residents living in poverty had doubled in only a decade. Ferguson also suffered business disinvestment alongside collapsing residential values. Even when businesses settled in Ferguson, they remained protected by tax exemptions, leaving the town to lean on its poorest residents to underwrite its services.

The history of Compton or Ferguson is symbolic of this “other” suburban story. Such places were built with so much hope and inhabited by waves of different ethnic groups seeking better lives. But many of these groups awoke to the reality that their suburban dreams had slipped through their grasp. The dreams of these unheralded suburbanites were impeded by bad housing policies, deindustrialization, disinvestment, and residential segregation.

N.W.A put Compton on the map in 1988—too soon for most Americans to understand what they were really seeing. Now that the U.S. has witnessed the conflagration of Ferguson, and can expect the N.W.A movie to reacquaint Americans with the struggles of Compton, perhaps it will place attention on the unique problems of inner-ring suburbs, and with greater awareness, permit Americans to grapple with what they see.