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.