February 21, 2018

Recognizing Compton's Historic Legacy

Historic resources in Compton, a city in southern Los Angeles County, are part of its unique identity. They also reflect Compton’s layered history, from its inception as a farming community and an early American suburb to a 20th-century haven for middle class African Americans.

Camille Elston, a graduate student at the University of Southern California studying Heritage Conservation, is creating a report of Compton’s historic resources for her graduate thesis. Elston, who grew up in Compton, also delivered a presentation during the 2017 PastForward National Preservation Conference on the value of Compton’s historic landscape. The city often goes unrecognized in the field of preservation—there is no formal preservation organization in Compton. We followed up to learn more about Compton’s impact on American history and the best way to preserve places that may never be legally protected.

Talk to me a little bit about Compton’s history and its historic resources.

Compton was one of the earliest suburbs in America. The Los Angeles and San Pedro railroad ran through Compton, so farmers could easily send their crops to the San Pedro harbor and to Los Angeles; that quickly led to economic growth.

After restrictive housing covenants [used to restrict the sale of real estate based on race, particularly affecting African Americans in the U.S.] were struck down in the 1940s, demographics in Compton began to move away from being predominantly white. Developers bought land to create housing for African Americans who wanted to move out of South Los Angeles and into middle class comfort. At the same time, developers frightened white residents into selling their houses and leaving the city.

In response to African American migration, some white residents left, but other people [committed racially motivated acts] like burning crosses on lawns. A white gang called the Spook Hunters tried to keep black people off the streets after 5 p.m. The first gangs in Compton were actually white.

By 1965, the African American population had reached 40%, but it wasn’t until the Watts riots [a historic rebellion in response to police brutality in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles] that white residents started to leave Compton in droves. And when they left, they took their tax base and businesses, and that left Compton with a large income gap.

The city didn’t have a reputation for being dark and dangerous until groups like N.W.A. [who were popular in the 1980s and ‘90s] created a lot of negative media attention around Compton. While N.W.A.’s music was mostly hyperbole, this image of Compton stuck in the American mind. And the media perception that Compton is a dangerous place still follows the city today.

Since then, rates of violence have gone down, and programs that effectively discourage violence in young people have been created. And in the past three years, Compton has seen a lot of new development.

I’ve always lived in Compton, and I’ve never felt unsafe in the city. I’ve always known it to be a quiet neighborhood. It’s never been a rich city, but it housing is affordable and its environment is stable.

How does the community interact with historic resources in Compton, and why are they important?

People use them! These historic sites don’t have plaques. They’re not important because they’re old—they’re important because they’re resources that we have.

The historic Richland Farms neighborhood, for example? People don’t use the space because it’s pretty. People use it because their kids can learn how to ride horses, and if they want to live sustainably, they can. You can buy an inexpensive fixer-upper in Richland Farms—a house on an acre might cost $175,000-$300,000. That’s the long and short of it, really. Richland Farms might be one of the few urban agricultural areas still in existence in the Los Angeles area. There’s still an airport here, and it’s being used to teach kids how to fly planes. It was unique when Compton came into existence, and it’s still unique now. The city also has a historic community college [still in use], even though it’s small.

Historic airport facade in Compton, California.

photo by: Camille Elston

The historic Compton/Woodley Airport is still in use today for training children and young adults how to fly planes.

What steps do you think should be taken to preserve historic Compton while respecting the community that lives there right now?

First and foremost, people need to know exactly what those places are. There is a list of historic places on the city’s website, but it’s not extensive. Updating that list ... could help raise awareness. A good next step would be a public forum to find out which resources in Compton people really care about.

But after that, it gets a little tricky. Some of these buildings and areas would really benefit from legal protections, like becoming a cultural district. Maybe you can’t tear down a house to build a multi-family structure [apartment building], for example. But for that to happen, the city would have to invest in it.

Los Angeles and Pasadena can fund this type of project, and they can support a set of planners that focuses on ordinances and design review. But Compton only has three city planners. The planners are dealing with other things—trying to get the streets fixed and dealing with a new school building, for example—and they have a limited amount of money.

The protection for these places is going to have to be grassroots. And for now, all we can do is make sure that people know about these places. At the very least, if something happens to these places, people’s outrage isn’t going to die out. People do go to Richland Farms, they go to East Rancho Dominguez Park [where Serena and Venus Williams first learned tennis], they go to the historic post office. Compton has always been really persistent when they know what they want. I think it might be enough to get people to care.

Carson Bear was an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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