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Death of a Suburban Dream

Race and Schools in Compton, California

By Emily E. Straus

Publication Year: 2014

Compton, California, is often associated in the public mind with urban America's toughest problems, including economic disinvestment, gang violence, and failing public schools. Before it became synonymous with inner-city decay, however, Compton's affordability, proximity to manufacturing jobs, and location ten miles outside downtown Los Angeles made it attractive to aspiring suburbanites seeking single-family homes and quality schools. As Compton faced challenges in the twentieth century, and as the majority population shifted from white to African American and then to Latino, the battle for control over the school district became symbolic of Compton's economic, social, and political crises.

Death of a Suburban Dream explores the history of Compton from its founding in the late nineteenth century to the present, taking on three critical issues—the history of race and educational equity, the relationship between schools and place, and the complicated intersection of schooling and municipal economies—as they shaped a Los Angeles suburb experiencing economic and demographic transformation. Emily E. Straus carefully traces the roots of antagonism between two historically disenfranchised populations, blacks and Latinos, as these groups resisted municipal power sharing within a context of scarcity. Using archival research and oral histories, this complex narrative reveals how increasingly racialized poverty and violence made Compton, like other inner-ring suburbs, resemble a troubled urban center. Ultimately, the book argues that Compton's school crisis is not, at heart, a crisis of education; it is a long-term crisis of development.

Avoiding simplistic dichotomies between urban and suburban, Death of a Suburban Dream broadens our understanding of the dynamics connecting residents and institutions of the suburbs, as well as the changing ethnic and political landscape in metropolitan America.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Politics and Culture in Modern America


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Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-14

Marlene Romero watched as her son struggled in school. In his five years at McKinley Elementary in Compton, California, her child had worked hard to master basic math but, according to Romero, he had received no extra help from his teachers. In fact, by her count, “her son has had just one effective teacher in his five years at...

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1. On Shaky Ground

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pp. 15-39

Early in the evening on Friday, March 10, 1933, ten-year-old Ruth Ashton was sitting by her radio in her Compton home listening to one of her favorite serials when the ground began to shake.1 Windows shattered, doors collapsed, and stores “burst open.” Brick chimneys were “snapped off,” roofs “caved in,” and walls “buckled,” as people ran for safety from their homes and...

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2. The Fastest Growing Town

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pp. 40-72

Ron Finger was born in 1941 in Jefferson, Iowa, where his father worked as a plant manager for Economy Forms Corporation, a company that made steel forms for buildings, bridges, and concrete work. In 1948 the company needed a supervisor for its newly opened Los Angeles office. Los Angeles was exploding in building development, and Economy Forms wanted to be a part of...

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3. Separate and Unequal

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pp. 73-105

While picketing the freshly built Compton Crest development, a black GI and his friend a white GI, both just two weeks back from Korea, argued with the white residents. “We’re fighting for you—we’re facing bullets for you—why can’t we live here?”1 Irate white homeowners told the California Eagle, a black newspaper, “We fought all the way from Normandy to the Battle of the...

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4. Becoming Urban

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pp. 106-128

Kelvin was the third of seven children born to Maxcy and Blondell Filer, who moved to California in 1953. Like many Americans, they sought out suburbia, but as African Americans they had limited options. When they moved to the west side of Compton, it was one of the few suburbs in Los Angeles County where African Americans could settle, and it became the Filers’ new...

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5. Unyielding Problems

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pp. 129-150

In September 1972, a student shot and killed another student in a classroom at Compton High. Teacher Sydney Morrison recalled the incident: “the third week into school I had gone over to the district office and came back and there was a body covered in a sheet down the hall from my room, two doors down. Apparently one student accosted another student and the kid pulled...

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6. A Rapidly Changing City

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pp. 151-186

Pedro Pallan was a longtime Compton resident and businessperson. In December 1984, the Compton Unified board of trustees appointed Pallan to its personnel commission, a three-member board that oversaw the recruitment, screening, and hiring of approximately 1,900 classified employees. He became the first Latino to serve on the commission, when he replaced African...

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7. Enter the State

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pp. 187-213

In April 1992 Compton city councilperson Patricia Moore planned to bus a group of “concerned citizens” to Simi Valley to hear the closing arguments in the trial of four Los Angeles police officers charged with the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Moore told the Compton Bulletin she wanted African Americans to attend so that they could be “the last thing...

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Epilogue. Out from Compton’s Past

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pp. 214-230

In December 2001, after eight tumultuous years of state control, Compton’s elected officials regained decision-making power over their school district. No ceremonies, not even a press conference, marked the event. Instead, business continued as usual. New superintendent Jesse Gonzales commented: “It’s just another day at the office. We’re just going to continue to improve the...


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pp. 231-232


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pp. 233-296


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pp. 297-308

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pp. 309-313

I have lived with this project for a very long time. While I am responsible for any mistakes, the book is a product of much collaboration. Though I fear that I will not be able to thank all who have touched it, I am pleased to have the opportunity to try.
I am indebted to the people of Compton who have aided me in understanding their town and its history. I would first like to thank the...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209587
E-ISBN-10: 0812209583
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245981

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 17 illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Politics and Culture in Modern America
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Margot Canaday, Glenda Gilmore, Michael Kazin, Thomas J. Sugrue See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 875037721
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Death of a Suburban Dream

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Education -- California -- Compton -- History.
  • Hispanic Americans -- Education -- California -- Compton -- History.
  • Compton (Calif.) -- Social conditions.
  • Public schools -- California -- Compton -- History.
  • Compton (Calif.) -- Race relations.
  • Education -- California -- Compton -- History.
  • Compton (Calif.) -- Economic conditions.
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