This article traces the historic evolution of the California city of Compton, both as a physical place, and as a popular cultural idea. A recipient of the coveted All-American Cities Award in 1952, the almost exclusively white city of Compton quickly integrated after the landmark Supreme Court housing desegregation cases of the early 1950s. By the late 1950s, Compton was a symbol of black middle class achievement, and by the 1970s it would become a vanguard for black political power, with a black mayor and city council. However, by the 1980s, the intense concentration of gang activity in Compton, coupled with the city's proximity to the movie and music-making industries of Hollywood, contributed to the recasting of Compton as a symbol of black crime and poverty throughout urban America. The article explores this transformation of Compton from a place name to a metonym in local and national media reporting, hip-hop music, and the so-called "gangsta" films of the 1980s and 1990s. A quick glance at local business and county land annexation patterns suggests, as well as the battle to rename Compton Boulevard, suggests that by the late 1980s, the idea of Compton became almost as important—and in some cases, far more so—than the actual history of the place. The lesson of the Compton story, the author concludes, is that an engaged citizenry should approach "truths" about physical places with as much skepticism as we do "truths" about races of people.


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pp. 583-605
Launched on MUSE
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