Teenagers practice tricks at the skateboard park in Wilson Park Community Center in Compton, California, in 2012.
Teenagers practice tricks at the skateboard park in Wilson Park Community Center in Compton, California, in 2012. - 
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This Friday, a small California city is about to get a whole lot of publicity. Compton, right next to Los Angeles, is the setting for the the film "Straight Outta Compton," a biopic about the rise of the iconic West Coast gangsta rap group N.W.A.

There's a line from the movie, said by rapper Ice Cube: "All publicity is good publicity." But for Compton, this movie is a a journey back in time to a city that became notorious for gangs and violence and poverty. Twenty-seven years later, Compton has changed in a lot of ways. And as the city tries to distance itself from its old reputation, America will be reintroduced to the old Compton. 

When JaTiara Fuller, walked into the classroom on her first day of fourth grade, she was surprised. She was the only black person in her class. “There was no diversity,” she remembers. “There were no Indians, no Asians, no Filipinos, just Latinas and me. That’s it.”

Fuller's mom, who grew up in Compton, was sure the school had made a mistake. She thought her daughter had been put in a class for students who needed to learn English, so she went to the administrator’s office to sort things out. “And they were like, no she’s in the gifted class, that’s where she is supposed to be,” JaTiara says.

She made friends easily with other kids, though there were a few things that made her stand out. “They couldn't relate to my hair problems or my butt problems, Fuller says. “It was a foreign world to them.”

Latinos make up about two-thirds of the population of Compton today, one of the biggest from the Compton of 1988. 

Pageant queens at this year's Miss Compton Pageant.

Pageant queens at this year's Miss Compton Pageant.

Fuller is 24 now, a graduate of Cal State Long Beach, and last year she became the queen of Compton when she won the Miss Compton Pageant.

“Representing Compton is such an honor," she says. "But it’s also very exciting when you get to go outside of Compton, because a lot of people have negative stigmas on people from Compton. So it’s very important to me to showcase Compton in such a positive light.”

When Fuller travels outside the city, people are surprised that she’s never seen a drive-by shooting or a drug deal. They’re also shocked to hear that Compton now has a Chipotle.

The Chipotle is part of a shopping center called the Gateway Towne Center. It looks like a shopping center you would find in any suburb in America: lots of asphalt, a Home Depot, Target, 24 Hour Fitness. To a lot of communities, a place like this isn’t a big deal. But in Compton it means jobs and tax revenue for a city where more than a quarter of the residents live in poverty. 

“This is the first major development in the city of Compton in over 30 years,” says Mayor Aja Brown. “This really is a great signification of hope and transformation and growth for the city. You can run into family members, neighbors, get basic things that other communities take for granted.” 

Brown is 33, the youngest mayor in Compton’s history. She was elected in 2013 and has a background in urban planning and development. But lately she’s been fielding a lot of calls about gangsta rap. “At the height of N.W.A.’s success, Compton had triple the homicides than we have today," she says. "Compton is much safer then it was before.”

Attendees at Gateway Towne Center's ''National Night Out.''

Attendees at Gateway Towne Center's ''National Night Out.''

The economy here is improving, but there is still a long way to go. The Compton school district gets a rating of 3 out of 10. The unemployment rate is about twice the national average, and the city has struggled to keep up its infrastructure.

“The potholes! It’s like the moon craters,” says Carlos Acevedo, the owner of Frank’s Carburetors, which has been in Compton for 52 years. The shop is littered with piles of old carburetors and dozens of glass jars filled with metal parts. 

Acevedo was born in California, but he grew up speaking Spanish and still has a thick accent. Over the last couple decades he has watched the Latino population rise in Compton. But the city’s political leadership doesn’t reflect that change. Only one of the city council's four members is Latino, and the school board has "no Hispanics representing all the Hispanic people there.”

Acevedo is president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, and he’s been trying to get more Latinos to the polls for local elections. He shows a poster he made that sits behind the counter of his shop. It has a picture of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr., and a copy of the Voter Bill of Rights.

This poster really signifies representation and opportunity for all of us," he says. "It’s not to push anybody out, but it should be more sharing in the democracy and the power.” 

Acevedo points to black smudges on the concrete. It’s melted tire. Someone parked a truck in front of his shop, and then the truck blew up. 

Pre-pageant interviews taking place at the Miss Compton Pageant.

Pre-pageant interviews taking place at the Miss Compton Pageant. 

“Boom, exploded and went into flames,” Acevedo says.

Acevedo believes it was intentional and had something to do with his political activism. But the fire department ruled it a miscellaneous fire. 

This past Saturday, JaTiara Fuller’s reign as the queen of Compton came to an end when she crowned a new queen of Compton. She's going to miss it, especially being in a position to empower youth, though she still gets to do that at her job as a children’s social worker. 

“I work for Department of Children and Family Services, which is pretty cool, because I get to service Compton,” Fuller says.

She won’t be stepping completely out of the spotlight. In two weeks she will go on to represent Compton in the Miss California pageant.

  

Follow David Weinberg at @@randomtape