Good News: Compton Is Getting Better

Alot better, says Newsweek:

For nearly a decade, the entrance to the city of Compton, Calif., just off the 91 Freeway, was a huge, vacant lot, overgrown by weeds. Surrounded by an eight-foot steel gate, the once-bustling auto dealership had become a haven for the homeless; a place where people dumped trash, loitered, caused trouble….

By the 1990s, the mere mention of the name Compton had become so toxic that the nearby southern California suburbs had the city of 100,000 erased from their maps. Its schools were crumbling. Drugs were rampant, and street-gang tensions had escalated into what historian Josh Sides describes as “a brutal guerilla war.” The city became the U.S. murder capital, per capita, surpassing Washington with one homicide for every 1,000 residents—and the details were numbing…

Two decades later, Compton has a new lease on life. The community is still poor, and unemployment is more than twice the national average. But the number of homicides is at a 25-year low, slashed in half from 2005. There are fewer gunshots and more places for kids to go after school. Alongside the liquor stores and check-cashing stands are signs of middle-class aspiration: a T.G.I. Fridays, an outbreak of Starbucks and a natural-food store. Along the way, blacks became a minority in Compton, which is 60 percent Latino today.

The article puts too much emphasis on political and community outreach solutions. It’s been my experience that community outreach programs do little if any good, their success stories are usually with people who were already on the verge of getting out anyway. Think of the the marginal gangmember who has had enough and is looking for a way out – a community outreach program gives him the resources he needs at just the right time. All valuable work but hardly anything that could change a city around. The gun buyback programs are even more of a joke. They rarely result in any real usable handguns. It’s usually guns that don’t work, are damaged in some way, or have a murder on them and unlikely to sell for anything of worth on the streets. Basically, the type of guns that drug addicts give up in exchange for $20 worth of crack. It makes sense too, who would exchange a gun they could sell on the streets for three to four hundred dollars, for a $100 in “supermarket cards”?

My guess is that this is the result of something more fundamental: changing demographics. In the 1980’s it was crack cocaine and starting in the mid 1990’s it was the race wars between the black vs mexican gangs.  Now that Latinos are more than 60% of the cities population, we are probably seeing a new equilibrium reached with Latinos at the top of the gang power structure, which results in significantly lower levels of violence (the struggle for the top is now over). It also doesn’t hurt that most of the gangmembers who were actively involved in the race wars of the late 90’s are now dead, in prison or have left the area. Add in the fact that crack cocaine and gangbanging itself has fallen out of fashion, and you have a whole new Compton.

Of course this does not mean that Compton is headed towards a continuously decreasing violence rate.  After a few more years new gangmembers wanting to make a name for themselves will take the place left by the older ones and with that will come another wave of violence as one gang tries to take over more territory from another one. But I don’t expect anything like the violence of the 1980’s and late 1990’s, unless of course some other fundamental change hits Compton – like a new drug or demographic shift. All in all though, this is still very good news indeed.

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