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New Mayor Asks Compton: What Can Brown Do For You?

Nov 4, 2013
Originally published on November 4, 2013 6:42 pm

Aja Brown made history this past summer when she became the youngest mayor in the history of Compton, Calif. There is a lot of buzz there around the charismatic 31-year-old.

The city of about 100,000 people just south of Los Angeles has long struggled with gangs and street violence. But it wasn't always that way. Compton flourished in the '50s and '60s, when its factory jobs were a beacon for African-Americans fleeing the South.

That's the Compton Aja Brown heard about from her family when she was growing up. Now, her grand plan to turn the city around is turning a lot of heads inside and outside of City Hall.

From Rap To Radishes

Most people around the world have heard of Compton in rap lyrics, embedded in drum beats and lines like: "I'm from Compton, where the wrong colors be cautious, one phone call will have your body dumped."

Rappers put this city on the map in the '80s and '90s. According to Brown, the reputation is still dragging the city down today.

"I think that as long as people can recognize Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, we have to work twice as hard to put a new image in front of the world," says Brown, who residents voted in handily in July.

Brown says if that image gets fixed, then other, tangible changes will follow. Her rebranding of Compton is already underway on a newly redeveloped stretch of Willowbrook Avenue.

Walking around Compton's new weekly farmers market, the mayor has shed her signature pumps for flats. Getting the market going was one of the first things she did when she took office. There hasn't been a farmers market in Compton for 25 years.

Early Successes

Brown grew up in nearby Pasadena, but has family roots in Compton. She has two degrees in urban planning from the University of Southern California and isn't lacking in confidence. And there are some early successes beyond just the farmers market to back that up.

Brown has already cut Compton's deep budget deficit nearly in half. She's started a gang intervention and community-policing program, an effort to smooth out decades of mistrust between this community and the L.A. County Sheriff's deputies who patrol it. She's also using tax incentives to lure more businesses — and young professionals like her — back to the city.

It's all an ambitious agenda that Brown says rests on image and community empowerment. In other cities, she says, citizens have a different relationship with their surroundings.

"In other communities, people don't throw their trash on the ground. If they see graffiti, they report it," she says. "And so, it really is going to be a change at the citizen's level."

It's a little too early to draw comparisons between Brown and fast-rising black politicians like Cory Booker or even Barack Obama in his early days. But there's a wide sense here, in this city plagued by years of corruption at City Hall, that she is going places.

One afternoon, at a new "Coffee with the Mayor" event at a local Starbucks, the buzz around Brown in the room is electric. People practically trip over each other to meet her and snap photos with her. Sarah Pendiman, a retired teacher, and her friend Jackie McGee, a retired nurse, stand at the back of the cafe, beaming.

"I've lived here over 40 years, so it's time for a change," says Pendiman. "And she's a good change."

"We have the capability of being a great city, and we were once," McGee adds.

A Lot Of Problems Linger

Make no mistake, there are still a lot of problems here. Unemployment is stubbornly high. A recent weekend brought a slate of deadly drive-by shootings. It was a grim reminder that Brown's new gang and youth development initiatives have their work ahead of them. And earlier this year, the perennial racial tensions between blacks and Latinos were again thrust into the spotlight with two hate crimes.

Lifelong Compton resident Julius Franklin, who describes himself as half-black and half-Latino, was among hundreds to attend a unity rally in the days after those hate crimes. He says the new mayor is someone who can unite both sides.

"Sometimes it gets portrayed as something more serious than what it is. And a lot of those events are just isolated events," Franklin says. He says personal feuds are easily magnified into "an African-American against Latino thing."

Brown says her support base spans both sides.

"The Latino community and African-American community are very supportive," she says. "And we all want the same things."

She bristles a little at the topic of racial tension here, saying a lot of the violence can be attributed to "people outside the community."

"And you can't stop that, but you definitely can keep cohesion within the city," she says.

Brown says emphatically that City Hall has to start looking more like the city itself. She points out that in this past summer's election, voters also elected Compton's first Latino council member.

In front of City Hall, there's a huge mural of President Obama. It's hard not to draw at least one comparison — that like him, in these early days in office, people are pinning a lot of hope on her.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish in Culver City, California.

Our next story is set just a few miles southeast of us here, in Compton. There, Aja Brown made history this past summer when she became the youngest mayor in city history. There's a lot of buzz there around the charismatic 31-year-old. The city of about 100,000 has long struggled with gangs and street violence. But it wasn't always that way.

Compton flourished in the 1950s and '60s when its factory jobs were a beacon for African-Americans fleeing the South. That's the Compton that Aja Brown heard about from her family growing up, and NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on her plan to turn the city around.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Here's why most people around the world have heard of Compton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE MUSIC)

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) I'm coming straight out of Compton.

THE GAME: (Rapping) I'm from Compton, wear the wrong colors, be cautious. One phone call, I'll have your body dumped in the morgue.

2PAC: (Rapping) In the city, city of Compton.

SIEGLER: Rappers put this city on the map in the '80s and '90s, and it's still dragging the city down today, according to Mayor Aja Brown, who voters elected handily in July.

MAYOR AJA BROWN: And I think that as long as people can recognize Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, I think that we have to work twice as hard to be able to put a new image in front of the world.

SIEGLER: Brown says fix that image first and other tangible change will follow. Her rebranding of Compton is already under way here on this newly redeveloped stretch of Willowbrook Avenue.

BROWN: So here we have fresh produce. So we have...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Vegetables today.

BROWN: Oh, good. So our vegetables have come in.

SIEGLER: Walking around Compton's new weekly farmer's market, Brown has shed her signature pumps for flats. And getting this going was one of the first things she did when she took office. There hasn't been a farmer's market in Compton for 25 years.

BROWN: I do. I get so excited.

SIEGLER: Brown grew up in nearby Pasadena but has family roots in Compton. She has two degrees in urban planning from the University of Southern California and isn't lacking in confidence. And there are some early successes beyond just this market to back that up. She's already cut Compton's deep budget deficit nearly in half.

She's started a gang intervention and community policing program, an effort to smooth out decades of mistrust between this community and LA Sheriff's deputies who patrol it. She's also using tax incentives to lure more businesses and young professionals like her back to the city. It's all an ambitious agenda that Brown says rests on image and community empowerment.

BROWN: When I talk to citizens and they make references to other communities, how they're cleaner and, you know, how they don't have graffiti, well, in other communities, you know, people don't throw their trash on the ground. You know, if they see graffiti, they report it. And so it really is going to be a change at the citizen's level.

SIEGLER: Early on, it seems, there's a lot of buy-in in this city plagued by years of corruption at city hall.

BROWN: Hi. How are you? Good to see you out here.

SIEGLER: Further down the street in front of the new Martin Luther King Transit Center, a woman waiting for the bus jumps up to congratulate Brown for writing a new code to crack down on prostitution.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Thank you for cleaning up Long Beach Boulevard.

BROWN: We're working on it.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGLER: It's a little too early to draw comparisons between Brown and fast-rising black politicians like Cory Booker or even Barack Obama in his early days. But there's a wide sense here that she's going places.

BROWN: Thank you all for coming out. Oh, this is wonderful. Thank you all.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGLER: One afternoon, at a new Coffee With the Mayor event at a local Starbucks, the buzz around Brown in the room is electric. People practically trip over each other to meet her and snap photos with her. Sarah Pendiman, a retired teacher, and her friend, Jackie McGee, a retired nurse, stand at the back of the cafe beaming.

SARAH PENDIMAN: I've lived her over 40 years, so it's time for a change. And she's a good change.

JACKIE MCGEE: We have the capability of being a great city and we were once.

SIEGLER: Make no mistake, there are still a lot of problems here. Unemployment is stubbornly high. A recent weekend brought a slate of deadly drive-by shootings just blocks from here. It was a grim reminder that Brown's new gang and youth development initiatives have their work ahead of them. And earlier this year, the perennial racial tensions between blacks and Latinos were again thrust into the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: LA County Sheriff's deputies are investigating two hate crimes in Compton. In one case, authorities say gang members repeatedly terrorized an African-American family.

SIEGLER: See, another common stereotype is that Compton is a black city. But actually, like much of South LA today, it's predominately Latino. Lifelong Compton resident Julius Franklin describes himself as half black and half Latino, and was among hundreds to attend a unity rally in the days after those hate crimes. He says the new mayor is someone who can unite both sides.

JULIUS FRANKLIN: Sometimes it get portrayed as something more serious than what it is. And a lot of those events are just isolated events. Maybe we personally don't like each other, and they turn into an African-American against Latino thing.

BROWN: Living here, my community is very mixed.

SIEGLER: Again, Aja Brown.

BROWN: I have a variety of supporters. The Latino community and African-American community are very supportive. And we all want the same things.

SIEGLER: But Brown bristles a little at the topic of racial tension here, saying a lot of the violence can be attributed to people outside the community.

BROWN: And you can't stop that but you definitely can keep cohesion within the city.

SIEGLER: Brown says emphatically that city hall has to start looking more like the city itself. She points out that in this past summer's election, voters also elected Compton's first ever Latino council member.

In front of city hall where she's standing, there's a huge mural of President Obama. It's hard not to draw at least one comparison that, like him, in these early days in office, people are pinning a lot of hope on her.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.