Compton hopes its many celebrities can help reshape its image — and its economic fortunes

When the ragged, faded tennis courts needed to be fixed, Compton turned to one thing that the city has a bounty of: celebrities.

One of Serena Williams’ corporate sponsors opened up its wallet to repair a place where she and her sister, Venus, had honed their prodigious talent.

But that wouldn’t be the end of the Williams sisters’ largesse. They helped fund a new community center named after their late sister, Yetunde Price, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Compton in 2003. The center, which opens next month, will help people affected by violence and other trauma.  

As the tennis courts were renamed the Venus & Serena Williams Court of Champions, Serena Williams spoke of the sisters’ affection for the city. 

“We’re really appreciative to have this opportunity and to have it in Compton. I think it really brings everything full circle,”  Williams told a screaming crowd. “We started here and we want to make sure people understand this is a great place to be.” 

Compton is in the midst of a major turnaround. The city of roughly 100,000, for so long synonymous with gang violence and blight, is remaking itself with new a host of new businesses. Crime is down from the highs of the 1990s, and some of the cultural touchstones that once challenged the city's image — notably gangsta rap — have taken on an almost retro coolness.

The partnership with the Williams sisters is one of many projects that have come from Compton officials leveraging their relationship with stars who grew up in the city.

Rapper Kendrick Lamar donated more than $1.5 million to Compton Unified School District to build a custom music studio and expand their arts program. Music mogul Dr. Dre is funding the construction of a $35-million performance arts center with the royalties he donated from his last album. Rapper YG’s foundation, 4Hundred Waze, provides school supplies and funds shopping sprees to students who demonstrate academic improvement. The rapper also donates his time and holiday meals to needy residents.

Other Compton-born stars,  including rapper the Game, actor Anthony Anderson and former NFL player Marcellus Wiley, also lend their celebrity to boost the city. 

Enlisting Compton's favorite sons and daughters has several goals. One is to encourage them to invest in the city, both with donations and by lending their names to projects that get outside support. The other is to remind Compton’s youth that there is a way up.

“It sends a big signal to the private sector that people from Compton are underwriting the growth here,” said Compton Mayor Aja Brown

Few mid-sized cities in America have achieved the iconic reputation of Compton. Unfortunately, that reputation has been seared in popular culture on the back of a violent past that has inspired everything from movies to the lyrics in gangsta rap. 

Though the violence that gave Compton a notoriety throughout the world has substantially receded over a generation, the city still struggles with a reputation it can’t quite shake. Some cities scrubbed out the name of streets, like Compton Boulevard, to distance themselves from the city.  

Two years ago, a think tank concluded that Compton was the most distressed city in California — an assertion that city leaders disputed as based on outdated information. 

The release last year of the hit movie “Straight Outta Compton,” about the influential Compton rap group N.W.A,  put the city in a strange position. Officials hoped the attention could be a boon, but they were concerned it could rekindle memories of the city’s more fearsome past and obscure gains that the community has made. 

The city has made a slow recovery since it  was on the verge of bankruptcy four years ago.  Its general fund had a $40-million deficit because for years officials used the city's water, sewer and retirement funds when the general fund ran short on cash. Under Brown’s administration, the city has implemented a long-term, 15-year repayment plan to address debt.  Still, the 2016/17 approved budget show the city’s general fund operating at a $956,448 deficit.

“The City has been faced with many difficult challenges over the last decade,” City Manager Roger Haley said in the budget’s introduction.  “In my opinion and in the opinion of many including, for example, the City’s financial and bond advisors, the Mayor and City Council, have stepped up and done the right thing.”

In recent months, the city has announced groundbreaking on a Steak ’n Shake, a Wal-Mart at the old Compton swap meet, and a million- square-foot light rail industrial park, which promises to bring hundreds of jobs, street improvements and tax revenue.  All these projects are expected to open next year.  But Brown said the city has struggled to attract the kind of transforming development seen in Los Angeles.

That’s where Compton-born celebrities have stepped in. These hometown heroes also provide inspiration and role models, Brown said. 

It shows “that people from Compton not only do well, but they have the heart to come back and give back,” Brown said.  “Their presence alone is just so impactful, especially to the young people.”

Residents have long described Compton as a pressure cooker that creates superstars.  But until recently, the city had little connection with the diamonds it helped create. Under previous administrations, city officials have tried to distance Compton from its gangsta rap roots — even going as far to rebrand itself as a hub for gospel music. 

City Clerk Alita Godwin, who has worked for the city for more than three decades, said she noticed that the current administration has made a concerted effort to connect Compton’s past and future.

Earlier this year, the City Council honored Lamar with the key to the city.  Brown said the musician’s “commitment and dedication have made a lasting impact on our community and its citizen.”

During his acceptance speech, Lamar described walking to the former Circuit City and Boyd’s Mart as a child with his mother. She instilled a sense of pride in his community, he said. 

“That’s when I  grasped the concept... that this is not just a city,” Lamar said.  “This means strength where we’re from.” 

Lamar said the key was a symbol of his efforts to unlock more programs for boys and girls, as well as job opportunities in Compton.

“As long as I’m doing music... I’m going to always from Day One scream Compton and make sure I come back to this community and do right by it because ya’ll have always done right by me.”

For more California breaking news, follow @AngelJennings.  She can also be reached at angel.jennings@latimes.com.

Helene Elliott contributed to this story.

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