Uneasy Carson Tries to Edge Away From 'Rougher' Compton

Times Staff Writer

Many in Carson want to have as little to do as possible with Compton, their crime-ridden neighbor to the north.

To help Carson residents avoid paying traffic tickets at the Compton Courthouse, Carson officials are trying to bring a satellite court to their city.

They are also reviving efforts to change the boundary of the Compton Unified School District--which includes a 1 3/4-square-mile section of north Carson--so students living there will not have to go to Compton. Instead, they would join students from the rest of Carson who attend schools run by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Underlying these separate moves is the feeling prevalent among residents of the comparatively well-off black neighborhoods in the north end of Carson--the areas most vocal in anti-Compton sentiment--that Compton is a ghetto that reminds them of what they strived so hard to escape.

"Black middle-class people (living in Carson) worked hard and long to attain and maintain their standard of living and feel it threatened by Compton," said Carson Planning Commissioner Charles Peters, who is black and is active in the campaign to change the school boundaries.

'Rougher Than Dry Corncob'

"Compton is perceived as a run-down black community. Some sections are nice but there are sections . . . that are rougher than a dry corncob," he said.

Carson Councilwoman Vera Robles DeWitt agreed. "It is a rough area," said DeWitt, who is leading the courthouse move and encouraging the school boundary activists.

Official figures depict a stark contrast between the two cities.

The rate for violent crime in Compton is almost four times the rate in Carson, according to the FBI. The Compton murder rate is six times the Carson murder rate.

Compton has almost three times Carson's percentage of residents on welfare, more than three times its percentage below official poverty levels and almost twice the percentage in rental housing, according to federal census data. Compton has less than half Carson's percentage of residents with a college degree.

Carson students, while below the county average on state standardized test scores, do better than Compton students on average.

For example, in the 12th-grade writing test, the Compton Unified District average score was 51.2, contrasted with 56.5 for Carson and 61.6 for Los Angeles County. The differences in the other 12th-grade tests were similar.

Carson's desire to distance itself from Compton has been shared by other neighbors.

In 1985, the Dominguez Medical Center, a large hospital located partly in Compton and partly in Long Beach, moved its mailbox from the Compton end of the building to the Long Beach end so it could change its mailing address.

"Compton has a negative image as a city," explained the hospital administrator. "Basically, that is what we are trying to get away from."

Change Street Name

In 1986, Paramount, hoping to attract investors to a redevelopment area, changed the name of the 2-mile stretch of Compton Boulevard that runs through the city because, as one put it, "the word Compton does not paint a picture of a first-class community since the area is too well known for the slums and strife that existed there for the last 20 or so years." The new name is Somerset Boulevard.

But in Carson, the anti-Compton sentiment goes way back, according to Compton Councilman Maxcy Filer, who acknowledged that his city has problems but said Carson residents exaggerate them out of snobbishness.

"That is nothing new about them thinking that they are a cut above Compton," Filer said. "That was their theory when they incorporated: 'Let's get away from those poor people in Compton.' "

The Compton Unified School District boundary, which was set before Carson incorporated in 1968, has been a burr under the Carson saddle ever since.

Two earlier attempts to secede from Compton Unified, in 1974-75 and 1980-83, focused on gangs, inadequate equipment, low teacher morale and low test scores.

The first attempt, submitted to a vote in the entire Compton Unified School District, lost by a 2-1 ratio. In the second, only Carson residents in Compton Unified voted and the secession forces won by an 8-1 margin. But the Los Angeles County Board of Education, with an eye on a Fullerton case that suggested the entire Compton district should vote, decided not to act on the results.

The matter came up for a third time before the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization last May. Committee member Henri Pellissier marveled at the intensity of the Carson residents.

"In eight years time, there had never been as many upset and vocal people in attendance (200 to 250) . . . as there were on this particular issue," he said.

"Generally, people want to get out of the Los Angeles Unified, but these people wanted to get into the district."

A few weeks later, the issue was further inflamed when the president of the nation's largest teachers' union, giving an annual report on the nation's schools, singled out Compton for what she said were "horrible" conditions for students and teachers, including leaking ceilings, broken windows, "filthy" bathrooms, bird droppings on classroom floors and a lack of fire extinguishers.

"I'm surprised that the Fire Department or Health Department had not gone in and closed down those schools for being unsafe and unhealthy," said Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Assn.

District officials declined to respond.

In July, plans to build a 400-unit apartment-condominium complex in the Compton Unified section of Carson touched off an outpouring of opposition that resulted in the development's rejection by the City Council. A major factor was the Compton school system.

Resident Ray A. Crayton said: "I don't like the fact that it is in the Compton School District. . . . That is nothing but gang-related activities in the making."

At the hearing, others voiced resentment at Carson's being lumped in with Compton in the public mind.

"When you say Watts and Compton, you also say Carson and that is not right," said resident Weldon Jules.

"The City of Carson . . . is now about one step above the City of Compton," said April Gipson, a leader of the opposition to the apartment project.

Councilwoman DeWitt says the meeting was a factor in reviving efforts to change the school district boundaries.

Last week, she added, she met with the city attorney to see if there is a way around the legal difficulties that had hamstrung earlier efforts.

Compton officials continue to oppose the secession movement, which would cost the district state money as well as students.

"We have a very good program being offered in our district," said Elisa Sanchez, deputy superintendent for Compton Unified. "These children are being provided with a very fine quality education. We don't see the rationale for making any transfer of the students from that area to any other school district."

Filer said: "I don't want them to take our district or any territory away from us. We were here before they were."

Some Carson residents of the Compton Unified School District are not waiting for a boundary change, according to officials.

Attending Other Schools

DeWitt said some consider Compton schools so bad that "the students aren't attending the Compton Unified District now. They are in other schools now. My sense is that most of them are in the L.A. Unified School District."

Carson Planning Commissioner Peters expanded on the point:

"These are honest people who don't want to lie to say they live in another part of Carson so they can send their kids to the L.A. Unified. It happens quite frequently. That child will have to live with the fact that the parents are liars. That isn't a good way to start off life."

A parent with a high school student who lives in the Carson portion of the Compton Unified School District told The Times, under conditions of anonymity, that she refused to send her child to a Compton junior high school.

"The kids carry guns and they deal drugs at the junior high school she would have been going to," she said. "She stayed at one of her godparents about two years." The child is now enrolled legally in another school district, the woman said.

The courthouse move emerged in December, when DeWitt and Carson Mayor Kay Calas opened discussions with court officials to see if a branch of the overcrowded Compton Municipal Court could be opened in Carson.

Judicial officials have approved the move for payment of traffic tickets, provided city officials provide a building to house the branch office. If the system works, they may try a pilot program for small claims and civil suits involving claims of less than $25,000. Details on financing and location of the site have not been worked out.

Crime Rate a Factor

DeWitt, who has advocated the move as more convenient for elderly residents lacking transportation, conceded in an interview that the high crime rate in Compton and the use of the Compton Courthouse for trials involving gang members are factors.

"There have been problems," she said.

Courthouse security was and is a major problem, according to Tim R. Aguilar, court administrator for the Compton Municipal Court.

In early 1986, judges began avoiding windows in their chambers after several weeks of shootings. About that time, a judge in night court asked everyone to check their weapons with the marshal. Almost everyone in the room stood up. The marshal counted more than 85 weapons, almost all of them knives.

Another haul of cutlery, along with a few guns, was confiscated later that year in the first few weeks after court officials installed a metal detector gate and an X-ray machine.

Bid to Scare Witness

In April last year, violence erupted despite the precautions, as a group of gang members attempted to frighten a witness in a case against one of their members, according to Aguilar.

"They attacked the witness in the elevator," he said. An undercover officer drew a gun and when the elevator stopped, members of a rival gang joined in a melee. "Bodies were flying everywhere," he said. One juror in the case was slugged in the jaw and nine others were injured. Police booked 11 on suspicion of intimidating witnesses.

Aguilar said nothing similar has happened recently but agreed that the potential for violence in and around the courthouse persists because of the large number of violent crimes that are tried there.

"If we could pick up the court and move it, that wouldn't solve the problem," he said. "The change has to occur out there, in Compton."

Filer, however, said: "I would fight any attempt to have even a traffic court anywhere else in the (judicial) district. The next thing we know, the Compton court is gone.

"I'm not slinging mud, but there are as many gangs in Carson as in Compton. Gangs don't stop at any city limit."

In general, Filer said, Carson residents have nothing over Compton's. "Their houses may be better, but not their homes. . . . A home is where a family lives with love and understanding. Compton has more homes than Carson."

HOW CITIES COMPARE

Carson Compton Incorporated 1968 1888 Population 1986 estimate 89,533 92,443 Race and ethnic makeup* White 42.3% 6.6% Black 29.3% 74.8% Latino 23.3% 21.1% Pacific Islander 15.3% 1.7% Socio-economic factors Median family income 1983 $25,165 $14,292 Households on welfare 9.7% 26.4% Persons in poverty 7.6% 26.1% Rental housing units 22.5% 43.7% College graduates 6.6% 2.5% Violent crimes per 1,000 pop. (1985) 7.8 31.1 Murders per 10,000 pop. (1986) 1.1 6.6 Grade 12 reading scores (correct answers) 56.3% 50.3%

*Figures add up to more than 100% because of dual classification.

Source: Compiled from reports from the FBI, U.S. Bureau of Census and state Department of Education.

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