Outfitted in his trademark cowboy hat and long black overcoat, Lloyd Wilkins took a stroll down West Bennett Street in Compton on a recent weekday morning, engaging residents along the way.
“Hey, man, she’s a beauty,” Wilkins said as horse trainer Ricardo De La Torre approached atop a pristinely groomed quarter horse.
A short time later two other riders sauntered by, greeting Wilkins with a wave.
“This is what I’m talking about,” Wilkins said, gesturing toward the equestrians. “Where else are you going to see this kind of scene in the middle of a city?”
Less than a mile from the 91 Freeway and from downtown Compton, the 10-block Richland Farms neighborhood -- zoned for agricultural use -- is an unlikely rural oasis plopped down in the middle of the gritty urban landscape.
The close-knit community’s African American and Latino residents are awakened each morning by the rooster’s crow. Horses share the roadway with pickup trucks and SUVs. And a cacophony of clucking hens, bleating goats and squealing pot-bellied pigs drifts from backyards.
“It’s a garden paradise,” said Wilkins, 72, dubbed “the village chief.” For more than four decades, he has owned property in Richland Farms, including rental homes and stables where he raises Tennessee walking horses. “We have to maintain it.”
Many of the older generation are dying out, and Wilkins and others fear that increasing development pressures threaten the future of Richland Farms.
Over the years, the city has imposed limits on certain animals, granted variances allowing for multiple structures on a single lot and introduced new parking restrictions.
“They are sabotaging the community so that developers can eventually come in and take over,” said Wilkins, a retired teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Others complain that the new parking rules hinder their ability to park feed trucks and other vehicles needed for hauling agricultural products. They view the move as yet another attempt to force them to get rid of their animals.
But Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux, a Richland Farms resident for more than 30 years, said the restrictions are needed to ensure that the neighborhood remains safe for all residents. She said that at times the community has been plagued with problems, such as illegal cockfighting and dog fighting, gambling, poor animal maintenance -- even the illegal sale of cows milk spiked with alcohol.
“When you have a total disregard for the law, you have to take steps so that everyone can live here peacefully,” she said. “You’re forced into doing this ... so that all the community can live in peace and raise their families here.”
‘Space to breathe’
Scant information exists about stipulations that Griffith Dickenson Compton may have set forth when he created the town in 1868. Although there are no city records to confirm this, many old-timers believe that part of the land was to remain zoned for agriculture.
Eldredge Willis, 75, and his now-deceased first wife, Precise Lavon, moved into their Richland Farms home in the early 1960s when the neighborhood was still largely a white enclave.
“She saw the large lots. She saw the horses, and she said ‘I like this,’ ” Willis recalled. “So we bought the house.”
The couple raised horses, goats, rabbits, even emus.
“I’m a country boy. I come from a farm,” said Willis, a native Texan. “That’s what made this place special for me. I felt like I was back home.”
Fellow Texan and neighbor Willard McCrumby, 79, moved from Watts to Richland Farms in 1967. He and his wife, M. Elayne, were also among the community’s first black families.
“There were more animals than cars,” she recalled. She and her husband liked the spacious lots and the lack of sidewalks and streetlights.
“Here you have space to breathe,” she said.
The couple raised one daughter, Lorenita, now 36 and married. Growing up, she was active in a neighborhood 4-H Club, which offered youngsters hands-on experience learning about animals.
Today she is a veterinarian, and her parents credit her close contact with animals.
But the McCrumbys and others acknowledge that the neighborhood has changed.
Over the years, residents have battled city leaders who sought to prohibit certain animals. In the mid-1980s, residents agreed to limit the number of horses, goats and sheep to five each per family, Wilkins said.
Some also worry that the city is too eager to grant variances that allow homeowners to build more than one dwelling on a lot. Residents can build a second structure without having to subdivide the property into two parcels, as long as the structure is no larger than 800 square feet, according to the city clerk’s office.
In the latest skirmish, the city recently started enforcing an ordinance that requires each vehicle parked on a city street in the neighborhood to display a parking permit. Residents may apply for up to four permits.
Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin has told residents that the parking program might be revised to address their concerns, but so far no action has been taken.
“We are a small rural community,” said Jerry Godinez, 52, who raises horses, roosters and pigs. “We don’t need these kinds of rules.”
But Arceneaux said that animal control officials have had to confiscate livestock kept in poor condition, citing one instance where some cows were alleged to have been kept in knee-high mud and feces.
“Some people have a total disregard for the regulations,” Arceneaux said.
Whenever there is a need to rally the community, Wilkins sets out in his Toyota Forerunner, blasting gospel music and Spanish-language songs from loudspeakers mounted on his truck, and announces the time and place of the next public meeting.
For years, he has used his own money to print fliers, pamphlets and a four-page community newspaper. He would like to organize an agricultural collective, which would allow residents to pool their produce for sale, and to operate a petting zoo.
“It is necessary to preserve Richland Farms in order to build a strong cultural community bond between two minority groups, African Americans and Latinos,” said Wilkins, who no longer lives in the neighborhood but still owns property there.
“And the animals can provide a successful foundation for our children.”
So intent was Anthony “Magic” Moultrie on making a life in Richland Farms that, each Sunday after church, he and his wife, Tracy, would ride up and down the neighborhood’s streets scouting “for sale” signs and talking with residents with offers to buy their homes.
The couple finally moved into the neighborhood six years ago.
“This is a diamond in the rough,” said Moultrie, 47. “There’s nowhere comparable.”
The couple started raising a range of livestock, including miniature horses and ponies, which they rent.
Moultrie, who organizes pony parties and petting zoos, shares the concerns of Wilkins and others that the city is overly aggressive in charging residents with violations.
“They make it so hard for us to stay here,” he said. “I continue to fight, but if the [housing] market had not dried up, I would have moved out.”
Andrew Johnson, 51, the neighborhood farrier, is a third-generation Richland Farms resident.
At age 13, his grandfather taught him how to shoe and groom horses.
The family owned equines, goats and scores of chickens.
Today, Johnson teaches local horse owners to trim their animals’ hooves and maintain their coats. He also teaches neighborhood children how to ride. “This keeps the kids out of trouble,” he said.
For Johnson and other residents, it is their shared love of animals and the rural character of their community that makes Richland Farms special and worth preserving.
“It’s the unity of the neighborhood, the small-town atmosphere,” Johnson said.
“You can pass by on the freeway and miss it.”