For decades, the mid-sized city of Compton struggled with an outsized reputation, seared into American pop culture, as a place synonymous with gangs, drive-by shootings and gangsta rap.
Surrounding cities even scrubbed the names of streets, such as Compton Boulevard, and neighborhoods, such as East Compton, to distance themselves from the city. Gang violence, chronicled by rappers, became inextricable from the Compton legacy — and its brand.
Now, as “Straight Outta Compton” hits movies theaters nationwide, telling the story of the rise of the seminal rap group N.W.A, the city is in an uneasy position.
Compton, circa 2015, is far from the Compton of the 1980s and early to mid-'90s.
Even as it still struggles with poverty and unemployment, crime — especially homicides — has plummeted. Large retailers that once shunned the city have moved in. Even the demographics have changed, with Latinos now making up about two-thirds of the city.
Although leaders have celebrated the movie, which highlights Compton’s role as the birthplace of West Coast gangsta rap, they are also campaigning to make sure viewers don’t confuse the place portrayed in the movie with the Compton of today.
“People think of Compton as a very dangerous place,” said Mayor Aja Brown. “But when we look at the statistics and the feel of the city and we talk to people who live here, it’s a different city from 25 years ago.”
In the run-up to the movie’s opening, Brown has been promoting the Twitter hashtag #visionforcompton to focus on positive changes in the city.
The filmmakers joined in the boosterism, including in the film’s closing credits a link to www.comptonup.org.
The website highlights recent economic development in the city of about 100,000 residents: the Gateway Towne Center, opened in 2007, which features Target, Home Depot and other stores that residents once had to leave town to visit, as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. Transit Center, a 10,000-square-foot office and retail center, which welcomes rail and bus commuters to town with a 12-foot-tall “Compton” sign.
“There’s more to the City of Compton than its worldwide reputation as the ‘home of gangsta rap,’” the website tells visitors. “Welcome to the Compton of today and the strides that are being made to return Compton to the beautiful, thriving suburban city it once was.”
City officials also point to a Walmart Supercenter, which will replace the aging Compton Swap Meet, where N.W.A and other artists hawked their albums when major record stores would not sell them. (There’s no movie theater in the city, though, so one has to go straight out of Compton to watch “Straight Outta Compton.”)
The crime, especially the gang killings, that gave Compton its dubious fame so many years ago, has receded significantly.
In the first half of 2015, Compton experienced a 5% decrease in overall crime even as the city of Los Angeles experienced a 12.7% jump, said L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Brown said the decline was accomplished without extra spending on law enforcement.
Last year, there were 17 killings, down from a peak of 87 in 1991.
But in other areas, Compton continues to lag. The median income in 2013 was $42, 953, down from an adjusted median income of $46,376 in 1990, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of census and other data. Today, the unemployment rate is 12.7% — 32% higher than it was in 2000, according to the California Employment Development Department.
In 2011, in the face of a $43-million deficit, Compton laid off hundreds of workers and amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars in late fees when it couldn’t pay its policing contract with the Sheriff’s Department on time.
But the economic situation is improving, officials say. The city recently rehired 200 City Hall employees and reduced its deficit to $36 million. For the last three fiscal years, the city has managed to balance its annual budget and this year had a $850,000 surplus, said City Manager Johnny Ford.
Still, residents routinely fill City Council meetings to complain about large potholes and discarded furniture littering the sidewalks.
When it was released in 1988, N.W.A’s album “Straight Outta Compton” put the city on the map and transformed the group’s members — including Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre — into icons of hip-hop. The movie about how it all came to be has been widely anticipated by hip-hop fans — and many locals.
Ebony Jackson, 33, said the movie would allow residents to reflect on how far the city has come.
“It was rough,” she said. “They are just showing the new generation what it was like back then.”
Resident Bobby Hicks, 76, however, said he lived in Compton during the difficult years chronicled by the film, and he isn’t interested in revisiting them. He said he hoped movie-goers would skip the film.
“I really don’t want the kids to see it,” Hicks said. “They might pick up the bad stuff.”
Sipping a coffee at a Starbucks with a laptop before him, longtime resident Calvin Moore, 60, said the Compton of today is recovering from its past, but slowly.
“Compton is still rocking and reeling from the ‘80s,” he said. “It’s trying to find its balance.”
Compton councilwoman Janna Zurita attended Monday’s premiere of the film in downtown Los Angeles, along with 150 other Compton residents, who were given free tickets. She said the movie tactfully addressed the city’s problems without dwelling on the violence.
“It was not about what people have portrayed it to be,” she said. “It was not about Bloods and Crips and a bunch of gangbanging. It was about the struggle and success of five men from Compton.”
Zurita said the movie was a trip down memory lane — she went to prom with DJ Yella, a founding member of N.W.A.
On Friday, the councilwoman watched her niece and other youngsters practice their backhand at a tennis day camp at Lueders Park. Twenty-five years ago, she would have avoided the park, then an infamous gang hangout.
“Times have changed,” she said.
Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.