Compton, Calif., strives to overcome gangster reputation


COMPTON, Calif. -- The mayor steers his sport utility vehicle into the parking lot of a shopping center and heads for one of this depressed city's crown jewels, something that has stirred the masses and fired hope about better days to come, a herald of economic vitality: a Starbucks.

Yes, Mayor Eric J. Perrodin would like the world to know that Compton, birthplace of gangsta rap and one of the most violent cities in America, has a Starbucks. And another, complete with a drive-through, is on the way.

"To most people, it might seem like nothing," Perrodin said, "But to us, it is major."

Here is a city with 96,000 residents, 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, where any hint of suburban normality, like the recent opening of a Sav-On drugstore outlet, is celebrated with marching bands; where pastel ranch homes with well-watered lawns sit behind fences marked with gang graffiti; where mayors and City Council members have been prosecuted for corruption with disturbing regularity.

Whatever is left of the largely black middle class is dwindling, and the killings that in the past provided grist for the music of such rap luminaries as N.W.A. ("Straight Outta Compton") are rising again, after having fallen for several years.

A total of 52 people have been killed this year, after a 20-year low of 39 last year. Compton is not as murderous as it was in the early 1990s, when it sometimes averaged nearly 90 murders a year, most gang-related, but the surge has alarmed civic leaders frustrated that the violence has overshadowed the city's gains.

Chief among the boosters is Perrodin, 46. He is mounting the latest effort to clean things up and reverse the notoriety of a city that, as he never fails to point out, was also the home of President Bush and his father for a brief period in the late 1950s. Tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams are also from here.

Perrodin brings an unusual pedigree to the job. He cruised these streets for several years as a gang investigator with the Compton Police Department before the unit was disbanded in 2000 amid increasing crime and a dispute between the mayor at the time and the police union.

"There goes Big Mike," Perrodin said, giving the man, an original gangster, a quick wave from his passing car. In case the encounters are less friendly, Perrodin carries a licensed handgun.

He is big on keeping up appearances and increasing the professionalism of the city staff, and he spent 20 minutes at a recent council meeting haranguing employees over everything from failing to cover up graffiti before the drugstore opening to stringing unsightly wires over the council chamber doors for TV cameras recording the meeting.

"This is a new day in Compton," he told them. "Your mentality has to change."

His main accomplishments, Perrodin said, include bringing to the small municipal airport a program that teaches young people to fly; clearing away obstacles to the development of housing by a local church; and stoking new business development like Starbucks and plans for Gateway Towne Center. Gateway would be Compton's largest commercial development in 25 years, complete with big-box retailers.

He grudgingly gave credit to his predecessor, Omar Bradley, who made headlines when he called himself a "gangster mayor," for starting housing developments and businesses, too. But Perrodin scorned his predecessor for running afoul of the law and said he was keeping the city clean, literally and figuratively.

Bradley is free on bail pending an appeal of his conviction on federal corruption charges in a case that also led to guilty verdicts for a former councilman and city administrator. Bradley succeeded Walter R. Tucker, a former congressman who was convicted in 1996 on federal extortion and tax fraud charges for crimes that occurred while he was mayor; a councilwoman was also convicted in that case on similar charges.

Perrodin has largely evaded the whiff of scandal, though he did raise eyebrows by taking a campaign contribution in 2001 from the rap label Death Row Records - a mistake, he now says - and putting his brother on the city payroll after he promised to end nepotism and cronyism.

Residents say simply not getting indicted may be his biggest achievement, giving the city a sense of stability.

Barbara Levine, a regional manager with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., a private nonprofit group, said Perrodin had brought a calm to the city that had many businesses considering locating there.

"They are going in the right direction, and I think they are cleaning up many questionable elements," Levine said.

Compton has gone from being predominantly white and middle class in the 1940s and 1950s to predominantly black in the 1960s and 1970s, and is now at least 60 percent Hispanic, though blacks still dominate political and government leadership.

There has been tension, with some blacks blaming the growth of the Hispanic population for the city's ills, and some Latinos expressing dismay at their lack of power and access to City Hall.

While Perrodin sees a "new day" in Compton, he sometimes faces weary residents. At the Starbucks he bumped into Jenise Davis, 32, who gave him an earful.

"I'll give you some credit," Davis told him, praising him for the new stores, but then mentioned someone getting shot in the head across the street from her house. "It's going to take a lot to clean up this city."

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