Aja Brown.
Aja Brown.

It is a quarter of a century since Straight Outta Compton, the
seminal gangsta rap album, made a 25 sq km area of Los Angeles
synonymous with gang violence and murder.
A lot has changed in Compton since then and, sitting in her office at City Hall, Aja Brown, the Mayor, sees good times ahead.
At
the heart of her optimism is a truce between “Bloods” and “Crips”, the
two gangs associated with the area. Earlier this year, Brown, at 32 one
of America’s youngest mayors, reached out to Compton gang leaders
through former members. She ended up meeting 50 leaders from dozens of
local gangs in a community centre.
Some had refused to be in each others presence for decades, but they agreed to keep the peace.
“Seeing
people decide to choose love instead of hate is phenomenal,” Brown said
of the meeting. “It’s amazing to see the evolution and the
transformation. It touches my heart.

“Gang activity really originated in this area because they
[gang leaders] had the power to start it. But they also have the power
to finish it and stop the negative cycle.
“It is real redemption when you can have people who were notorious for tearing down their community helping to build it up.”
Following
that meeting a committee of gang leaders now gathers weekly. Sometimes
they argue, but they usually come back the following week, and the mayor
hopes they will be able to travel to other trouble spots in the US to
help diffuse violence.
Brown has a very personal motivation for
wanting to turn Compton’s gang violence around. In the Seventies, before
she was born, her grandmother was murdered in a home invasion there.
She saw the effect on her mother.
She is proud that what she has
achieved so far was done not through heavy policing but conflict
mitigation. The last several months had seen a reduction in violent
activity of about 65 per cent, she said, and people jogging at night was
a sign of her success.
Despite being on course for its safest
year in decades, Compton still has its share, more than its share, of
violence. Two weeks ago, Lontrell Lee Turner, 16, was gunned down as he
was on his way home from church. There have been 26 homicides this year
in a city of 100,000 people, resulting in a murder rate more than three
times the overall average for Los Angeles.
But that is still a
huge drop from the 100 murders a year during the city’s most violent
period 25 years ago. Last year, hundreds of guns were handed over when
police offered to pay up to US$200 ($260) for each.
Armed with
degrees in public policy and urban planning, Brown won last year’s
Compton election in a landslide. Her first budget was in surplus and
debts are being paid off.
The residential property market has
risen, up more than 10 per cent in the past year, as people have been
priced out of other neighbourhoods. Properties are being snapped up by
investors. Families are attracted to Compton’s location. It is close to
the airport, Long Beach port, the second busiest container port in the
US, and near offices in the city.
Brown sees gangsta rap as a
“snapshot of a decade period in this city’s 126-year history.” She
added: “It was real because they rapped about the life they lived. But
you really have to be proud of the process and the evolution.”