Compton, Calif. is one of those mythic American cities — much like its East Coast equivalent, Brooklyn — whose pop culture legacy and list of famous residents also come with a well-deserved reputation for danger. Despite gifting the world with Venus and Serena Williams, Kendrick Lamar, Niecy Nash, Dr. Dre and more, Compton has long been seen as a scary no-man's land — a perception that's not totally unjustified.
But A&E's Streets of Compton, a three-part docu-film that premieres Thursday, we see much more: a community of strivers, a place brimming with creativity, hope and a fascinating history. Narrated by rapper The Game, Streets doesn't shy away at all from the city's historical (and present-day) association with crime, guns, gangs and drugs, but rather digs into the roots of how all that came to be, and what's next. Here's just some of what we learned from Part 1.
1. Compton was once a really nice town.
Full of lovely multi-family homes in the idyllic picket-fence sense. It was also heavily segregated, beginning in the 1950s — for a time, only whites could buy property there.
2. Two U.S. presidents lived in Compton.
Only for six months in 1949-1950, but still, George W. Bush (43) and his dad, George Herbert Walker Bush (41) lived in Compton when the elder Bush was on a temporary assignment for an oil company.
3. Compton's first gangs were comprised of white kids.
The first violent gangs in Compton, according to the film, were formed by white kids who wanted to keep black kids in check. Rules, some legal and some unspoken, made it so that black people could not be in Compton after dark, even if they owned businesses there. Young white kids organized to make sure the members of the growing black middle class would stay in line.
4. Some gangs had noble missions when they started.
Before they became known as the Crips and Bloods we know today, early black gangs started as brotherhoods intended to protect one another and demand fair treatment - like the ability to use the public pools their parents were paying taxes for. Pretty soon, infighting began.
5. The rise of gangs had an almost direct correlation to segregation and racism.
The doc mentions how realtors deliberately kept blacks on one side of town and also mentions the Watts Riots - in which Watts, close to Compton, burned for six days straight in 1965. Not mentioned in the film is that those riots began as a reaction to tensions in black community, which was feeling scrutiny from an aggressive police presence alarmed by a fast-growing black population. Coupled with "white flight" that created a lack of businesses and tax revenue and therefore crippled the area financially, the door was wide open for criminals to take control.
6. Compton elected the first black mayor of a major California town.
Douglas F. Dollarhide in 1969. (Although crime escalated and property values decreased during his tenure, so there's that.)
7. The Black Panthers opened a branch in Compton.
The group's aim - in keeping with its founding branch in Northern California - was to get more young black people involved in their own communities by way of progressive political action. But their presence didn't last long: Sheriffs, according to people in the film, would "pull them over and just start kicking them."
8. Gangs didn't start out doing major crimes.
It was just petty stuff at first, according to residents — i.e. robbing people of their shoes, jackets and other belongings.
9. Crips and Bloods had their beginnings in high schools.
Amid an economically depressed background, the Crips, who were from other L.A. nabes, starting moving in to take over Compton, which was still a relatively middle class enclave. The Pirus, which were named after a section of town and later became known as the Bloods, formed to protect Compton. Both controlled entire high schools: Crips controlled Compton High and Pirus controlled Centennial. Fighting that started on school grounds would spill over into neighborhood battles.
10. The name "Blood" started in prison.
Not totally surprising, but that moniker - "What's up, Blood?" - soon became a way of making known one's belonging to the tribe.
11. ComedianPaul Rodriguez is way more gangster than we ever knew.
Serving as a proxy for the Latino gangs that have long been prominent in Compton, the Beverly Hills Chihuahua star explained that he was close to being a leader in a gang — having been forced, essentially, to join or risk going unprotected in day-to-day life. He wouldn't say on camera whether he's killed anyone, but acknowledged getting retribution against rival gang members in a way that felt kinda scary.
12.The drugs situation got BAD.
You knew this, but it was still mind-blowing to hear officers detail how Crips would sell "water" in a park, which was really PCP. In time, officers started seeing little white pebbles on the ground - rocks they later learned were nicknamed crack. Crack spread to the entire city: 12-year-olds were selling cocaine and since cops couldn't arrest them, they'd call their parents, and the kids could be back on the street selling crack within hours. Pro athletes, teachers, all kinds of "good," hardworking people got caught up in it, to the point where nearly every resident had someone in his or her family hooked on crack. Crazy.
13. Black-ish's Anthony Anderson grew up in Compton.
From 1979 to 1995. He recalls seeing yellow tape over chalk outlines, learning friends he was supposed to play basketball with were dead, and having friends he'd known since kindergarten pull guns on him. Which means his character on Black-ish — ad exec Andre, who moved up to the suburbs after growing up in the hood — isn't an exaggeration at all.
14.Venus and Serena Williams' dad moved the tennis phenoms IN to Compton right when things were getting bad - on purpose.
Eccentric wouldn't be an inaccurate way to describe Venus and Serena's dad, Richard Williams, who in 1983 moved his daughters into Compton because he thought the tough environment would be good for them. His logic is sound, albeit risky enough to sound insane--especially as we take in the sight of one of them holding a racquet in front of a home scrawled with graffiti. Of course, his gamble paid off, revealing him to be a visionary with an astounding sense of singular purpose and discipline.
15. Councilwoman Patricia Moore got dilapidated tennis courts fixed up so Venus and Serena could practice.
Because one person believed in the Williams sisters they are now... The Williams Sisters. Crying yet?
16. N.W.A, which includes now-household names Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, got its start at a Compton club, playing dance music.
You knew this if you saw the biopic Straight Outta Compton, but it was still neat to see in documentary style.
17. The Game, who narrates the series, grew up in a fairly solid middle class home - until his uncle's murder made everything come undone.
Whether you're a fan of rapper The Game or never heard of him, it's hard not to be moved by his explanation of what happened after his uncle was murdered. Game is shockingly sensitive and vulnerable in telling the story of how his uncle, his hero, was murdered when Game was a smiling, innocent first grader. Game's father explains how his brother's death sparked a cycle of depression and drugs that tore the family apart, and it's not just sad but staggering when you consider that many more hard-working, low-income and middle class families had very similar stories. Yet knowing that Game, like the Williams sisters, Anthony Anderson, Kendrick Lamar and others used grit and talent to make it out is awe-inspiring and a testament to the human spirit.
Streets of Compton airs Thursday, June 9 beginning at 9/8c (Parts 1 and 2) and Thursday, June 16 at 10/9c (Part 3) on A&E.