For hip hop enthusiasts “back in the day” might refer to 1986 and the formation of N.W.A., but Compton’s history truly began back in the day—150 years ago. Compton is one of the oldest incorporated cities in the county, and its first residents were a band of thick-skinned pioneers who managed to turn the uneven soil into fertile agricultural ground that yielded all manner of fruits and vegetables. These thirty or so hardy souls arrived via wagon train from the Stockton area in 1867, with Griffith Dickenson Compton leading the way. The Stocktonians purchased 4,600 acres of the Rancho San Pedro from F.P.F. Temple and Fielding W. Gibson at five bucks per acre. Comptonville was born.
It was hardscrabble out in the flatlands that first year with foul weather and floods, but Mr. Compton held firm, and crops began to flourish in the region. Eventually, in 1888, Compton donated much of his land to the state legislature for incorporation as the city of Compton—on the condition that plots of land be set aside for Richland Farms, an agricultural area. By the 1920s, when this map was created, the city was booming, with factories sprouting across the city. The connection of the Panama Canal dramatically increased shipping to and from the harbor, and Compton’s central position between San Pedro and the city of Los Angeles led to its moniker: Hub City.
Compton officials bragged that their city’s six dense square miles lay “in the center of the wealth and industry of Los Angeles,” and the area was abuzz with traffic. Some 50,000 autos passed through the city every day, and the Pacific Electric and Southern Pacific railroads offered 24/7 passenger train stops. In the ‘20s, a new library and city hall were completed, and the city boasted an airport, a high school with an enrollment of 1,000, and Compton Junior College, a four-year school (11th and 12th grades plus two years of college). Add to that two major oil fields producing 90,000 barrels of crude oil per day and the huge Samson Tire and Rubber Factory, and you have the plethora of jobs that helped Compton’s population increase 800% in five years.
Though factories hummed in Compton, the city always maintained an agricultural foundation. To this day, the city maintains one-acre plots of Richland Farms land within city limits and the Compton Jr. Posse carries on a fine equestrian tradition. When this map was drawn, even with the rail lines connecting the city to the big metropolis of L.A., Compton was still out in the country, with fields of beans and beets alongside dairy farms and truck gardens. On the map, Olive Street will become Alondra Boulevard, Main Street will become Compton Avenue, Orange Street will be Rosecrans Avenue, and the Compton Avenue depicted will become Central Avenue.
While Compton may be infamous as the birthplace of gangsta rap and the backdrop of the rivalry between the Crips and the Bloods, it was once a white middle class suburb. The 1930 census listed only one black citizen in Compton, and racially restrictive housing covenants were in place all over the city, making Compton as lily-white as Downey. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, though, the covenants had been declared unconstitutional, and Compton saw an influx of black residents. In the years since, many notable Angelenos have had ties to Compton, among them Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, DJ Yella, MC Ren, Eazy-E, and yours truly (Compton College A.A. 1968).
Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.