When you step off the Blue Line in Compton, Calif., the first thing you notice is a huge, silver, disembodied ‘N’ towering past gleaming white pillars hugged by strips of plexiglass. Then you realize the ‘N’ is part of a word, stretched out to fit the train tracks: “C O M P T O N.” Look a little further, and you glimpse a tidy playground, a skate park and a shopping mall that bustles with the city’s mostly black and Latino residents.
In the train station’s backdrop, you see a newly renovated office building rescued from post-industrial decay. A few blocks north from there you can find a row of townhouses, one of which belongs to Compton’s new mayor, 31-year-old Aja Brown.
“People say it’s ‘gentrification,’ but gentrification is when you go in and you clean out businesses and you rebuild something else,” Brown says of the small, polished downtown that she helped make over, an area that stands out against most of Compton’s pothole-marred streets and shabby houses. “This revitalization project is returning the city to the community. We have some great people here, and everyone wants to contribute and be part of something positive.”
Brown is full of optimistic refrains like these. An urban planner by trade, she ran for mayor this spring on the premise that The Hub City could be great, the sort of city that her family remembers from a generation ago. When Brown talks about Compton, she downplays its reputation as the birthplace of gangster rap or a cesspool of political corruption, and instead focuses on its access to five freeways, its airport, its golf course, its school district, its college.
“Everything is ripe for growth,” she says. In June, she won by a landslide against onetime-disgraced former mayor Omar Bradley. Although some in the community side-eye her relative newcomer status — she and her husband have only lived in Compton since 2009 — others embrace it.
Indeed, Brown is the first Compton mayor with an urban planning background. While at the University of Southern California, she switched her major from engineering to urban planning “before it was apparently the cool thing to do,” much to the dismay of her mother, who used to bring Brown to Saturday Science academy every week. (“She’s happy now,” Brown assures me.) While pursuing a graduate degree at USC at night, Brown scored her first job in 2004 as an economic development analyst in Gardena, a small industrial city near Compton with a mostly older population. She worked on business development and the “brownfields,” an effort to clean up historically contaminated properties.
“That’s a bold thing to do,” says Dion Jackson, an adjunct professor at USC who mentored Brown. “Property owners are not interested in hearing about contamination in their neighborhoods. She was convincing people to invest, and that takes a certain level of commitment.”
From Gardena, Brown went to work in economic development in nearby Inglewood, where she did marketing for the city, worked on tax credit deals for businesses and helped plan the Hollywood Park project. She was also appointed as planning commissioner for Pasadena, “as a favor to a friend,” and went out there once a week to meet with the commission and go to church.
It was church, in fact, that brought Brown back to Compton. She and her husband were looking for a bible study that was between their jobs in Inglewood and El Segundo. Brown’s friend had started to go to Compton’s Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church, and she’d bring the couple CDs of the church’s leadership training. Pretty soon they were attending bible study and getting involved in the community. Brown and her husband painted homes on Saturdays and ran groups with kids. They counseled prostitutes on Long Beach Boulevard.
“That really drew me in, that focus on doing good work in the community,” she says. Brown already had a connection to the city — her mother grew up in Compton when it was a “mecca for working-class people” and her family still owned several properties in the area. Plus, “I just felt that I could be more impactful in a community like Compton. Cities like Pasadena have already turned that page.” She soon found a job as a project manager for the Compton Community Redevelopment Agency, and the couple put a down payment on a townhome.
At 31, Brown fits squarely into the stereotype of a scrappy Millennial eager to put her idealism and education to good use. In some ways, she’s akin to the much talked-about young transplants who would rather take an active role in the revitalization of Detroit or New Orleans than tough it out in expensive cities like New York or Washington, D.C. Because of a lagging economy and a penchant for community service, young people, Brown says, want “to go someplace and be established, to actually purchase an affordable home, and really put the time and effort needed to build their own community and their own sense of place.” She and her husband’s townhouse near the train station, their first home purchase, was “very affordable” compared to other places they looked.
Unlike other urban transplants, though, Brown has eschewed a cushy place in the private sector for public service, a choice Millennials are increasingly shying away from. At first, Brown adhered to her generation’s conventional wisdom: The realm of politics was “too much red tape and too many influences,” something that would only stifle her efforts to make a difference. Her 10-year plan was to work with cities for a few years, then go into the private sector and do consulting.
But while working in Compton’s City Hall, she became frustrated by a “clear and distinct bottleneck at the top” and how “political influences favor certain projects over others.” She was intent on finding a fresh voice to run for mayor. Everyone she approached pointed the finger back at her.
“So I kind of said, ‘Why not?’” Brown recalls. “I’m a daring person, and I’m willing to take a lot of risks. I thought, ‘Well, if not me, then who?’”
A July L.A. Weekly profile characterized some of Brown’s policy plans, like downtown revitalization or reuse of public space, as “hipster ideas.” But Brown rejects that she favors a bird’s-eye wonderland over the basics. In fact, she says, “I would say it’s actually converse… having smooth streets, a low crime rate, making certain that we trim our trees” are her top priorities.
Another issue at the top, she says, is nurturing afterschool programs, as well as a program called Plan B, which encourages student athletes to focus on their education. She plans to facilitate the prosecution of Compton’s first human trafficking case, an issue that’s been important to her since her days working with prostitutes on the boulevard. And she plans to mobilize the more than 200 churches in Compton to “actually go out rather than staying inside the four walls and hoping that people come in.”
That same L.A. Weekly piece details a strong and hostile generational divide, but there are early signs that the ice is beginning to melt. Councilwoman Janna Zurita, Omar Bradley’s cousin and a member of the black old guard who had previously refused to talk about Brown, wrote in an email that she thought Brown’s “youth and professional acumen as an urban planner” was “invaluable.” She added that she’s looking forward to working with Brown on quality of life issues now that the city is in a better financial position.
This fall, Brown will start a program to address one of the most basic quality of life issues: A monthly neighborhood cleanup, where residents pick up trash and remove graffiti. “I think it will begin to change the mindset here,” she says. “No one’s coming in a helicopter to clean up Compton, or to reduce our crime rate, or to make it great again. That has to come from us.”