You Can Call Her Mayor Brown: How Aja Brown Is Transforming the City of Compton
(Vogue.com) Her name is Aja (because her mother liked the Steely Dan song), but you can call her Mayor Brown. Compton, the small California city that gangsta rap put on the map—the birthplace of Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, and the infamous Suge Knight; the early training ground of Serena and Venus Williams—has a new kid in town. And if she has her way, she’s going to bring a lot of changes to Compton.
Mayor Aja Brown, 31, sworn into office July 2, 2013, may be a somewhat recent resident, but she has deep roots in Compton. Her own mother, Brenda Jackson, fled the city in her twenties. Jackson’s mother, Aja’s maternal grandmother, Lena Young—there’s no way to write this sentence without its stark reality—was brutally murdered in a violent home invasion rape and robbery in Compton in the 1970s. The case is still unsolved.
As Aja explains it in her quiet, remarkably understated way, “It’s a sore spot.” And then she adds, “My mother left immediately. It was just too sad . . .”
But I imagine her grandmother would be proud that her granddaughter’s name is now emblazoned in gold letters on the double doors that lead to the city’s offices.
As she walks across the room to greet me—she’s five foot nine and wearing a red dress (not flashy, she just looks good in red) toned down with a beige jacket and impressive matching four-inch heels—she flashes a smile that I suspect she also will become known for. She has a cool, calm reserve and a soft, measured voice. It’s almost as if she’s been trained to “take a beat” and never interrupt. Her style of listening is quiet and intent, with an emphasis on empathy.
Her mother says she’s always been that way and predicted she would grow up to be a CEO or something. “I’ve always been calm,” Brown explains, “and I’m very good in a crisis.”
That’s probably a good thing since shortly before she took office, Compton was forty million dollars in debt and on the brink of insolvency. “It’s really only twenty million,” Mayor Brown explains, as if it’s water off her back. “There were a lot of duplications on the books.” I’m not sure what this means, but Compton has a history of corruption. In fact, her opponent, former Mayor Omar Bradley, whom she handily defeated in a runoff, was facing corruption charges at the time of the election. Brown adds, “We have a very fiscally conservative accountant now. We’ve managed to restructure the debt, reduce the interest on our bank loans, and right now we have a budget surplus.” Change has already come to Compton.
I always admire people who seemingly knew from childhood what they wanted to do. When Aja was ten, she would beg her mother to take her on weekends to Old Pasadena, which at the time was undergoing a preservation and renovation project to turn it into the model open-air shopping center and tourist attraction that it is today. She just wanted to watch the buildings go up.
Did I mention she’s a fraternal twin? She and her brother Jonathan were raised by Jackson, who followed common-sense imperatives (breakfast every morning, dinner every night), sheltered them from those single-mother times when it was hard to make ends meet, and instilled in her children a sense of security and confidence. They lived in Alta Dena and her mother worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab, where she is still employed today as an executive assistant. Frankly, I think her mother deserves a medal, too.
Mayor Brown and her husband, Van Brown, are a California love story themselves (or a setup for a movie). It was late at night. She stopped for gas on her way home. She couldn’t get the pump to work. He was working as the station attendant. (They’d met before when they were kids; he was a friend of her cousin.) He pretended he couldn’t hear her through the glass and invited her in while he, according to her, then “pretended” to fix the problem. He printed out a blank piece of paper from the cash register and asked her for her number. She told him it looked like he’d done that before. He called her five times the next day (and paged her six) and she went out with him. Two weeks later, he told her he thought she should stop seeing anyone else because he was going to marry her. That was fourteen years ago. She was seventeen. They’ve been together ever since.
She went on to earn multiple degrees in urban planning and economic development, a bachelor’s and a master’s on a full undergraduate scholarship at the University of Southern California. Then, after a ten-year stint in urban planning and economic development in some of L.A.’s surrounding communities—including a prestigious post on the Pasadena Planning Commission—she decided to focus on Compton, a city badly in need of urban planning and economic development.
Four years ago, Brown and her husband, now a successful petrochemical safety manager, moved to Compton, where they had already joined a local church, and started the nonprofit foundation Urban Vision Community Development Corporation, a worthy cause with an emphasis on education programs, scholarships, and small-business loans. In a way, it’s picture perfect, pitch-perfect, and it’s hard not to think she had a plan (or a slight eye on the office she currently occupies) when she moved to Compton.
Mayor Brown is somewhat estranged, understandably, from her father, who was not present during her upbringing. “I don’t have any animosity against him,” she says. “We talk on the phone,” she adds. “Of course, he’d like to have a relationship now. I can imagine being friends with him some day. I just don’t really have the time this year to get acquainted with him.” (She has asked me not to print his name.) Her focus is on improved education; accessible health-care centers (two open and a third coming); bringing businesses in to Compton, and working with churches and other youth organizations to affect the infrastructure from the ground up. She intends to rebrand Compton.
Compton itself is a little bit of a surprise. There’s still the pawn shop with the drive-up window that’s open 24 hours a day, but the Blue Line (L.A.’s burgeoning rail system) stops there now, which makes it easily accessible for the employees of the Southern Calfornia Edison company and other businesses that have a presence there. And I was surprised when I drove into town and turned down Compton Boulevard to see a guy in a Stetson hat riding a big red stallion with a kid in the saddle behind him. Large parts of Compton (and apparently one of the main drags) are equestrian-zoned. The Southern California Edison property is partly lined with modern parks with bike paths and drought-resistant gardens that one day will all connect. They are a carbon copy of the walking path in Coldwater Canyon in fashionable Beverly Hills, although arguably not as well planted.
Compton’s biggest problem, Mayor Brown says, is the California prison early release plan that was created to reduce prison-overcrowding (and which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court). “It just hasn’t been very well thought out,” she explains. “There aren’t any training programs on a state level and people are getting released from prison and coming home and committing crimes again.” Having said that, she adds, “the crime rate is down in Compton 60 percent over the last ten years.”
She takes me on a tour of Compton. (Just to show how brave she is, I’m driving.) As we walk to the car, everyone we pass nods at her. I made a joke that it’s the Compton bow. Even the terribly thin older woman hunched against the chain-link fence smoking a cigarette and looking as if she’s seen better days acknowledged Mayor Brown.
Like much of L.A., the landscape changes block to block, from abandoned storefronts and rundown apartment buildings with barefoot children playing in the street to surprisingly well-kept neighborhoods and family farms. We stop briefly on a tree-lined street in front of the house where Brown’s grandmother was killed. It’s vacant and shuttered, it appears to have been painted black, and the windows have been blocked from the inside.
“I think it’s in escrow,” she says. There’s a big tree in front of it. Neither of us gets out of the car. “My mother took me here once,” she says, “I remember the big tree.” And then she adds, “It’s still an open case. I’m hoping it might be solved some day.” She gives a slight smile as if she’s certain that it will. “I know it would make my mother happy.”
As we pass the railroad tracks, she starts to describe the picture of Compton she has in her mind, as if it’s a 3-D monopoly board or her own version of Old Town Pasadena. She lays out her vision of restaurants, shops, and offices that will open there and the economic crossover she hopes to create with the rest of Los Angeles County.
Does she already have her eye on a bigger office? Her friends think she does. But she says it’s going to take eight years to really make a difference. (That classic confidence again—certain she will be reelected.) We talk briefly about Newark Mayor Cory Booker since her hands-on style is not dissimilar. She communicates with her constituents on Facebook though, not Twitter.
Compton’s most recent mayor, Eric Perrodin, whom she defeated in the general election, did call to congratulate her. I asked her if President Obama called to congratulate her as well. She answered in that understated way she has, slight California accent with a half a beat between the words, “He did not.” But then she hesitated and added, “There’s still time”—that slight smile again—“I think he might someday.”