Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
"You're going to be a gangbanger or you're going to be a cowboy. You can't be both."
Weighed down by stereotypes of gang violence and corruption, the city of Compton, California, can always use a story about the good things that go on there.
Currently in production, the documentary "Fire on the Hill" tells one of those stories—about a Compton with cowboys. And stables. And a rich, complex history of black and Latino ranching culture that may be on the brink of extinction.
"It was like a different way of life, in the inner city," says Calvin, one of the three featured cowboys, in the trailer. "You'd never know it was there."
The titular "Hill" refers to one of a handful of stables in the area, which has been partly zoned for agriculture since Griffith D. Compton donated his land to Los Angeles County to create the city in 1889. "The Hill" has been around for at least 70 years, according to one of the film's subjects, sheltering horses and training rodeo cowboys. In recent decades, it's been a refuge to young black and Latino men seeking an alternative to the more dangerous paths that living in Compton can offer.
"It's either you're going to be a gangbanger or you're going to be a cowboy," says another cowboy, Ghuan. "You can't be both."
The city's Old West culture has been ebbing for years, according to the filmmakers, pushed out by industrialization, urban development, and crime. But the nail in the coffin may have come in 2012, when the Hill "mysteriously burned to the ground," possibly the result of arson. Now, Compton's cowboys are fighting to rebuild their singular community as the modern world closes in.
More than halfway to its fundraising goal on Kickstarter, "Fire on the Hill" reveals a little-seen side of Compton—and it's urgent that it gets seen now.