Stockton: An Inferiority Complex on a Rampage

Times Staff Writer

It is sometimes called Fat City, but that is not because there is anything soft or opulent about the life style in the town of 180,000 residents along the San Joaquin River. Quite the contrary.

This is not trendy, laid-back California lotus land.

The people walking around downtown Stockton are not wearing Guess jean jackets and Reebok tennis shoes or sipping Perrier. These men and women look like a multiracial cast for “The Grapes of Wrath.” There is a lot of hard work and hard living cut into their faces. It is not the kind of city that Chicago columnist Mike Royko would want to drop in on to make his California Moonbeam-and-Sissy cracks. Not out loud. John Steinbeck would have loved Stockton.

But Stockton does not seem to like itself very much.

The Stockton Project--a study of ways to improve the city done under the guidance of the University of the Pacific--reported this year that “many Stockton residents suffer from a totally unjustified inferiority complex.”


Frustrated civic leaders would like to shake the tough and seamy image of the town depicted in the novel and subsequent movie, “Fat City,” that portrayed brutal small-time boxing and life on Skid Row as it existed before a redevelopment project in the 1960s. They would also like to change the city’s more recent reputation as a center for zany news events.

Stockton, an optimistic civic pamphlet says, is “The Bright Hope of Northern California’s Future.”

Despite such proclamations and despite the city’s trying to pave over Skid Row with redevelopment, Stocktonians may not feel ready for prime time.

Many civic leaders here complain that the local citizens’ poor image of Stockton is continually reinforced by the embarrassing antics of public figures, especially City Council members. The televised council meetings are said to be at once entertaining and exasperating--and more popular than “Monday Night Football.”

According to George Sangster, economic development director for the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce, a recent survey of its members showed that the prevailing view is that the City Council is made up of “a bunch of buffoons.”

That view seems widespread.

“They might go on for 45 minutes about whether they’re going to have a 10-minute recess,” observed Todd Summers, president of the Stockton chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Last January, a committee of the Stockton Project recommended almost plaintively:

“Conduct City Council meetings with decorum and integrity.”

The Stockton Project was conducted last year in response to a challenge by the Stockton Record, the city’s daily newspaper, that local leaders find a “new direction” for the community.

In recent years, with city officials often leading the way, Stockton has become a frequent source of bizarre news stories:

- In August, 1982, Stockton’s waterfront renovation plans were stalled when Eckhard Schmitz, a prominent citizen and major developer of the project, was charged with a series of sex offenses against teen-age boys. Schmitz was sentenced to 13 years in prison but subsequently was released pending appeal when he posted all his possessions, including his interest in the waterfront redevelopment contract, as bond. He then fled to Europe and is still at large, leaving the renovation project in limbo.

- In December, 1984, Stockton City Councilman Mark Stebbins, who claimed to be black although everyone else in his family, including his parents, are white, was recalled from office and replaced by Ralph Lee White, who is black.

- In July, 1985, then-Mayor Randall Ronk was kicked out of office by fellow council members who accused him of falsifying about $3,000 in vouchers for travel expenses to Fresno and Bakersfield. Ronk reportedly admitted having doctored the vouchers but said he had done so only to recoup money that he had spent during a secret investigation into alleged City Hall corruption that was never proved. The previous April, Ronk had been acquitted by a Superior Court jury of criminal charges that he falsified the vouchers.

- Last October, Councilman White was charged with voter intimidation stemming from accusations that he pressured people to vote for him on absentee ballots. White readily admitted that he showed people how to fill out absentee ballots and that he took completed ballots to his home and kept them there overnight before mailing them to election officials. But White denied that he did anything wrong. The criminal charges were subsequently dismissed, but, in a civil action, a judge ruled that White’s election was illegal. He has appealed the ruling and remains in office.

- In December, the City Council passed a resolution requesting that Marvel Comics substitute the name Stockton for the mythical Central City that appears in its strips. Marvel Comics, which had tentatively planned to destroy Central City in an episode, agreed to rename it Stockton instead of wiping it out.

- In July, the Port of Stockton, in what is believed to be an unprecedented legal action, sued the San Joaquin County Grand Jury, seeking to have jury criticisms of the port administration’s management practices expunged from the record.

“The place is just riddled with controversy,” said Bruce Spence, city editor of the Stockton Record. “It’s just a few individuals (who cause controversy), but it burns the hearts of all Stocktonians. This town is just one walking insecurity complex.

“It’s almost the kind of thing where you expect somebody important to drop his pants on Main Street.”

Actually, Councilman White came fairly close to doing just that last month.

Just before an Aug. 11 City Council session began, White announced that he was going to provide a urine sample for drug testing, saying that he wanted to emulate President Reagan’s willingness to take drug tests.

Then, accompanied by several reporters and a paramedic, White walked into the mayor’s office, which was vacant at the moment, turned his back on his audience and provided a urine sample. The sample was taken into the council chambers and placed on the press table, where it remained throughout that evening’s City Council session.

Stage Fright

Councilman Jack Clayton tried to follow White’s example, but apparently got stage fright and was unable to provide a sample.

Amid such doings, the embattled Image Committee of the Stockton Project has been trying to sell Stocktonians on their own city with a campaign called: “Stockton is Great. . . . Take a Look.”

The campaign uses newspaper and television advertisements each month to extol one of the city’s virtues. Last month for example, it was “Stockton: California’s Cornucopia.”

The city’s location served as the kickoff theme of the image campaign. Stockton boosters invariably mention the city’s proximity to San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and the Sierra as an important advantage to living here, which has led local wits to snicker: “Stockton: It’s close to a lot of nice places.”

Stockton must be one of the most sloganed cities in the world. In addition to the motto of the month, and the “Bright Hope” slogan, the community has also been called “the Sunrise Port,” “Someplace Special” and “California’s Inland Seaport,” not to mention “Fat City” and other unglamorous names such as “Mudville” and “Tuleburg.”

Media Blamed

Mayor Barbara Fass conceded that the image campaign will be a “valiant effort” with little chance of success as long as the news media continue to report on what she considers sensational stories about city government and especially the antics of White.

But all this sound and fury may be the essence of Stockton.

Controversy seems to have been planted like a seed when the city was established just before the Gold Rush. German immigrant and entrepreneur Charles M. Weber founded the town and named it in honor of American naval officer Robert F. Stockton, who is credited with forcing the last Mexican troops out of California in the 1840s.

The first election of city officials in 1849 was declared illegal, and the nine aldermen were held personally responsible for all city debts incurred, according to local historian Olive Davis in “Stockton, Sunrise Port on the San Joaquin.”

The Indians were in the Stockton area first, of course. Then came the Spanish, followed by the Mexicans, the Yankee adventurers, white ‘49ers and entrepreneurs and farmers, Chinese gold miners and railroad builders and merchants. Later Filipinos came to work the asparagus fields, followed by waves of war brides, students and professionals. Dust Bowl refugees, most of them white, came in the 1930s. Blacks came to work the shipyards in World War II. Latinos came to harvest crops.

Big Skid Row

As Stockton grew, large family homes were constructed just north of downtown and magnificent buildings such as the Hotel Stockton went up in the center of the city. The community also produced one of the biggest, toughest and most wide-open Skid Rows in the West.

Stockton’s deep-water port, 75 miles inland from the Golden Gate, opened in 1933 with the re-channeling of the San Joaquin River to handle ocean-going cargo ships.

Today, strong reminders of the town’s roots remain. Chinatown is small but stable. A Filipino association owns a small shopping center with a 10-story apartment building. Descendants of the Dust Bowl refugees live in a tough, working-class suburb on the west side of town, and the neighborhoods of blacks and Latinos sprawl mostly to the south side of the city.

The 1980 census showed that 57% of the city’s population was white, 22% Latino, 10% black and 9% Asian. Today, it is estimated that the Latino population is increasing moderately while the Asian population has swelled dramatically, with an influx of 20,000 or more Southeast Asians.

According to the city Planning Department, by the end of the decade whites may be a minority group in Stockton.

Southeast Asians, the newest ingredients of Stockton’s ethnic mix, are the targets of discrimination from all sides.

Refugees Taunted

Boon Khoonsrivong, acting director of the Refugee Resource Center in Stockton, said Southeast Asians are sometimes taunted from passing cars and eggs are sometimes hurled at the refugees.

Even so, most observers here say the races generally get along reasonably well, considering tension-causing social problems such as a county unemployment rate that averages 12% and a city crime rate that is fourth highest in the state.

The city’s troubled economy remains largely dependent on agriculture, although there is also light manufacturing, government and service jobs. And with the three major railroads crossing here and with its deep-water port, Stockton is also considered a shipping center.

Today, huge cargo ships from all over the world sail in and out of the port, bringing in everything from Central American molasses to Canadian cement and taking out everything from wheat for the Soviet Union to gray clay for firebricks in the Far East.

As for Skid Row, the city paved it over but did not wipe it out. Transients are now spread over a wider area. The police pick up 13,000 drunks a year, put them through detoxification for six hours each and turn them loose.

There are few pedestrians in downtown Stockton after dark other than droves of transients.

Neglected Hotel

Many of Stockton’s fine old homes have been preserved and well-cared for on the near north side of town. The Hotel Stockton is still here, but--while there is talk of restoring it--the fabulous old building is used as county welfare offices and is largely neglected.

And, as civic leaders continue to worry about Stockton’s image, the area has been the fastest-growing region in the state, according to census data.

Partly because of Stockton’s moderately priced new housing, the far north side of town has attracted many white-collar workers who commute to jobs an hour or more away in the east San Francisco Bay Area. The orderly housing tracts and gleaming shopping centers springing up are given names like Quail Lakes.

“Yuppieville,” sneer detractors of the new neighborhoods.

But advocates of growth want to expand Stockton even farther north with still more housing and commercial development. And voters are being asked to approve such expansion plans on the November ballot.

So Yuppieville may very well be Stockton’s future, its long-sought image.

And that would be a long way from Fat City.