A Cutting-Edge City: Stockton?

Times Staff Writer

Fifteen years ago, tiny Gleason Park told the story of this hard-luck Central Valley town: It teemed with hoodlums, hookers and crack dealers.

The city had battled to rid the park of its criminals but failed and ultimately gave up. For years, thugs and addicts freely shot, stabbed and robbed each other, blocks from the Police Department and City Hall. Nearby, pensioners huddled in houses they couldn't hope to sell.

Today, the criminals are gone. The city has razed the park's bathrooms, basketball court and benches, and plans to build a school and affordable housing in their place.

Gleason Park is one sign that a new attitude, like a sheriff with a tin star, has come to Stockton.

As the Central Valley grows away from agriculture into the state's next big population center, many farm towns are losing some of their rough edges. Stockton, a long-disparaged but once-vibrant city, is at the vanguard of the transformation.

Working-class Stockton (population 279,000) has California's highest crime rate and a long way to go. But if it once exemplified how a city could be overwhelmed by crack and gangs, defeatism and grime, it is now a case study in how small victories over blight, decay and criminality can refurbish a municipal image.

The city applied the "broken windows" theory, championed by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton first in New York and then in L.A.: Clean up the minor blight -- broken windows, abandoned cars, graffiti-scarred walls -- and more serious issues of crime and decay will start to fade.

Stockton's homicides have dropped from 62 in 1990 to 41 last year, though the city grew by 70,000 residents. The overall crime rate dropped about 25%.

But most important, residents say, the feel of the city has swung from limp pessimism to the aggressive confidence of the city's early days.

Stockton has bet $126 million of taxpayer money on what officials believe is California's largest redevelopment project: a 5,000-seat baseball stadium and a 10,000-seat hockey, soccer and concert arena along the long-neglected delta waterfront. A Sheraton hotel and condominiums are under construction.

"It's absolutely amazing that Stockton is moving forward given the social challenges arrayed against it," said Robert Benedetti, a political science professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton who has spent years studying the town and teaches a class on its politics.

"The story in part here is that we are a lower-class city that has survived and now is starting to do well against all sorts of difficulties," he said.

Born of the daring optimism that brought the early white settlers to California, Stockton formed in 1849 as a supply center for the 49ers who risked everything to mine the hills for gold.

Later, the town became a center of agricultural innovation and shipbuilding.

But Stockton's frontier atmosphere persisted for decades.

The city began to lose heart in the 1970s, when downtown was abandoned in favor of newer neighborhoods and shopping centers in the northern part of town. Several factories closed. By 1990, downtown hotels had become flophouses for sex offenders and junkies. Halfway houses dotted central Stockton, where property values collapsed.

The one man with plans to revitalize the downtown during those years was Eckhard Schmitz -- a pedophile, as it turned out. After proposing to redevelop the city's waterfront, he was convicted of molesting several boys but jumped bail and fled to his native Germany.

Meanwhile, the city struggled to absorb Mexican and Central American farmworkers, as well as Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong refugees. In the 1980s, it became one of the state's first major cities with no racial majority.

By the end of that decade, crack cocaine had arrived. Newly formed gangs battled for drug-selling territory. Latino street gangs warred with one another, and Southeast Asian gangs robbed refugee families in their homes.

Stockton set homicide records for four consecutive years -- from 1988 through 1991 -- while alternating with San Bernardino and Oakland in claiming the state's second-highest crime rate.

Amid the crime epidemic, the city cut its police force. "That was just almost insanity," said former Mayor Gary Podesto. "That took years to recover from."

The city's worst nightmare occurred Jan. 17, 1989, at Cleveland Elementary School. Patrick Purdy, a drifter with an AK-47, opened fire on a schoolyard of children at recess -- killing five and wounding 30 others and a teacher before killing himself. The event shocked the nation.

"That was a terrible blow to the feeling of the city," said Benedetti. "We were a place of pathology. We killed our kids."

In 1990, ABC chose Stockton to film a prime-time documentary about America's gun problem. A Stockton couple were shot to death in their home while watching the show.

As it became a town only a crime reporter could love, Stockton's native optimism vanished.

"No matter what you wanted to do, the answer was, 'That won't work in Stockton,' " said Podesto, a former supermarket owner who was elected mayor in 1997.

Residents debated what best symbolized Stockton's capitulation. Many believed it was the graffiti covering walls all over town that showed that Stockton, like a punch-drunk boxer, was too beaten to care.

In 1990, Joan Darrah, owner of a public relations firm, was elected mayor and began sprucing up downtown. She pushed a sales-tax increase to hire more police. She also organized an anti-graffiti committee and put Ann Johnston, a former city councilwoman, in charge.

Graffiti "may seem an inconsequential thing when we have heavy-duty crimes being committed," Johnston said. "But we said, 'Look, this is where it starts.' "

The task force organized graffiti cleanup days with hundreds of volunteers. The city and county enacted fines and community service duty for graffiti vandals. Finally, the city bought two trucks that went around town painting over graffiti.

By the time Darrah left office in 1997, Stockton had controlled its graffiti. Through the late 1990s, the city's crime rate dropped. Podesto was elected mayor, making the revival of downtown and the waterfront his priority.

"He instituted a style of governance that is a lot like football," said Mike Fitzgerald, columnist for the Record, the town's daily newspaper. "You huddle with the players, decide on the play, and then you barrel downfield knocking over anybody in your way."

Gone was the sentiment, common in the Central Valley, that government should be small.

Podesto and the council declined to approve multi-screen movie theaters outside downtown. They also hired Stockton's first lobbyists in Sacramento and Washington.

In 2001, believing inertia the gravest threat to the town, Podesto hired a city manager, Mark Lewis, with a bare-knuckles reputation for getting things done.

Together, they began closing old downtown hotels that housed parolees and addicts -- halted only when a federal judge ruled that the city had illegally displaced hotel residents. They aggressively enforced the housing code.

"A lot of people would say I was short on process," said Podesto, who was termed out of office in 2004. "I think our city had plenty of process for a long time but never got anything accomplished.... At some point, you have to be a bully."

Downtown property owners, encouraged by what the city was doing, formed an improvement district to beautify sidewalks and plazas.

Other factors helped: Nationwide, crack cocaine use declined and crime rates dropped. Thousands of Bay Area residents moved to town for the relatively cheap housing. Property values soared. That brought big box retailers and more sales-tax revenue.

Also, more Stockton residents, including many Mexican immigrants, bought homes. The children of Asian refugees grew to adulthood speaking English and became part of the town in a way their parents couldn't.

Meanwhile, the city shed its indifference toward education -- a legacy of its agricultural past.

In 2000, Podesto and then-Police Chief Ed Chavez led a campaign for the first school-construction bonds in decades. In the next five years, the district passed $200 million in bonds, matched by state funds, to renovate or build 27 schools.

With fewer addicts and parolees roaming downtown, Stockton's center has begun a renaissance. A 16-screen movie theater opened in 2004 and drew more than a million people in its first year. The historic Fox Theater was renovated and reopened in 2004 as a concert venue. The Hotel Stockton, built on the waterfront in 1909, is being remodeled.

The publicly funded Stockton Waterfront Events Center -- the baseball stadium and arena -- took just 17 months to build. The ballpark opened in April 2005 and is home to the minor league Stockton Ports. At the arena, the Stockton Thunder hockey team, also minor league, played its first game in December before a sellout crowd.

Since then, though, politics have shifted. In the last year, as he pushed projects through, City Manager Lewis emerged as the most controversial figure at City Hall.

To many Stocktonians, he seemed a throwback to an era when strong-willed bureaucrats -- L.A. water boss William Mulholland, for example -- single-mindedly pursued massive public projects. But his aggressive political style lost its appeal. The City Council, which had strongly backed Lewis, fired him unceremoniously in January.

"Folks are ready for a new way of doing great things," said Councilman Clem Lee, who once supported Lewis.

Stockton's transformation is far from finished.

Its share of residents with college degrees is less than half the state average, according to the San Joaquin Partnership, which promotes economic development. South Stockton, historically poor, remains in dire need of economic development.

The town's crime rate, though it has declined, is still high -- the state's highest in 2004 -- a sign that the changes downtown haven't vanquished entrenched poverty, gangs and drug addiction.

"We're still on the journey," said former Police Chief Mark Herder, who retired in March. "We didn't get where we were overnight."

The idea of using government to promote city development seems to have to come to stay. Chavez, now mayor, recently proposed $110 million in redevelopment bonds to invest in the city's neighborhoods. Meanwhile, time will tell if the gamble on a 10,000-seat arena for hockey and concerts on the waterfront of a Central Valley town will pay off.

Stockton paid Neil Diamond $1 million to inaugurate the arena in January, losing about $396,000. On the other hand, a Bob Dylan concert at the arena in April sold out, and the Stockton Thunder outdrew every team in its league this season.

However, some city residents say all that is minor compared with the change in Stocktonians themselves, who, instead of joking about their city's blemishes, focus on the signs of its rebirth.

"If you walk into that Events Center, you can almost feel this reckless optimism of Stockton's Gold Rush predecessors," said the Record's Fitzgerald, a native. "There's a wicked fun in the air."

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