By Wendi Maxwell, Guest Contributor
Wendi Maxwell brings personal insight and occasional stories from California, particularly the strange world of California politics and the new left. Maxwell is a former policy maker for California adult literacy projects
A few nights ago I locked my house up tight, turned on all the lights inside and outside, and settled in to watch the Giants clinch a trip to the World Series. Why all the lights? Why all the paranoia? My city had just experienced eight murders in one weekend, one of them only moments ago, a few blocks from my house. For the first time, I was scared. (Photo above left: "Stockton in Crisis")
A few days earlier police arrested an armed man in front of my neighbor’s house, and made sweeps through our entire neighborhood – guns drawn – looking for his accomplices. (They had committed crimes elsewhere and escaped on foot, running through the neighborhoods till they were finally caught in our area.) This is what looming bankruptcy looks like – a police force one third its recommended size filled with officers with less than one year experience, a town on the crossroads of the Mexican drug trade with an employment rate still at a stubborn 13 percent.
People ask what it’s like living in a bankrupt city. It’s scary. But it’s also surprisingly glorious seeing the way people come together and the things we can accomplish outside of government. Scary and glorious. Just like eight murders and a World Series. (Photo left: "Bankrupt")
You may have heard of my hometown of Stockton CA. We made worldwide headlines a couple of years ago as the first American city to experience the foreclosure crisis, although our foreclosure ranking has since dropped from worst in the US to second or third place, where it stubbornly remains. Now to cap it off, we’re the largest city in the US (at just shy of 300,000 residents) to declare bankruptcy. Sacramento, the state capital and neighbor just 45 miles away, routinely refers to us as “Stockton in Crisis.” It’s as good a phrase as any, but I sure feel beat up. The economic recovery is not visible from here. Does the state send any help? Not really.
City government tries its best to deal with bankruptcy, crime, and a deluge of prisoners transferred from the state to the cities. (The state passed a law transferring “less violent” criminals from state jurisdiction and returning them to their home counties. They estimated transferring fewer than 400 parolees to our county. The actual transfer was over 1700. We can’t handle this many. When they reoffend, we have no jail beds to house them.) California Highway Patrol and the FBI send occasional help. Last spring we asked for help from the Highway Patrol and were turned down. This week, after the eight-murder weekend, they’ve agreed to help.
Life here feels pretty normal most of the time. Parts of our city are gorgeous, and parts are run down. Being bankrupt hasn’t changed what we look like, although it’s changing how we act. But I get solicitous email from well-meaning friends asking how I’m feeling, what happened to the city, why we haven’t fixed these problems, and finally, whether we’re leaving town. The answers are: I’m feeling stressed, what happened is complicated, we’re doing all kinds of things to fix problems, and no, I’m not abandoning my community. (I couldn’t afford to relocate even if I wanted to. The value of my house has dropped $600,000.)
Surprisingly while conversations about the financial crisis spring up all over town, we continue to argue about the same things everybody else does – the presidential election, the economy, wars, potholes, trees with mistletoe, stolen bikes, problems with schools, overcrowded and underfunded colleges, and CRIME.
Crime’s the biggest topic in our town. Our homicide rate has skyrocketed. Three years ago we had 30 homicides in one year and we thought it was bad. Now, in October 2012, we’ve hit 62 and things show no sign of slowing down. We’re now listed as the 8th most violent city in the US. (Stockton CA is the only city that has to have a state shown behind its name because nobody knows where we are.)
What’s perhaps most shocking is that crime and murders occur all over town, even in areas considered “safe”. Four of the eight-weekend murders occurred during the afternoon, all over the city. A month ago, a man was killed walking in the park in the afternoon right by the fire station. Thieves wanted the gold chain around his neck. There are no safe neighborhoods any more.
But Stocktonians are a resilient bunch. We’ve hit rock-bottom and we’re fighting back. When our no-kill animal shelter was threatened with eviction this spring, local musicians raised $22,000 in three days to keep the shelter open. National Night Out saw neighbors coming together all over the city. There’s a “Take Back the Park” night scheduled for November (in the dark!) in one of our toughest neighborhoods. Volunteers work with Love Our Stockton on cleanup efforts, a Dear Stockton project documents messages of love directed to our city, new murals complement charter schools who’ve brought thousands of kids downtown. Old fashioned barn-raisings have nothing on the amount of local volunteer effort going into our city right now. People open their pocketbooks as never before. Unfortunately we just don’t have a lot to give right now, but we do what we can. (Photo left: "Dear Stockton Mural")
Churches and Faith Based Organizations are some of the most active participants in trying to take back our city. They work with neighborhoods, community centers, families, former gang leaders, and anyone who’ll listen. One of their main goals is to change a street culture that says giving information to the police is snitching.
We started an active neighborhood watch group in my area a couple of years ago. We live in the center of town, near a large park, so there’s a lot of traffic along our streets, even though it feels relatively surburban with large lots, lawns and trees. When we started, the “ain’t it awful” feeling was pervasive. Neighbors distrusted anyone on the street (unfamiliar cars, young people on skateboards or bicycles, people with backpacks), and there were lots of problems with people drinking and partying in the park, as well as homeless people living in the bushes. We had a rash of home burglaries that certainly didn’t help the mood. The park benches and tables and bathroom were tagged almost daily, and the concrete wall over our bridge was a patchwork of tagging and splotched mismatched paint covering the tags.
We asked for help from the police. They taught us how to differentiate emergency and non emergency police calls, and we’re now diligent about reporting activity in our neighborhood. We started what the police call “park patrols” and what we call “walking the dog with a friend.” The city gave us paint, and now we paint and repaint the benches and tables. This summer, we painted the bridge (and the neighboring walls), and have had only three instances of tagging – all of which we repainted the day they were found. (Photo left: "Painting the Bridge)
Most importantly, we’ve become friends with all our neighbors. (Even the ones who want to shoot people.) We have potluck events every couple of months – the most recent was a “porch watch” with wine, homegrown tomatoes, fresh caught salmon, chimichangas, and kids running all over. I think the crime rate in our immediate neighborhood has decreased. Certainly we haven’t had any burglaries for a couple of months, and the last ones were thefts from yards rather than house break-ins. But most importantly, we now view our neighborhood as a good place to live, a vibrant community that experiences some occasional crime, rather than a crime-ridden neighborhood in which we feel trapped.
The city is doing its best, and there are areas where the city and community work together. But in general, we’ve realized that government – whether local, state, or federal – is not going to be able to help us. We’ve got to fix this mess ourselves.
It’s an interesting emotional dichotomy. There are so many positive things going on right now that it’s exciting and hopeful. On the other hand, the likelihood of any of them “fixing” the problem is small, and that’s depressing. It’s back to the emotional roller-coaster of eight murders and a World Series. We’re learning to adjust to a new normal of increased personal responsibility paired with decreased expectations. If we didn’t know how bad off we are, it could be a really exciting time. (Photo right: "Dear Stockton Mural")