Debt and defiance in bankrupt Stockton, California


Stockton, California has been forced to slash its police force even as crime rates have soared in formerly middle-class areas

From behind the wheel of her black and white patrol car, Sgt Katherine Nance points out a modest house behind a white picket fence.

It was built by her parents, and was where she grew up until she was a young teenager. "It was a good middle-class area," she says wistfully.

She says she rode around on her bike, babysat for the neighbours. Now the local park has become a haven for drug-dealers and a venue for gun fights. You wouldn't let a child walk around here, even during the day.

You might think this is the sort of change has come to many areas, and that it has been happening for years, all across America, for many reasons. Maybe.

But Stockton is part of a new trend: American cities that have gone broke and declared themselves bankrupt.

For Sergeant Nance, crime has spiralled upwards and her old neighbourhood spiralled downwards because of bad choices made by politicians. While you can't get away with murder in Stockton, it sometimes seems to residents you can get away with everything else.

'Most miserable city'

The former river port bloomed during California's first boom, the 19th Century gold rush, and Stockton has seen ups and downs over the years. But the recent economic crisis seemed to change everything.

Stockton recently became the largest city in the US to declare bankruptcy, but along the road to ruin also earned the title of "America's most miserable city".

The marina in Stockton, California Stockton is a city of contrasts - from an empty and boarded-up Main Street to a gleaming marina

Stockton has an unemployment rate twice the national average and jostles with many other places for the unenviable sobriquet of "America's murder capital".

Amid all these problems, it is crime and the sense of growing vulnerability that dominates the conversation of locals.

Sgt Nance clearly relishes her job as leader of a community response team. Their main role seems to be to disrupt the many gangs battling it out for control of the city streets.

We hear sirens nearby. Then she gets a message that her colleagues, in an unmarked vehicle, are in hot pursuit.

When we get there a young man with a wispy moustache and a sullen look is sitting handcuffed. He had accelerated away when they tried to stop him for speeding.

When they do stop him, a search reveals several bags of marijuana, a small rock of crack cocaine and a semi-automatic pistol.

There aren't as many officers on the streets as there once were. Police numbers have been cut by one-third, and police pay has been cut by up to 30%, those with the longest service losing the most.

Not surprisingly many officers have left. But it's not only that.

Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston appears for a meeting of the city council 26 June 2012 Stockton Mayor Ann Johnson says the city will rise again

The city can't afford to prosecute many offences. Many of those arrested have been let out of jail early. Sgt Nance feels this failure to disrupt petty crime often means criminals are at large, able to do something more serious.

Residents complain that the police won't investigate house burglaries and car thefts.

She agrees that for the most part, they don't have the resources to follow-up.

Many of the areas where I am taken don't look particularly bad: just row of after row of shotgun housing, some cared for with loving pride, others more dilapidated.

But Stockton is a city of very visible contrasts. Main Street is a horror: there are whole rows of boarded-up shops, and doors behind heavy bars and grills, pad-locked shut.

It is empty except for the occasional homeless man or woman walking nonchalantly down the street, clutching everything they own.

Less than a mile away, by the waterfront, multi-million dollar yachts idle in the marina, gleaming white, shaded from the sun by rows of white canvas awnings, the very picture of California dreaming.

But the half-empty marina has turned out to be a bit of a nightmare for Stockton.

Like the city's other prestigious projects - the ballpark, a sports stadium and hotels - what once must have seemed like smart regeneration turned out to be a pointless burden as the recession hit home.

Equally, what once seemed like decent treatment for city workers, i.e. generous health care, pensions and pay, particularly for firefighters and police, is now seen as absurd featherbedding.

Lost benefits

I meet the mayor, Ann Johnston, in her balloon shop. We can't go to city hall; it is closed one day a week to save money.

She says Stockton suffered from a perfect storm. These big projects left the city with no money in the bank, and borrowing expanded. Then the recession struck.

All of the city's money comes from property tax, and as property prices went into freefall, the local government's income was slashed.

A vacant home has weeds growing in the gutters in the Weston Ranch neighbourhood of Stockton, California in this 6 March 2012 One in every 195 Stockton homes filed for foreclosure in May

She says Stockton's latest dramatic move is the solution, not the problem.

Nothing changed the day after the city declared itself bankrupt. Stockton hasn't shut its doors and isn't giving up.

Indeed the bankruptcy is a device to avoid paying creditors and to avoid making even deeper cuts. But many are furious about what has happened. The mayor has faced an angry public meeting where city workers testified to the suffering caused by inept politicians.

She says the city will rise again, but Joanie Anderson is less sure.

Anderson is a former police dispatcher, and her husband used to be a policeman. They are both retired, but as they are well under 65, they rely on the city for their health insurance.

It is hugely important to them, but now their programme has been cut from the city budget.

"Our 18-year-old daughter has had four open heart surgeries since birth," she said. "Her last one was this February."

"So she has ongoing health needs that have to be put to the forefront in our family. If she has an emergency that involves her heart, it costs tens of thousands of dollars in the hospital."

But it would cost them $34,000 (£22,000) to replace their healthcare, if indeed any insurance company would take them on. They simply can not afford it and have no idea what to do.

Other city workers may have less dramatic stories, but find themselves in the same plight - they thought they had excellent healthcare, and now find themselves with none.

Stockton's descent into insecurity is chilling because it is not an isolated example.

As I left the city, news came that another California town, Mammoth Lakes, had filed for bankruptcy. And beyond each individual town, America itself is deep in the red.

Putting that right may mean as many difficult choices and as much pain.

Mark Mardell, North America editor Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 66.


    "But Stockton is part of a new trend: American cities that have gone broke and declared themselves bankrupt."

    Ok, Stockton is one, and Mamoth Lakes, CA makes two. Jefferson County, AL filed in November of 2011. I haven't found anything more.

    I did find a number of stories that predicted such a trend, but I can read those myself.

    What value is there in you parroting other reporters?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    You can't get away with murder in Stockton? The author did NOT do his homework. RIP James Rivera, a 16 year old boy killed by police thugs on July 22, 2010. They fired nearly nearly 50 bullets at James, 19 of which hit him leaving golf ball-sized holes all over his body. Two years later, police have not yet released the police report to his parents. No Justice, No Peace!

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    OMG the wicked witch has escaped the tower and come to cast a dark shadow over the party. BTW, Airbus built a factory in the US because it can't afford the restrictions and labor costs of building its junk in Europe. It also doesn't know if it will face labor disruptions due to the Euro crisis. Maybe it's hoping American engineers can figure out how to keep the engines and wings from falling off

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Stockton went bankupt because of increased public spending and pensions.

    On July 4th we should remember that there was no intention by the founders to have a permanent govt class.

    Especially one supporter by the hard work of others.

    Except for life saving function end all pensions og govt employees now.

    And screw the labor agreements

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    56 Homer

    The ususal doom and gloom. Pleased to know another one of your predictions that Boeing would drive Airbus off the skies turned out to be wishful thinking.

    Instead they have just announced the opening of their first factory in your country because their order book is full to bursting.

    Still, life consists of disappointments.
    As for giving ones country away - China beckons?

  • Comment number 61.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    War is Debt, Debt is Poverty, like most countries the us politicians do not have the vision to create environments for low income folk that keep them happy and would rather put them in jail, drugs should be a health issue not a criminal issue, how many millions under lock and key in america? probably more than anywhere else, free? lol

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    57"Because they'ree too selfish to waste their and their children's lives in Cuba, Cyprus, Greece, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain?"

    Are you kidding?Have you noticed how many English accents you hear these days in the US?I think at any given moment half of BBC's employees are here.Katty Kay has been on so many NPR, PBS, and others networks I wonder if she's hunting her next job

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    americans suffer from mass stockholm syndrome and are in perpetual denial, ie 'it is not the guns that kill, or fat is good, etc. will be better for the whole world when they cannot afford to bomb countries for their minerals

    "Do you remember your president nixon?, do you remember the bills you have to pay? or even yesterday? David Bowie, young americans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    #51. The USA was founded upon selfishness


    Is that why millions of people are still trying to get to U$A by hook&bycrook?

    Because they'ree too selfish to waste their and their children's lives in Cuba, Cyprus, Greece, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain?

    [just look at those countries's financial predicament and growth prospects.]

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Could you imagine if the US govt gsbr away American sovereignty to a transcontinental super state the way the UK's govt is without so much as a referendum?We'd have another civil war on our hands. If the UK was going to give its sovereignty away why did we spill so much blood and treasure fighting two World Wars and the cold war on their behalif? Had they lost they'd be where they're headed now

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    #51. The USA was founded upon selfishness. The colonists wanted British protection, but didn't want to pay for it. The same applies today. Your government is simply constructed to keep rich people rich, and to hell with the rest.

  • Comment number 54.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    A great story on our Independence Day ;)

    This being Fourth of July I won't remind America's 'lovers' ([particularly barbarians north of Hadrian Wall) that they've been predicting U$A's demise for close to 200 years.

    1st Soviets were going to take over.

    Then Chinese, whose economy is in dire straits now, while social protests in PRC grow despite repressions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Pmk: I'd have not not hesitated

    Happy Independence Day!!! :)

    Yeah can't say I want to dwell on all the many dilemmas facing us today in particular
    being our national holiday

    I'de rather just be happy to be alive, to live in our democratic sovereignty country, to spend time w/ family+friends eating barbeque and just plain enjoying life

    May God Bless America+her Allies Forever+Ever

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Similarities between the US and Europe including England are superficial at best.The American Revolution started when colonists realized they'd made a mistake thinking they were Englishmen with all the rights of other Englishmen.They realized to the Crown & Parliament they were no more than chattel to be exploited & disposed of.Our govt is constructed so that nothing like Europe ever happens here

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    A great story on our Independence Day ;)

    If I had as much tact as Mardell, I'd have not not hesitated to point out on the Diamond Jubilee day NOIF stabbings and robberies rates in UK.

    Nor porno movies filmed at NHS facilities eking out.

    But since I'm not Mardell, l'd refrained.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Looking back to that fateful time the American Revolution
    I'm sure some of the British soldiers didn't feel good about going after
    people who were formerly British

    Today European culture lives on in America

    States+cities named after European words+places, our language, even our My Country Tis of Thee song- until a couple yrs ago I had no idea it was the same music as UK's national anthem

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    A great story on our Independence Day ;)

    Thanks Germany for the birth certificate of America
    Thanks France for Lady Liberty+helping us defeat Britain so we could be our own country
    Thanks Britain for your language+inspiring us to be a country w/ your taxes

    Thanks to all the American Patriots who made us who we are today

    I love you USA

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    46Republicans proved to be no more fiscally responsible than the Democrats.It's only a question of where the taxpayer's money is shoveled to, who the friends of the incumbents are that feed at the public trough. Bush fought two major wars and cut taxes. He wanted to make fighting wars as painless as possible. You can have guns, butter, but not both. Sooner or later the bill for the guns comes due


Page 6 of 9



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.