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 Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    84. Trollicus

    "did your reporters get lost?"

    Of course not,they never get out of the BBC bubble no matter what place their well paid worthy's venture.Treat any reporting from the BBC with a jaundice eye realizing its left leaning then you will know why they report as they do..

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Compared to Europe the % of debt is very low, Unemployment is Low Interest rates are Low, Jobs are being created(despite the best efforts of the GOP). Health insurance legislation PASSED and even real estate prices are starting to climb. New commercial space lunch systems are thriving, and were still getting pictures from mars. We have also found new domestic oil and natural gas supplies

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The Biggest bankrupt city? Never heard of the place with over 18,000 cities, towns, villages in the USA it's no wonder. But leave it to the BBC to find the worst case and Make it a headline on a USA national holiday. Don't mention the fact that %27 of Californians are naturalized citizens born outside the USA. I don't recognize the country the BBC reports on as the USA did your reporters get lost?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    It a situation of hole Europe and US. This happens when you deregulate the financial system . When your government doesnot takes responsibility of your money and future . Just look at this .One thing is common in every place in the world that political leaders use the money of common man's hard earned money only for their benefits. If the common man dies it really matters to them

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    As a born/raised North Californian very near Stockton, this journalist does a great disservice to the truth not even mentioning the crushing burden of illegal immigrants on Stockton Cali. It's is indicative of the newspeak, "politically correct", propoganda-by-omission that has reached toxic levels. Objectivity itself is re-framed as racist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    74 power

    remedial geography 101 for European kids/future journalists?

    As little bit ungrateful? As I've pointed out before, it's my licence fee that pays for this BBC facility for you to express your opinions in both America and Europe.

    Are there any similar services provided by your broadcasting corporations FREE here for us in Europe or is it all a one way?

  • Comment number 80.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    71 power

    PS Not being heartless I won't mention recent A-330 incidents, incl. the very tragic one off the coast of Brazil.

    I wonder why they go ahead with opening new factories and why American Airlines have just ordered 260 ot their planes.

    Goddard - just because NASA has named something after him doesn't make him known anywhere else in the world. Why your obsession with the man?

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    5. Ethan Farber
    I remember an old quote, but not the source, something like:
    A democracy only survives until the people realize they can loot the treasury.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Happy independence day,

    Good King George to John Adams US ambassador.

    I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the Separation, but the Separation having been made and having become inevitable I have always said,as I say now,that I would be the first to meet the Friendship of the United States as an independent power.

    Except for burning the White house we get on very well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    resp to #2: A never mentioned stat-Californians pay more per taxpayer for K-12 education than any other state. Problem is the huge number of school-aged children in CA. Education is 48% of state budget.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    mh: "re [Robert] Goddard - I've asked around but no one has ever heard of the gentleman."

    That speaks volumes not only about you, but also about a company you keep.

    [since you like to quote Wikipedia (in lack of more comprehensive sources) just one click would have taken you to the pertinent Wiki entry: 'ROBERT GODDARD', after whom a major NASA center is named. For a good reason.]

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Andy Post: " I find myself, though, feeling let down by the BBC's efforts at covering the Mexican election."

    As I've pointed out just as BBC European correspondent is merely a EU one, its "North America correspondent" and his bosses have never noticed that not only US, but also Canada and Mexico are parts of North America.

    [ remedial geography 101 for European kids/future journalists?]

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    69 power
    "Is that why Airbus has just announced a plan to open its big assembly plant in the U.S.?"
    Read *62 pa2.
    The reason is no unions and so lower wages. But it's only an assembly line for items engineered and shipped in from Europe. Apart from a plant in Mobile where they design interior items and seats.

    re Goddard - I've asked around but no one has ever heard of the gentleman.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I think I understand USA...
    Business + Crime + Politics morph into one

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    "Maybe it's [Airbus] hoping American engineers can figure out how to keep the engines and wings from falling off"

    Cf. the latest A-380 mishaps.

    [not that RR engines have turned extactly reliable]

    PS Not being heartless I won't mention recent A-330 incidents, incl. the very tragic one off the coast of Brazil.

    [Thales pitot tubes not replaced with US ones as pilots had demanded]

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    (BBC) I visit the BBC on a regular basis because it is the gold standard for international news reporting. I find myself, though, feeling let down by the BBC's efforts at covering the Mexican election.

    Mexico is not only one of two neighbors of the world's no. 1 economy. It's also the no.14 economy in the world, above South Korea and all the Nordic nations.

    Seems to me its worth a better effort.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    mh: "predictions that Boeing would drive Airbus off the skies turned out to be wishful thinking."

    Is that why Airbus has just announced a plan to open its big assembly plant in the U.S.?

    To put a foot in the door, while lowering prohibitive manufacturing costs in Europe?

    [despite still being subsidized (cf.A-350) by EU taxpayers]

    PS. Have you learnt by now who Robert Goddard was?

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    55 brazilwatcher

    "Your government is simply constructed to keep rich people rich, and to hell with the rest."
    What conclusions can one draw about the so-called richest country in the history of mankind being unable to care properly for its sick and old?
    To invade weaker countries ad nauseum and kill their citizens on the pretext of giving them their freedom and democracy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Re #59 "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"

    The more derogatory/denigrating reports you send from U$A, the higher you chances of you being retained as a correspondent in that country.
    Until the day you have to go back and then having to apply for a job in U$A.


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