On the one hand, Stockton has so much going for it. Cover your eyes, urban planners: the Central Valley city is close enough (80 miles east) to count as a suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area. It's got colorful history dating back to the Gold Rush era, a natural inland seaport, and lots of hot weather ... for those who like hot weather.
Did I mention it's a suburb? You could say that blessing is at the heart of Stockton's current crisis. During the housing boom, the real estate market soared, as people who work close to the coast fled East in search of lawns and a reasonably priced third bedroom. City leaders signed off on generous public employee union contracts and took on big debt to fund a big redevelopment project on the waterfront.
Then, the housing market crashed. As NPR's Richard Gonzales put it on Weekend Edition Sunday recently, "Those homes that sold for more than $400,000 are now going for less than $150,000."
It doesn't help that so many people drive elsewhere to work, but at least they have jobs. In February, the unemployment rate for San Joaquin County clocked in at 16.6 percent. Although, it's worth noting that employment is seasonal in this Central Valley city because agriculture is one of its economic pillars (asparagus, anyone?).
Naturally, the media piles on. TIME writes "Stockton has been down on its luck for as long as memory serves," as it warns, "If a deal is not reached in the coming weeks — and prospects are bleak — Stockton will become the largest municipality in U.S. history to go bust."
The Wall Street Journal makes a point of picking out Stockton for its national survey of municipal murder rates, even though Stockton is hardly the only California city to lay off police officers lately, or struggle with gang violence. Also, if we're going to talk about a bounce back in murders from 2009 to 2011, let's include San Jose and Oakland in the conversation.
You can't blame the media entirely for Stockton's PR problem, but the temptation is strong for some, especially after Forbes hoisted the city atop its annual list of "Most Miserable Cities" in 2011. As we noted on the California Report, Stockton locals were up in arms. Thankfully, the mantle moved on to Miami this year. Still, the sting lingers.
"Who is gonna step up for Stockton?" asks Ian Hill, the KQED Newsroom's Web Maven - and its lone Stocktonian. He's lived there for the better part of six years, along with his wife. They have no plans to move any time soon.
"We love our neighborhood, we love our house, and we love our friends," he says - and then after a beat, "not necessarily in that order."