Can Sacramento learn from Stockton's hard knocks?

Now entering Stockton. Town motto: Are you sure?

Some of my best friends are from Stockton.

I know how that sounds. It’s the kind of refrain uttered by someone trying to curry favor or acceptance from an individual or group he himself does not favor or accept. But I’ve always had a curious, ships-passing-in-the-night relationship with the city just outside of Sacramento’s periphery, which has been bedraggled in recent years by questionable political decisions, foreclosures and crime.

As former editor of the Amador Ledger Dispatch, a small community newspaper based in the foothill town of Jackson, I kept a loose count of the number of arrests coming to and from the Jackson Rancheria Indian Resort and Casino a couple of curling country roads from our office. The largest proportion originated from Stockton. Anecdotally, local law enforcement officials and politicians said the cross-county criminal tide the casino attracted from the San Joaquin city was a major reason why they opposed two additional proposed Indian gaming facilities inside Amador’s narrow borders, a battle that is still going.

Our crime reporter at the time, Scott Thomas Anderson, was even more familiar with those issues than I, and got to see them up close during a January appearance in Stockton to discuss his book, Shadow People: How Meth-Driven Crime is Eating at the Heart of Rural America. Scott, now a reporter in Roseville who sometimes writes for SN&R, told me his drive into the city’s main drag–where both town hall and county officers are located–was like wading into a demilitarized zone peopled by addicts who brazenly copped and used in full view of anyone approaching Stockton’s gleaming halls of power.

After his appearance, Scott and his girlfriend were given a police escort to their car.

Some weeks later, news came that federal ATF authorities had been detailed to prop up the city’s undermanned police department. The violence, attributed to warring gang factions, has started to slow, but the city has a long way to go in rebuilding itself from bankruptcy.

On May 20, the Center for Investigative Reporting, an innovative journalism nonprofit that’s produced watchdog content since 1977, released its first documentary, on this very subject.

The 32-minute feature Who Took Down Stockton? rivals sometime collaborator Frontline for quality and goes beyond the superficial “greedy unions vs. short-changed creditors” headlines to examine how Stockton became the largest American city to go bankrupt. The answer is chilling: In the end, the municipal bond-indebted Stockton crumbled under the weight of its own dreams.

That’s an important takeaway for us here in Sacramento, as we debate what kind of public subsidy—if any—is appropriate for a long-deferred sports and entertainment complex that’s estimated in the many hundreds of millions.

Because keeping the Sacramento Kings, temporary Measure U money and school facilities bonds may all have us feeling cautiously bullish about our capital town’s future, but big-city dreams are a tricky thing. And there for the grace of Stockton goes Sacramento.


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