When I tell people I am from Stockton, I get one of two responses: either “where is that?” or “oh, I heard it is rough out there.” The first question is easy to deal with. The second requires a much more nuanced conversation. While the city clearly does not have a sparkling reputation, I generally get the impression that telling people you are from Stockton is akin to saying that you are from Detroit, Flint, Newark, Buffalo or anywhere in Ohio. Sure, we have a lot of problems, but is Stockton in such dire straits as these other places? Do we deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as these “dying cities”?
I will argue that we do not. While Stockton suffers from increased crime, high unemployment and a precarious financial situation, the city itself is not in decline and is actually healthier than what many give it credit for.
In a recent article, a reporter asked a group of experts to come up with criteria for determining when a city is in decline. This “dying city” criteria looks at some quantitative measures (population, income, housing) as well as more qualitative, anecdotal indicators. There are no rankings: the criteria is just a way to determine the health of a city.
So, what is the prognosis for Stockton? Are we dying? Actually, assessed against the criteria put forth by this author, Stockton is doing much better than you would think, especially compared to other cities across the nation.
Let’s take a look at how our city stands against this set of criteria. Below are each of the indicators of a dying city as laid out by the author.
The size of the population is going down
Population loss is one of the biggest indicators of a city in decline. Cities in the Rust and Frost Belt all have been hemorrhaging people for the past 60 years. Almost every large population center in the early 1900s has seen a massive decline in residents. Stockton, on the other hand, is clearly trending in the other direction. Since 2000, Stockton’s population has increased by about 20%. If Stockton were really dying, there would not be a steady flow of people coming into the city and more people would be leaving. In its history, the city’s population has always been on an upward trajectory.
Median income is decreasing
As a city becomes less desirable, people with money leave. If Stockton were dying, we would see a drop in median household income. Unfortunately for the naysayers, we have seen an increase in income since 2000. In 2010, the median household income was $47,946. In 2000, the number was $45,490 (adjusted for inflation). While this is not a big jump in income, when you take into account how hard the area was hit by the recession, it is pretty remarkable that this number not only held steady but increased slightly.
Population is getting older
Cities in decline will generally suffer from an aging population due to younger families leaving for better areas while poorer residents are left behind, according to the author. This phenomenon does not appear to be taking place in Stockton as the percentage of the population over 65 years old has remained basically the same (10%) since 2000.
Mortgages and taxes are going unpaid
This is Stockton’s biggest strike against its health, according to this methodology. High foreclosure rates and mortgage delinquency are a red flag for cities that are in decline. While there is no evidence of taxes going unpaid, Stockton is still the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis and the results are tangible both in the loss of city revenue and the blight of vacant housing on neighborhoods. In this respect, Stockton does not fare well.
A “signature” building is left vacant for years.
One of the more qualitative measures, according to the criteria we are using, of urban decline is when a city has historically significant buildings sitting idle. In Stockton, this is not really true, at least not to the levels of some more distressed cities. There does not seem to be any vacant facilities in Stockton that were once grand landmarks. Several buildings downtown have been restored, including several buildings redeveloped by Dan Court as well as the Fox Theater. The Hotel Stockton has been restored as well, and while many will argue that the hotel is not being used to its capacity, it certainly is not in a state of decay.
Land not being used for anything
Another qualitative (though I am sure it can be turned into a quantitative measure with some effort) indicator for city decline is the amount of underutilized space. The author notes that when cities can’t even turn open space into parking lots, there is absolutely no activity going on. In Stockton, we have no trouble turning something into a parking lot. As noted before, the city has plans to turn soon-to-be demolished buildings downtown into parking lots. The new Wal-Mart in Spanos looks to have a pretty massive lot. But the real point of this measure is to illustrate the lack of activity taking place on vacant land. It is difficult to measure where Stockton stands on this indicator because there is plenty of infill space in the city that is not being used. However, this space is probably overlooked not because there is no activity in the city, but because that activity has traditionally occurred on the outskirts over farmland.
A city is growing, though there are “dead areas”
This indicator is intended to measure the older, industrial dead spots one will frequently come across in older cities. Old factories, warehouses, etc that used to be engines of the economy that are now unused space within a city. There are definitely examples of this in Stockton, with the old Del Monte canning facility and various warehouses around the waterfront that are now empty. It is difficult to quantify the amount of “dead areas” in Stockton, however, it is important to point out that one of the main industrial drivers of the region, the Port of Stockton, is still going strong and even expanding.
Clearly, according to these measures, Stockton is not a dying city, at least not on the same level as cities in the midwest and northeast. While I don’t think this criteria is necessarily the most inclusive (I also would prefer more quantitative indicators as opposed to qualitative ones), it does give us a snapshot into the health of a city. As the article mentions, while most cities will say they are mounting comebacks, the data and facts many times tell a different story. In Stockton, there is no denying that the population is growing and that income and age are stable. Places like Detroit and St. Louis have been trying to bring people back to their cities for years through various incentives and programs. Stockton was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis, has high unemployment and a terrible publicity, but people are largely staying in Stockton.
While this check up shows that Stockton is not on its deathbed, there are definitely some warning signs. If the city continues to experience high crime rates and higher than average unemployment, we could very likely start seeing population loss at a significant rate, which would compound the city’s problems. For the time being, however, we should take the time to realize that our situation in Stockton could be far worse and we have a long ways to go before we find ourselves in the same situation as our once great Rust and Frost Belt cities.