Since I’ve returned to Stockton for work after several years on the East Coast, I’ve noticed something quite puzzling in how most Stocktonians view the revitalization of downtown. Many believe that the key to revitalization is getting panhandlers and mentally ill individuals off the streets. Once we do that, people will feel safe enough to come downtown. Seems like a simple enough formula, but unfortunately, it’s completely misguided.
To put it bluntly, the revitalization of Downtown Stockton does not hinge on removing transients. Instead, we should focus on getting people to use our existing public spaces on a regular basis, with a longer range goal of bringing housing into downtown. Instead of trying to take people away, our resources should go towards bringing in more people overall.
Stockton’s situation is no different than any other large or mid-sized city’s when it comes to homelessness or under-housed individuals in downtown areas. Go to any city that matters and you’ll find public squares and plazas are not devoid of transients. The difference is that while Stockton does have very nice public spaces—Weber Point, Dean DeCarli Square, the waterfront promenade—we don’t use them enough. Aside from events, these venues are greatly underutilized and underappreciated by most. Stockton doesn’t really have that many more homeless than the next city, but because our spaces remain mostly empty, the image of an unsafe downtown is exacerbated by a handful of unsavory individuals who stand out amongst a mostly empty landscape.
Here, we are afraid to use our public spaces because there might be a few characters that make us feel uncomfortable. But if we can’t get rid of these individuals, how in the world will people want to spend time or even live in Downtown Stockton? The answer is that there is already a market for Stocktonians who are ready to live in Downtown right now. Stocktonians who are not bothered by someone asking them for money or walking down the street talking to themselves. Young adults, artists, Stocktonians craving an urban environment; these are the people who will be the start of that critical mass. Once these individuals move in, more people are on the streets, and suddenly, it feels safer. All it took was a shift in priorities, adding people rather than trying to take people away.
This isn’t wishful thinking, either. Some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country routinely mix white collar residents with less fortunate folk. Case in point, I lived in one of the safest, most popular neighborhoods in Washington DC, and even then I regularly came across homeless individuals. But these encounters don’t stop Washingtonians from paying nearly one million bucks for homes in the area (or paying nearly $2,000 in rent to live in a tiny basement of one of these million-dollar homes, as was my situation). The same could be said of my time in Baltimore, and there are countless other examples in cities large and small across the country. Sure, there are transients, but they are greatly outnumbered by other individuals enjoying parks, plazas and public areas. This is what Stockton should aspire to. If people want a homogenous, non-threatening experience, downtown isn’t that place, and we shouldn’t try to make it that.
This is not to say that homeless and mentally ill Stocktonians shouldn’t receive help. We absolutely have an obligation to help those who are down on their luck. But altruism should not be confused with an economic development strategy as helping individuals get off the street isn’t what’s going to bring people into Downtown Stockton.
Ultimately, housing is needed to get people invested in the area 24 hours a day. Once people are here at all times, we can really get the ball rolling with downtown revitalization. But what can we do in the interim? Housing will not spring up overnight. My modest suggestion is that we all need to fill our public spaces more. Get lunch to go and enjoy it in the park. Read a book at Weber Point. Hold a meeting in outdoor areas. Go for a jog along the water after work instead of inside on a treadmill. There are something close to 70,000 employees, students, and individuals in the Downtown Stockton area on any given weekday, but you wouldn’t know it based on how few people you see on a regular basis in public areas. Housing might be a long-term goal, but we can all do a little more to populate our public spaces.