STOCKTON Walking the streets in darkness, where every block brings with it a tale of desperation, Roslyn Burse seeks some redemption for this city.
These are the streets, on the south side of Stockton, where strands of police tape linger on fence posts for days, like temporary grave markers for the record 70 people murdered this year. In these neighborhoods, living the fallout from the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy, residents say there are no longer enough cops to hunt the killers or services to curb the violence.
And so Burse walks. On a clear and cold Thursday night in mid-December, she was joined by five other members of a church group who seek out people whose lives are dominated by the streets. Men like her son, who at 29 has been shot twice and is in prison for drug and gun possession. If they're lucky, one or two men Burse and the other volunteers speak with will take their advice and seek help job training, food stamps, warmth at a nearby community center.
"This is home to me, I will put my life on the line for a change here," said Burse, 48, a petite woman with a resonant voice who has lived her entire life in this neighborhood. "If we're too scared to walk, how do we bring about change?"
Change has become a common theme in this river port city, 50 miles south of Sacramento.
A restless electorate kicked three incumbents out of City Hall in the November elections, including the mayor, and replaced them with three men under the age of 40. One of the new council members is 22, a southside native named Michael Tubbs, who was a few months removed from earning his master's degree in policy and leadership studies from Stanford University when he took more than 60 percent of the vote.
The city's unrest, most notably the spike in homicides, has also galvanized a movement on the streets. The Stockton Police Department said more than 100 neighborhood watch groups are active in the city more than at any time in Stockton's history. Some stand guard over their local parks at night.
Other groups are trying to combat the city's reputation as a hopeless, broken place. A group called Stockton Forward has enlisted the help of a powerful Sacramento public relations firm to promote good deeds by city residents amid the almost daily reports of violence. The "Stockton is Magnificent" street festival attracted hundreds in September, a display of civic pride spawned in part by Forbes magazine's designation of Stockton as the nation's most miserable city.
Along Main Street in downtown, across from a county court building, a photo collage has been placed on a shuttered building with photographs of young people urging their city to fight.
Written on one of the photos are these words: "Dear Stockton. Don't Give Up!!!"
'State of hopelessness'
There are parts of Stockton where the bleakness seems overwhelming.
Six blocks south of downtown on South Stanislaus Street, a cavernous ditch filled with bags of trash and discarded furniture gives off a putrid steam that can be detected through a closed car door. Earlier this month, the heap was the makeshift shelter for two men sitting among the refuse.
It was on the city's south side that Burse and her colleagues in the Lifelines to Healing program walked past boarded-up homes in neighborhoods where more than one-third of the residents live below the poverty level. They passed dogs roaming loose, and confronted a group of 10 men smoking and drinking beer in the parking lot of a liquor store on South Airport Way.
Burse and her group stopped to hold hands and pray with two of those men, whose bodies trembled in the chill. This liquor store parking lot, where a woman rinsed empty cans in a puddle, is the neighborhood's gathering place.
"It's not just crime that affects these people, it's a state of hopelessness," said James Martin, another volunteer.
Not all of the city is so afflicted. On the north side of Stockton, yoga studios, art shops and sushi bars form the chic backdrop for Pacific Avenue, a stretch the locals call the Miracle Mile. The University of the Pacific campus sits prominently on the thoroughfare, the ivory-colored Burns Tower visible from blocks away. With its brick-faced buildings and lush tree canopy, the campus has been used by many Hollywood filmmakers trying to re-create an East Coast university.
"Stockton is a diverse community," said Bob Gutierrez, the director of government affairs for the Food 4 Less grocery chain and a member of the Stockton Forward coalition that held its first meeting on the campus Thursday. "You can't just show it through one lens."
Stockton Forward plans to organize neighborhood cleanups and erect billboards promoting its positive spin on the city.
Gutierrez said the group, which includes some of Stockton's most influential citizens, isn't oblivious to the tough realities facing many of the city's 300,000 residents. Those realities are hard to ignore.
'The good is real, too'
Even among Central Valley cities, Stockton stands out for the pummeling it took in the collapse of the housing market. During the boom, new residents flocked to the city from the Bay Area, boosting the population by nearly 20 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2010.
When housing prices fell by roughly 70 percent from the 2005 peak, so did the property taxes that supported the city government. Largely as a result, Stockton has battled budget deficits more severe than many other cities, including Sacramento.
In June, Stockton became the largest American city to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. In addition to the housing crash, the insolvency resulted from the city's spending on its downtown waterfront, including a $68 million arena, and its decision to boost benefits and pensions for government employees during the boom.
As deficits loomed year after year, the police ranks were cut by one-quarter. During the same period, the homicide and violent crime rates climbed. Police officials said half the city's homicides are the result of gang conflict; police units tasked with combating gangs and drugs have been decimated.
The unemployment rate averaged 15.7 percent over the past five years, well above the state average and higher than other Central Valley cities also hurt by the housing meltdown, including Sacramento, Fresno and Modesto.
"This is ground zero for every major issue in the United States," said Tubbs, the young councilman-elect, sitting in the University of the Pacific's $38 million student union. "If you can fix something in Stockton, you can fix it anywhere. The bad is true, that stuff is real. But the good is real, too."
Tubbs was raised by a single mother on the south side of Stockton and earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford, despite growing up, as he said, in "the part of town that ain't got nothing."
He has already drawn national attention; he was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, only the third politician to get her official nod (the others were President Barack Obama and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J.).
Joining him at City Hall when he is sworn in next month will be 31-year-old Councilman-elect Moses Zapien, an attorney, and Anthony Silva, who defeated incumbent Mayor Ann Johnston.
Silva, the head of the local Boys & Girls Club, is 38 and lives in a leased loft in the modern University Plaza Waterfront Hotel, which stands prominently along the partially developed waterfront that pushed the city toward bankruptcy. He finished second to the incumbent in the primary. But in the five months between that election and the runoff in November, 35 people were killed in Stockton. In November, Silva ousted Johnston by an overwhelming margin.
An editorial in the Stockton Record following his victory opined that in this particular election, "murders matter."
"People don't feel there is any hope," Silva said, reclining on a leather couch in the lounge of his building. "Stocktonians are numb to it because they read it every day: 56 murders, 57 murders, 58 murders. They accept it, that's the way it is. But it's a state of emergency, a city under siege."
A couple of cases of beer
It took just three months for this city under siege to destroy the dream of Omar Awnallah.
As he did most nights, Awnallah was working late on Nov. 17 at the Paisano Market and Liquors, a small, dusty shop owned by his cousin, down the street from a boarded-up library. Every minute behind the counter brought him closer to having the money he needed to move his five children up from Bakersfield and, he believed, toward a chance at something better.
Then two young men walked in and stole a couple of cases of beer. For reasons the police have been unable to determine, one of the thieves returned a half-hour later. He jumped into the doorway and fired a single gunshot, the fatal act captured on the market's surveillance camera.
"It's getting worse and worse here," Abdul Awnallah said two weeks later, his voice almost a whisper as he mourned his cousin's death. "But we hope for the best."
Police officials said they have seen an increase in the kind of brazen attacks that took Omar Awnallah's life. At least one person was hit during a shootout outside a downtown child care facility last month, one of five shootings in the city that afternoon. Investigators are responding to more daytime shootings than they have in the past.
"It's just the mentality these violent criminals have in our city," said Officer Joseph Silva of the Stockton Police Department. "These (crime) numbers are definitely something that we're not proud of."
On a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, an 18-year-old father was gunned down on a block of south Stockton where every house is surrounded by fence. He had just returned home with a Christmas tree for his family.
Two days later, less than a mile away, Susie Ortiz fought back tears as she took down what remained of her own Christmas decorations. Thieves had taken the rest, including a decorative zebra that her granddaughter with cerebral palsy adored. She was taking the rest of them down so they wouldn't get stolen, too.
Ortiz is 44 and has always lived in this patch of south Stockton. She described a neighborhood in crisis, of late nights when she can't sleep and stands by her front window, listening for the crack of gunfire and the tweeting of police sirens.
But she will not leave.
This is her world.
"I grew up on the south side," she said. "What more do I want?"