STOCKTON – A shop owner here on Miracle Mile, who won't be named because she was so darn nice and said she "still has to work in this city," nearly laughed me out of her store when I mentioned I was working on a travel story about Stockton.
"C'mon," she chortled, looking around. "Where's the hidden camera?"
I flashed a business card and put on my best serious-journalist face. She did a double take, sit-com style, and puffed out her cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie.
"You're kidding, right?" she said. "This is not exactly a destination spot."
"Sure it is," I said, sticking to my belief that, unless you're the most craven form of cynic, you can find charm, the light amid the blight, in just about any city.
Yes, even in downtrodden locales such as Stockton, suffering for some time now through the holy trinity of urban decay: civic bankruptcy, home foreclosures and violent crime.
But I did not seek out Stockton to make sport of it, or to gawk the way people often do at scenes of grisly highway accidents.
This is no autopsy report, nor a Pollyanna-type resurrection tale.
Go somewhere else for an inspiring bootstrap-pulling narrative.
This is simply a snapshot of a city that carries on, that makes the best of things, that tries to have a few laughs and some good times amid the adversity.
Who knows? You might even find it a decent place to visit and be inspired to tell Forbes magazine to take Stockton off its yearly "America's Most Miserable Cities" top 10.
"There's something going on every day; you just have to know where to find it," said Ryan Whirlow, whose eponymous restaurant in the Miracle Mile business district hosts live music and other events most nights.
"Sometimes it's under a rock. But, as people keep moving the rock, the swarm of ants grows and you see where they gather.
"You build slowly. Sacramento did it 15 years ago with midtown and J Street. Modesto did it 10 years ago with (its) downtown. We can do it, too."
A day trip, or even an overnight stay, reveals Stockton's hidden charms.
Let's kick over a few rocks, as Whirlow suggested, and see what turns up:
Downtown's waterfront district is home to two minor-league sports teams – baseball's Ports and hockey's Thunder – in a handsome arena-ballpark complex, which also recently featured Carrie Underwood in concert, and a hotel with a bar that features outdoor billiards and pingpong.
The south shore features the Waterfront Warehouse, highlighted by Nena's Mexican Restaurant, whose homemade tortillas are a local legend, and Chitiva's Salsa Sports Bar and Grill.
Also downtown, the Bob Hope Theatre (formerly the Fox) hosts concerts and "classic movie" nights.
The Miracle Mile shopping district, a one-mile stretch along Pacific Avenue not far from the University of the Pacific, has seemed to weather the economic tsunami and emerged as an aspiring dining and entertainment area.
Valley Brewing Co. is the site of a weekly "Take 5 Jazz Club," led by Simon Rowe, director of UOP's Brubeck Institute.
Upscale dining can be found at Centrale Kitchen & Bar, creative slouching achieved at the hipster hangout Empresso Coffeehouse and occasionally comedy shows, movies and concerts are held in the adjoining art-deco Empire Theatre.
And, though the Miracle Mile still is dominated mostly by nail and hair salons and other "service" businesses, two interesting antiques stores have endured, in addition to a clothing boutique or two, as well as the vast and voluminous geek heaven that is Al's Comic Shop.
Upscale dining also can be found in north Stockton, at Papapavlo's Bistro & Bar, in the Lincoln Center shopping area.
Culture-cravers can go to the Haggin Museum, which houses several rooms charting the city's rich port history, but also has its share of works by the masters, such as Paul Gauguin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The Stockton Symphony, 89 years young, is hanging in there, as is the city's 63-year-old Stockton Civic Theatre organization.
And, at the University of the Pacific, the Holt- Atherton Special Collections house the papers and videos and recordings from jazz great Dave Brubeck and writings from environmentalist John Muir.
Often, though, an enjoyable Stockton afternoon can be found in unexpected places. Residents Doris Klose and Linda Samsell, two committed "ladies who lunch," often wile away a day eating the "almost famous hamburgers" at Bob's at the Marina, watching the boats bob in the spring breeze on the Delta.
"It's too bad that the news only shows the bad about Stockton," Klose said. "It's really not that bad. It's not fair. They should come out here."
Getting outsiders to come to the city is the challenge, said Wes Rhea, executive director of the Stockton Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"The concept in tourism is, you really have to have something people can't get close to home," Rhea said. "So, that can be tough. Sometimes, it has to be a signature event, like our Asparagus Festival or our barbecue competition or (sporting) events to get them to come from Sacramento or the Bay Area."
Outsiders do, indeed flock to Stockton for its annual tribute to the jolly green spear-shaped vegetable. This year's festival, April 26-28, will take over the waterfront, as people consume asparagus in every form, from ice cream to deep-fried sticks, listen to classic rock bands and watch competitive-eating champ Joey Chestnut power down hundreds of spears in just a few minutes.
But what can Stockton do the other 51 weeks of the year? The bankrupt city has no coffers to open to spur attractions. No billionaire "whales" are swimming at the city's port wanting to build entertainment complexes.
"Well, that's the big key now," Rhea said, "is to get private investment to come in."
What holds investment back is also what can keep the tourist flocks away. That, of course, would be Stockton's reputation as an unsafe city. In 2012, Stockton had a record 71 homicides as well as a record 397 victims who survived gunshot wounds, according to police records.
Figures such as that make tourism a hard sell, but the crime spree may be easing. According to Stockton police, crime in January and February fell 4.6 percent from the same period last year, homicides down from eight to three in the first two months.
"The (crime) statistics cross my desk once a week, and I can tell you that downtown Stockton is one of the safest areas of all of San Joaquin County because it's the most heavily policed," said Emily Baime, CEO of the Downtown Stockton Alliance.
Baime, who happens to live in Sacramento, said Stockton's reputation as a murder hub is overblown.
"When you think about it, look at what happened on New Year's (Eve) in downtown Sacramento," she said, referring to a shooting outside an Old Sacramento bar that killed two and injured another.
Still, Stockton's reputation persists.
"I think it's held people back from coming out," said Nancy Slatten, president of the Friends of the Fox, which hosts the classic-movie series at the Bob Hope Theatre. "We've just recently, for the last three or four movies, hired extra security. But, you know what? It's really not necessary. These movies, they don't attract the people who'd come to try to rob somebody of something. Personally, I'm very comfortable with downtown Stockton."
The classic-movie series has drawn up to 800 people for showings of films as diverse as Abbott and Costello comedies and "The Godfather" and "The Wizard of Oz." The series showcases one of Stockton's jewels, the theater itself, which features a marble-floored lobby, a 1928 Robert Morton theater organ and 2,042 plush red-velvet seats.
"We crank up the organ before every movie," Slatten said. "We do an organ concert, and actually have a lot of patrons come just because they enjoy that."
Stockton's musical roots, however, are planted firmly at UOP, where the late Brubeck embarked on a legendary jazz career. So it makes sense that the nearby Miracle Mile district would be the site for weekly concerts and jam sessions inspired by Brubeck and spearheaded by Simon Rowe, the director of UOP's Brubeck Institute.
The experiment of offering live jazz at the restaurant is just over a year old, and Rowe and Valley Brewing Co. owner Kellie Jacobs are pleased with the turnout, between 30 and 70 per gig.
"We're not trying to get rich," Rowe said. "We're just trying to provide a cultural hub for people. This is the type of thing that creates community. Without places where people can meet and share their weekly news and relax and unwind, they miss something.
"This used to be the norm – to enjoy the music and each other and get a bite to eat – until we got stuck in cubicles staring at our computers."
Rowe and Jacobs have transformed the banquet room in the back of the restaurant into an intimate jazz club with exposed-brick walls, beaded chandeliers, white-linen-covered tables with lighted candles and, in the back, framed photos of Brubeck in action.
"This is what I'd like to see more of, places like this" said patron Latanya Payne, 48. Her friend Silvia Calderon added, "It's great for our age group, but for teenagers, there's not much to do still in Stockton. There's more for teens to do in Modesto."
The same lament could be heard several blocks down on Pacific Avenue at the Empresso Coffeehouse, a hangout both for UOP and Delta College students and people of all ages from the neighborhood.
As alt-rock background music wafted from the Empresso speakers, 33-year-old Terrill Scott said he'd like to see Stockton open some rock and hip-hop clubs.
"To me, this area needs to be more like Modesto, which now has more night life," Scott said. "A lot of the clubs younger people might like here don't make it. I've lived (in Stockton) my whole life, seen everything come and go. I'm still waiting."
Many Stocktonians are keeping the faith, thinking that, any time now, hard times will come again no more and the economy – and the tourist trade – will rise from the ashes.
Such faith is what prompted real estate broker Randy Thomas to team with a friend to post a series of YouTube videos extolling the town, titled "Selling Stockton." Several have gotten views in the low four- digit counts.
"I mean, you go online and type in 'Stockton California' and all you see are news reports of murders, foreclosures, what have you," Thomas said. "I thought, 'Let's see if we can stop the negative image and try to get people to see there are two sides to town, including the side not seen on the news.' "
Directions from Sacramento to the Miracle Mile: Interstate 5 to March Lane exit. Go east on March, then right on Pacific Avenue. The Miracle Mile is on Pacific, between Castle Street and Harding Way.
Directions from Sacramento to the waterfront: Interstate 5 to Fremont Street exit. Take Fremont to the Banner Island Ballpark and the Stockton Arena.
ON THE MIRACLE MILE
Whirlow's Tossed and Grilled, 1926 Pacific Ave. (209) 466-2823 www.whirlows.com Live music: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Valley Brewing Co.: 157 W. Adams St. (209) 464-2739. "Take 5 Jazz Club at the Brew": Thursdays, 7-10 p.m.; Monday night jams.
Empresso Coffeehouse: 1825 Pacific Ave. (209) 941-0072; www.empressocoffeehouse.com
Al's Comic Shop: 1847 Pacific Ave. (209) 464-1513
Hubba Hubba! Antiques: 2026 Pacific Ave. (209) 460-0339
Treasure Trove Antiques: 234 W. Harding Way. (209) 547-0433; www.treasure-troveantiques.com
DOWNTOWN AND WATERFRONT
Nena's Mexican Restaurant: 445 W. Weber Ave. (209) 547-0217; www. nenasmexicanrestaurant.com
Chitiva's Salsa & Sports Bar and Grill: 445 W. Weber Ave. (209) 941-8605. www.chitiva.net
University Plaza Waterfront Hotel Delta Bistro and Lounge: 110 W. Fremont St. (209) 323-3131. www. universityplazawaterfronthotel.com
Banner Island Ballpark and Stockton Arena: 404 W. Fremont St. and 248 W. Fremont St. www.stocktonlive.com
AT THE MARINA
Haggin Museum: 1201 N. Pershing Ave. (209) 940-6300; www.hagginmuseum.org. Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 1:30-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays. Cost: $8 (adults); $7 (seniors, 65+); $5 (ages 10-17, students with ID)
Way Out West BBQ Championships: Aug. 18. Downtown Stockton. wayoutwestbbq.com
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.