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Lodi's diverse culture tested

Along South Stockton Street in east Lodi, a row of aging fruit and vegetable canneries tells the story of many beginnings in this Central Valley town.

Wives of newly arrived German farmers and tradesmen dominated these warehouses in the early 1900s and through World War II, canning pears and apricots and packing cherries and Tokay grapes, then the signature crop in Lodi.

Workers from Mexico came next to the packing sheds, moving their families into the modest homes that the Germans had built in the surrounding neighborhood.

East Lodi's canneries now employ many Pakistanis - whose trickle to San Joaquin County started more than 50 years ago - another wave of newcomers who found a toehold in this farm town.

Like the Germans and Mexicans before them, Pakistanis built a close community in the old neighborhood that sits across the street from packing house row. They moved into the same small homes, but brought unfamiliar traditions: cricket games in Blakely Park, a mosque in which to practice their Islamic faith and distinctive clothing with women wrapped in shawls and bearded men dressed in shalwar kameez, loose-fitting pants and long shirts.

Now, in this town where relations among diverse residents have been mostly peaceful, tolerance is being tested in a way that few small towns in America have experienced: Last week, its Pakistani Muslim community drew international attention after it became the focus of an FBI investigation into suspected links to an al-Qaida terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

Two men, Umer Hayat, 47, and his son, Hamid Hayat, 22, were arrested on charges of lying to federal agents after the younger Hayat initially denied he attended a terrorist training camp, then admitted spending six months there, according to a federal complaint. Three other men - two of them religious leaders in Lodi - were detained for immigration violations.

Suspected terrorist activity in any town would be a shock. But last week's events have rattled this city of 62,500, where order and tradition are dearly held values.

"Lodi is a great American city, and all of us want to eradicate any link to terrorism if it's here," said JoAnne Mounce, a City Council member who lives in east Lodi and is a third-generation resident of the town. "But we need to make sure that people are proven guilty and are not just assumed to be because of where they are from or their religion."

Lodi joins a string of small American towns where federal investigators have swooped in since Sept. 11, 2001, to root out suspected terrorist activity.

Nearly three years ago, federal agents broke up what they called an al-Qaida "sleeper cell" in Lackawanna, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb of 20,000. In August 2004, two men were arrested in Albany, N.Y., after they allegedly agreed to help a government informant sell a shoulder-fired grenade launcher to terrorists.

But Lodi residents are wondering how their town could become the focus of a high-profile FBI investigation into possible terrorist links.

One homeland security expert says small towns could provide good cover because residents and law enforcement are less likely to be looking for signs of terrorists.

"The thinking would be they could hide and blend into small cities," said Elsa Lee, CEO of Advantage SCI, a consulting firm based in El Segundo.

Another national security expert says the small-town strategy seems counterintuitive.

"You would think big cities would be the method ... because it would be easier to blend into a large community," said Randall Larsen, a former Air Force colonel and CEO of Homeland Security Associates in Alexandria, Va.

Most locals think they wouldn't overlook something as suspicious as terrorist activities in their orderly town.

Few businesses stay open after 8 p.m., the annual grape festival in September is a marquee event and during cherry season, fruit stands in front of farmhouses outside of town operate on the honor system: leave your cash, take a basket.

Grapes are king in Lodi, especially as the region's wines have brought acclaim, and wineries have proliferated from six to roughly 60 in the last decade. Pictures of the fruit adorn official signs, a decorative arch that's a gateway to downtown and the city's public buses, called the Grape Line.

Lodi has one of the slowest growth rates in Central Valley cities - by design as city planners keep housing growth below 2 percent each year.

"To me, it doesn't feel any different size-wise and you still feel like you know most everyone in town," said Tom Peterson, former city manager of Lodi who arrived in 1964. "It's still the kind of place where people notice when you don't mow your lawn."

That order, many say, was brought by the German immigrants. Their arrival - many came via North and South Dakota - tamed the drinking and gambling ways of young Lodi.

"There were 14 saloons and maybe four churches," said Ralph Lea, an 80-year-old local historian. "After the Germans started showing up in the early 1900s, that flip-flopped. There were 14 churches and four saloons."

The Germans planted much of Lodi's landscape with grapes - a seeded variety called Tokay was the most popular - and fruit trees that helped cement the town's economy around agriculture, Lea said.

The town's early sense of orderliness and practicality still is seen in trimmed square lawns and pruned hedges that border many of the modest homes in the town's central neighborhoods.

While many neighborhoods in the city retain their character, some residents - including descendants of the original German settlers - moved to the newer, western reaches of town, and east Lodi changed dramatically as Latinos and Muslims chose to settle there. Latinos are now 27 percent of the city's residents, and roughly 700 Pakistanis live in Lodi (their numbers are closer to 2,400 throughout San Joaquin County), according to census figures.

But that diversity has yet to show up in Lodi's top leadership. The City Council and the majority of the city administration and school board remain white.

Taj Khan, 62, was the first (and only) member of the Pakistani community to run for City Council, in 1998. Khan, a retired engineer who settled in Lodi in 1981, lost by a few hundred votes in a race that elected council members at large, not by district.

Khan said his candidacy was taken seriously by voters.

"I didn't run from the perspective of the Pakistani community," Khan said. "We ran a campaign on the issues of Lodi and I came very close to winning for a novice candidate."

Since last week's arrests and the onslaught of national media attention, Khan has stood alongside Lodi Mayor John Beckman at press conferences calling for tolerance. Meetings between Muslim community leaders and city officials have focused on concerns among Pakistani residents about backlash.

Their small, yellow mosque on Poplar Street has been the target of violence. . In 1991, three high school students defaced the mosque with swastikas, broke windows and tossed lighted flares inside.

In 1998, there was a cross-burning and more vandalism at one of the town's two high schools - prompting city officials and Muslim leaders to start the Breakthrough Project to encourage tolerance and understanding.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistani Muslims feared their community and mosque would be targeted again, but the situation remained relatively calm even as displays of American patriotism appeared everywhere and rumors spread that the Pakistani community celebrated the attacks.

Now, the fear is back.

Late last week as media camped out around the mosque, a half-dozen teenage boys hung out across the street in Blakely Park. Older men were arriving for afternoon prayer services, while workers from the Pacific Coast Producers-owned canneries across the street surrounded a taco truck on their lunch break.

One of the teenagers, 16-year-old Naveed Din, said he's not worried, but described older people in the community as too nervous to leave their homes or to wear traditional Pakistani clothing outside the neighborhood.

Khan, the community leader, concurred.

"We all feel like we are under a microscope now," he said. "We have been in this community a long time. We have done good things in Lodi."

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