Cathedral of the Annunciation is one of the largest Catholic churches in Stockton, California. It is a vaulted brick building dating back to the mid-twentieth century, its interior, lit by shards of sunlight filtered through elegant stained-glass windows, as calming as that of any old-world cathedral. On Sundays thousands of parishioners stream in for services; latecomers can’t even get in the doors. Some of the sermons are in English, others in Spanish. The acoustics are lovely.
Annunciation is at an economic and ethnic crossroads. To the north are some of Stockton’s more prosperous neighborhoods, with tree-lined streets boasting lovely Victorian houses. To the south, as one approaches the large industrial port area, is an increasingly dilapidated string of communities, the lampposts tagged by gang graffiti, the parks a magnet for gun-toting drug users and dealers, the houses in disrepair. There are large homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Many of the buildings are boarded up, and some of the lots are strewn with trash.
Parishioners come from all directions and walks of life, and they reflect the area’s diverse ethnic makeup: Anglos, Filipinos, Chinese, Russians, Poles, Mexicans, Colombians and more. For the past four or five years, almost all of these disparate worshipers have shared a common concern: wherever on the economic totem pole they began the decade, they have since slid significantly downward—from wealth to something less, from middle class and secure to middle class but insecure, from struggling working class to poor, and from poor to desperate.
What is happening in this community is something like the opposite of gentrification—call it “shabbification.” And while the predicament is not unique to Stockton—cities and towns across the nation are suffering similar downslides in the wake of the housing bust—it is particularly acute in this Central Valley city of 290,000 residents. A forty-five-minute drive south of the state capital of Sacramento, Stockton has been savaged by foreclosures and collapsing real estate values, more than almost any other sizable town in California—itself one of the epicenters of the country’s housing crisis.
For the past two years Stockton has ranked either first or second in the country on Forbes magazine’s Misery Index. That doesn’t mean it resembles the urban apocalypse of Camden, New Jersey—which is in such disastrous shape that Forbes doesn’t condescend to critique it. It doesn’t even mean Stockton’s on par with, say, Detroit. Rather, like Cleveland, which currently tops the Misery Index, Stockton is a midsize city whose functionality is being undermined by growing levels of poverty, homelessness, insecurity and immobility (since those who want to move can no longer sell their property and start afresh elsewhere). In recent years declining high school graduation rates, which hit their nadir in 2007, have been accompanied by rising crime rates: in November Annunciation’s Altar of Remembrance displayed photos of those who had recently died; many were shockingly young, murder victims of an increasingly brutal, out-of-control gang culture. The town has an unemployment rate of about 18 percent, but with large numbers having stopped looking for work, community organizers estimate that the true joblessness rate is closer to 25 percent. Stockton is, in some ways, a town whose boots are now too big for its feet, plagued by a gnawing, pervasive understanding that its best days are irretrievably behind it.