STOCKTON — Fifteen years ago, tiny Gleason Park told the story of this hard-luck Central Valley town: It teemed with hoodlums, hookers and crack dealers.
The city had battled to rid the park of its criminals but failed and ultimately gave up. For years, thugs and addicts freely shot, stabbed and robbed each other, blocks from the Police Department and City Hall. Nearby, pensioners huddled in houses they couldn't hope to sell.
Today, the criminals are gone. The city has razed the park's bathrooms, basketball court and benches, and plans to build a school and affordable housing in their place.
Gleason Park is one sign that a new attitude, like a sheriff with a tin star, has come to Stockton.
As the Central Valley grows away from agriculture into the state's next big population center, many farm towns are losing some of their rough edges. Stockton, a long-disparaged but once-vibrant city, is at the vanguard of the transformation.
Working-class Stockton (population 279,000) has California's highest crime rate and a long way to go. But if it once exemplified how a city could be overwhelmed by crack and gangs, defeatism and grime, it is now a case study in how small victories over blight, decay and criminality can refurbish a municipal image.
The city applied the "broken windows" theory, championed by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton first in New York and then in L.A.: Clean up the minor blight -- broken windows, abandoned cars, graffiti-scarred walls -- and more serious issues of crime and decay will start to fade.
Stockton's homicides have dropped from 62 in 1990 to 41 last year, though the city grew by 70,000 residents. The overall crime rate dropped about 25%.
But most important, residents say, the feel of the city has swung from limp pessimism to the aggressive confidence of the city's early days.
Stockton has bet $126 million of taxpayer money on what officials believe is California's largest redevelopment project: a 5,000-seat baseball stadium and a 10,000-seat hockey, soccer and concert arena along the long-neglected delta waterfront. A Sheraton hotel and condominiums are under construction.
"It's absolutely amazing that Stockton is moving forward given the social challenges arrayed against it," said Robert Benedetti, a political science professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton who has spent years studying the town and teaches a class on its politics.
"The story in part here is that we are a lower-class city that has survived and now is starting to do well against all sorts of difficulties," he said.
Born of the daring optimism that brought the early white settlers to California, Stockton formed in 1849 as a supply center for the 49ers who risked everything to mine the hills for gold.
Later, the town became a center of agricultural innovation and shipbuilding.
But Stockton's frontier atmosphere persisted for decades.
The city began to lose heart in the 1970s, when downtown was abandoned in favor of newer neighborhoods and shopping centers in the northern part of town. Several factories closed. By 1990, downtown hotels had become flophouses for sex offenders and junkies. Halfway houses dotted central Stockton, where property values collapsed.
The one man with plans to revitalize the downtown during those years was Eckhard Schmitz -- a pedophile, as it turned out. After proposing to redevelop the city's waterfront, he was convicted of molesting several boys but jumped bail and fled to his native Germany.
Meanwhile, the city struggled to absorb Mexican and Central American farmworkers, as well as Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong refugees. In the 1980s, it became one of the state's first major cities with no racial majority.
By the end of that decade, crack cocaine had arrived. Newly formed gangs battled for drug-selling territory. Latino street gangs warred with one another, and Southeast Asian gangs robbed refugee families in their homes.
Stockton set homicide records for four consecutive years -- from 1988 through 1991 -- while alternating with San Bernardino and Oakland in claiming the state's second-highest crime rate.
Amid the crime epidemic, the city cut its police force. "That was just almost insanity," said former Mayor Gary Podesto. "That took years to recover from."
The city's worst nightmare occurred Jan. 17, 1989, at Cleveland Elementary School. Patrick Purdy, a drifter with an AK-47, opened fire on a schoolyard of children at recess -- killing five and wounding 30 others and a teacher before killing himself. The event shocked the nation.
"That was a terrible blow to the feeling of the city," said Benedetti. "We were a place of pathology. We killed our kids."
In 1990, ABC chose Stockton to film a prime-time documentary about America's gun problem. A Stockton couple were shot to death in their home while watching the show.
As it became a town only a crime reporter could love, Stockton's native optimism vanished.