Reporting from Stockton —
The first time Forbes magazine named Stockton "America's most miserable city," people here sent angry letters to the editor and suffered a kind of civic heartburn. When it happened again this year, they'd reached their limit.
"I'm gratified that so many people are saying they're mad as hell at Forbes," Mayor Ann Johnston said. "Enough is enough."
After the latest list came out in February, Peter Jaffe, the Stockton Symphony's music director, brought it up during a concert. He drew cheers from the audience by saying the magazine was wrong and inviting New York publisher Steve Forbes to see for himself at the symphony's April finale.
Jaffe, who has lived in Stockton for 16 years, assured Forbes that "we won't be the most miserable experience you've ever had." He then introduced a featured baritone who performed Gershwin's "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'."
"It was on the program," he later explained, "and I couldn't resist."
Business groups, meanwhile, began planning a "Stand up for Stockton" rally. On April 23, streets will be closed and a photographer on a crane will capture a crowd of residents wearing bright green and yellow "Stockton is miserable!" T-shirts — with the word "miserable"' crossed out and "magnificent!" inserted in its place. The image will be blown up to poster size, with one copy displayed at City Hall and another shipped to Forbes' headquarters in New York.
"We want to make it manageable for them so they can hang it in their office," said Denise Jefferson, executive director of the Miracle Mile Improvement District, a pleasant stretch near the University of the Pacific that includes such college-town fixtures as a yoga studio, a sushi bar, outdoor cafes, bookstores and antique shops.
At a meeting last month, Jefferson laid out the rally's logistics — extra police, liability insurance, portable toilets — for merchants and curious neighbors. Sitting on folding chairs in a refurbished vintage theater, audience members suggested massing school choruses for "The Star Spangled Banner" and bringing in such homegrown celebrities as Jose Hernandez, a former astronaut who graduated from Stockton High School.
At times, the talk grew passionate. Asking participants to post word of the rally on the Internet, photographer Arnold Chin likened residents of Stockton to "our comrades in Egypt and Libya" and Steve Forbes to "an evil dictator."
But more than anger, there was frustration that the city of 292,000 had again become a national punch line. That seven other California cities — Merced (3), Modesto (4), Sacramento (5), Vallejo (9), Fresno (17), Salinas (18) and Bakersfield (20) — were Stockton's list mates was not a source of comfort.
"It's a stigma," said Alan Ray, a professor of broadcast communications at the University of the Pacific, who is organizing entertainment for the rally. "I tell people I'm from Stockton and I've had them go, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' "
Ray and others were not amused when Forbes listed the stats they knew all too well: 18% unemployment, home prices down by two-thirds since 2005, a foreclosure rate among the nation's highest. Stockton's rate of violent crime, while decreasing, still is among the nation's 10 worst.
For many, it was just too much: Forbes had twice named Stockton the nation's second-most miserable city, and now it was saddled with a repeat first-place designation. City Manager Bob Deis, in a comment published by the magazine, called it "the equivalent of bayoneting the wounded."
That wasn't the intent, Forbes senior editor Kurt Badenhausen, who wrote the piece, said in an interview. Badenhausen said he had never been to Stockton but that last year he sent a reporter out for the day.
"If something like this brings the community together, that's terrific," he said.
This time around, community boosters have been quick to counter the grim statistics with the city's positives.
The inland port on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta may have more than its share of urban problems, they say, but there's a graciousness too. Marinas dot the waterfront and residents enjoy concerts at the ivy-covered University of the Pacific, the alma mater of jazz legend Dave Brubeck. In a town whose real estate bust has been among the nation's most catastrophic, finely kept Victorian homes are reminders of a more prosperous past.
While Forbes dinged Stockton for its lack of pro teams, residents root for the minor league Stockton Ports in a 6-year-old downtown stadium. Some proudly contend that the city, long ago known as Mudville, may have been home to the hapless Mudville Nine, the team immortalized in the poem "Casey at the Bat."
In a widely circulated four-minute video, retired businessman Greg Basso gave a Stockton sales pitch that would have done Willy Loman proud.
Forbes "got it all wrong," he said, lauding the Port of Stockton's business opportunities, the golf courses close at hand, the world-class recreation just two hours away at Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.
Plummeting property values have created "a wonderful first-time home buyers' market," he enthused.
And, finally, Basso rhapsodized about a Stockton attribute that didn't rate a mention in Forbes: It's a farm town. The city's biggest annual event is its Asparagus Festival, and, Basso pointed out, its tomatoes adorn the New York pizzas that fuel many an East Coast snow shoveler.
As a Manhattan cocktail flashed on the screen, Basso gave it the ultimate local spin:
"That cherry," he said, "is from the Stockton area."