Last weekend, I took a drive up to Stockton to scope out a place I could call home for the next few months. My demands were very simple: I wanted to rent a house in a foreclosure nightmare, one of those brand new McMansion neighborhoods that have sprouted from cabbage patches and rocky desert landscapes all across the country in the past few years.
I’ve been watching the rise and fall of this miserable incarnation of the American Dream from afar. From Russia, I looked on as the rabid middle class snapped up monstrously ugly properties in the most depressing out-of-the-way spots imaginable, paying double and triple their value. They strained to make ends meet for a few years and then vanished as if fleeing from some monstrous plague, leaving their flat screen TVs, computers, family albums and everything else they used to pad their sub-suburban exile. Nothing illustrated how much of a mind-fuck this housing bubble was for those foolish enough to get caught up in it than this short doc by a Southern California TV station filmed in October, 2008.
All this time, I felt like I’d been missing out on the action. The American Dream was being destroyed, its advance routed at the fringes of metropolitan areas all across America, and I wanted to get in on the debacle: to walk on the freshly paved deserted streets and smell the new asphalt; to breathe in the raspy dryness of blocks and blocks worth of yellow lawns; to break into abandoned homes, some of them ransacked by looters, others turned into prime real estate for squatters and all sorts of critters. In the words of Rafter Man, I wanted to get into the shit. But all I’d done was watch it on my computer, filtered through the fluffy blather of hack reporters. Well, not any more. And Stockton was my ticket there.
Stockton was ground zero for the housing boom and now the subsequent bust. Home prices more than tripled between 1998 and 2005 and then came crashing down last year. Stockton had the country’s highest foreclosure rate last year at 9.5%, according to RealtyTrac, an online marketer of foreclosed property.
So said Forbes magazine, and went on to name Stockton “America’s Most Miserable City.” This drive-by agricultural and port town located in the Central Valley about an hour south of Sacramento had the distinct honor of edging out such Miserable City Hall-of-Famers like Flint, Michigan (whose misery was immortalized by Michael Moore’s film “Roger & Me”). It was an unexpected honor for a town virtually unknown outside of California. But there it was, anyway, ranking in the bottom of virtually all of Forbes’ criteria: foreclosures, unemployment, corruption, commute time and violent crime. In short, it couldn’t be any more perfect as far as I was concerned. There was another huge plus to the city that Forbes didn’t mention: Stockton is the de facto Meth Capitol of America (in part thanks to the huge distribution potential the Port of Stockton offers to meth manufacturers). I couldn’t help myself from yelling out in excitement: “Hell, yes! I’m there.” Not only would I be in the shit, I’d be able to experience it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for at least a month straight. I’d be getting it all!
A friend of mine, born and raised in Stockton, helped me pick out the three or four most desirable commuter McMansion developments. Most of them were located on the very edges of the Stockton sprawl, mazes of curvy streets and cul de sacs jutting out into the vast fields surrounding the city. Most of them were so new they hadn’t yet been updated on the satellite view of Google Maps, showing up as half-built roads and tracts of sandy land being bulldozed and prepped. Craigslist was filled with rentals coming out of these hoods. All of them had the same specs: two-story, 4 or 5 bedrooms, two-car garage, master bedroom, master bathroom with his and hers sinks and jacuzzi tubs, and access to a community rec center with a pool, jacuzzi, and tennis and basketball courts—the kind you usually find in huge condominium complexes. The rent ranged from $1,000 to $1,500 for the nicer, gated community type. All of them were ready to rent ASAP. So it should’ve been as easy as ringing up the first place I liked and making the five-hour drive from LA to hand over the check. But it didn’t turn out that way.
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