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Vallejo, Calif., Goes Bankrupt

Jobs and senior services are being cut to the bone

Vallejo, Calif. At 11 a.m. on a Friday morning, you'd be hard-pressed to file a police report or meet with a detective in this sprawling blue-collar city of 120,000. The city's sole police station is closed to the public three days a week, and its three substations are permanently shuttered.

See also: State governments face budget deficit crisis.

Drug sales are on the rise and so is prostitution on Sonoma Boulevard, one of the town's main drags. Burglaries are commonplace. Amid a rising tide of unemployment — 12 percent — and a surge of foreclosed homes, squatters have taken hold even in upscale areas.

"Vallejo is just going to pot," says lifelong resident Marti Thornton, 54. "It once felt like the town was getting itself together, but now things are really getting worse."

"People who used to eat at Taco Bell now are robbing Taco Bell," says Nancy, a 69-year-old resident who didn't want her last name published.

Situated at the mouth of the Napa River about 25 miles north of San Francisco, Vallejo holds a prominent place in California history. It was the first state capital in 1852, and for nearly 150 years was the site of one of the nation's most important naval shipyards.

In 2008, it achieved a new kind of distinction — the state's largest city to file for bankruptcy.

The plight of the tattered, ethnically diverse city, still dotted with Victorian homes from the 1850s, may presage the future for many financially strapped American cities: rising health care and pension costs colliding with eroding property and sales tax revenues in the aftermath of the recession and housing meltdown.

In bankrupt Vallejo, Calif., a woman sweeps an abandoned car dealership, her home.

A woman sweeps the pavement of an abandoned car dealership, her home, in bankrupt Vallejo, California — Justin Maxon/RAZON

But if Vallejo serves as any lesson, it's that entering a Chapter 9 bankruptcy hardly offers a panacea.

On a recent midday, the busiest retailers in the faded downtown were establishments selling medical marijuana. Dozens of storefronts stood vacant.

"When you don't see streets paved, when you see crime soaring and squatters taking over foreclosed houses, something is wrong with this picture," says Bob Sampayan, 58, a retired Vallejo police officer. He now works with the Fight Back Partnership, a community group that organizes crime watch campaigns. Its operating hours, too, have been cut.

"Vallejo has always been the affordable American dream, but now that's all in jeopardy," Sampayan says. "We can't support the local theater group, the senior citizens center or the community arts group. All the things that help make up a community are not being supported."

The city used to provide about $80,000 each year to support the Florence Douglas Senior Center, director Vicki Conrad says. She's now trying to plug the hole in the budget with private contributions and grants. Staff and operating hours have been cut, but demand for hot lunches has risen nearly 10 percent, and the center's thrift shop is busy.

"It's harder for seniors to get the resources they need," says Conrad, 72. As gas and food prices rise, homelessness among seniors is headed up, she says. And with the police cutbacks, "people are afraid to go out at night."

Next: Criminals are setting up shop in Vallejo. >>

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