Blog: What Happened To You, Vallejo?

(originally written 4/8/12)

With each passing year, the city I called home for my first 23 years becomes less and less recognizable to the point that I now don’t understand how I survived growing up there.

 

Oh, sure, they sprouted up a new freeway, spruced up a portion of a near-deserted island, added a couple neighborhoods, and raised a few new (and mostly unnecessary) traffic lights in the years since I departed.

But the Vallejo of today is but a caricature of the Vallejo I grew up in, at least according to the news. If it’s about Vallejo, and not about CC Sabathia, it’s bad news.

 

And that makes me really…really…sad. Because we used to BE something. Something GOOD. Once upon a time we were even the state capital. Now we’re closer to becoming the crime capital.

 

I don’t even know where to start; my poor hometown gets so much bad pub these days it’s almost like trying to figure out where to start treating a man who’s been shot 10 times—a paradigm all too accurate given the strife Vallejoans deal with every day.

I suppose I will start with the police force…or what’s left of it.

 

Years ago, the VPD was strong enough that it could send 10 officers to chill outside my door indefinitely waiting for my uncle to emerge from a nap—and then handcuff me in a case of mistaken identity. Today, you pretty much have to have been murdered to get anything resembling a timely response from anyone. The ranks have been thinned out by budget cuts to the point of farce.

In 2010, my mom had a problem with a stalker.

 

Knowing we wouldn’t get much help until/unless he attacked her, we decided to report it anyway, just to have the harassment on official record should we have to take protective action ourselves—which I was fully prepared to do. I was not counting on the police to keep her safe.

But the stupid VPD was so understaffed—not to mention ambivalent—they wouldn’t even allow us to make a report. Even if they had, it would have had to been submitted online, as I found out when my cousin’s cellphone was stolen in 2009. That’s something, huh? No police response; you just blog about your victimizations now and hope they bother to read it.

 

Then there’s the bankruptcy. In 2008, Vallejo became the largest city in California’s long, long history to go belly-up under the weight of its own debts. In spite of all the development, the hikes in property taxes, huge cuts in public services, and a massive theme park which SHOULD be highly lucrative, V-town managed to find a way to lose cash.

 

I can tell you where it wasn’t being spent: trash cleanup, beautification, paving roads, roadkill removal, etc. I recently drove by one of my old elementary schools, feeling nostalgic, I guess. There were so many weeds and unpruned trees, I could barely even make out the playground. Which was saturated in trash.

 

Given the lack of law enforcement—there are times when less than half-a-dozen officers are on duty there—I’m surprised that crime isn't worse than it is. Which isn’t to say it’s not bad, because it IS. You watch the news. You’ve heard the stories. Let me rattle off a few highly publicized incidents from 2010 alone, off the top of my head:

 

  • The kids who beat up a man that confronted those kids for throwing rocks at his vehicle.

  • The thugs who shot a female ice-cream vendor.

  • Two stabbings at a high school.

  • A group of idiots burning down the COURTHOUSE.

  • A man arrested for his 10th DUI.

  • The closing of Vallejo Middle School (where I went) and Hogan High School (where some friends went).

  • A baseball coach attacking an umpire.

 

And the motherload of bad press heaped upon my hometown in recent years: The Efren Valdemoro case.

 

If you’re not from around there, know that this was a huge story in the 707 for weeks. EV killed five people over a couple of days, apparently over his potentially cheating girlfriend. He took out a father and son, at least one of whom he suspected of carrying on with his girl. He killed two women with whom he roomed at times, ostensibly because one attempted to evict him.

As the police closed in on him and chased him into Richmond, he somehow managed to murder that very girlfriend while operating his vehicle at high speeds. He was finally eliminated by the cops.

 

An outsider hears news like this and must think Vallejo is basically Darfur west; that everyone here is a maniac, out of control, with aims of raping, robbing and pillaging everyone in sight. If I wasn’t FROM there, with a contingent of family and friends who still call it home, I might think the same.

 

And that is utterly sad. It makes me sad.

 

Look, I grew up there. I took my first steps there. I attended the public school system here for 18 years and found my first job there. I met friends there who I’m close with to this day. It was not always a haven for bad publicity. Oh, there were always the neighborhoods you didn’t want to stroll through without just cause and proper preparation. But what city DOESN’T have those?

 

We had a mall. GONE. We had a K-Mart. GONE, torn down. We had a Wal-Mart. GONE, moved to nearby American Canyon. We had Children’s Wonderland. Closed for years. We had a kickass bowling alley. GONE; you have to go to the slummy one where hookers hang out. Office Max, Sizzler. GONE, GONE. The Foster’s Freeze I frequented after school? Demolished entirely.

 

That doesn’t even include the dozens of local businesses I once graced that have gone the way of the dodo…including my old Little League sponsor, Gold Rush Pizza. I just about cried when that place closed. But I'm not here to talk about the past.

 

The horrific criminal acts committed at the schools simply did not happen when I went there. Sure, there were fights. But nobody ever got stabbed or shot at. No students ever attacked strangers just to blow off steam. There was order and culpability. Now, the inmates run the asylum. My cousins weren’t allowed to walk the eight blocks or so to attend their high school, and I can understand why. If I’d grown up in this era my mom wouldn’t have allowed me to, either!

 

I don’t mean to group everyone, or generalize what is a six-digit population and rising, but it starts with the people themselves. Too many of them seem to have just…given up. You can see it in their body language and during interactions with them. I went to Great America in 2010, and their workers were either genuinely pleasant, or giving Streep-caliber performances. In contrast, the staff of Discovery Kingdom would have to down a gallon of X to be considered melancholy.

 

It doesn’t help that almost every public place I visit, there is a person screaming gibberish to absolutely no one. One man was so unhinged outside a Burger King, I was honestly ready to throw down—he looked and sounded ready to snap at a moment’s notice.

 

Another time I was at a gas station, for no longer than five minutes, when two separate people approached me for handouts. That is two more than I had all year in San Jose. One guy, in a Taco Bell, flippantly asked me if I “had a dolla”, as if we were a couple of buddies! Those experiences, sadly, define the city of Vallejo in the 2000’s. There’s a ubiquitous air of despair, and it is almost palpable. Friendliness is minimal, as everyone is on edge waiting to be assaulted, robbed, or solicited. Sometimes, I swear the weather even changes when I cross the Carquinez.

 

I don’t have the slightest idea how to solve the problems. Clearly, the officials don’t, either. And even if they did, would they? These are the people whose advice to locals who complained about the condition of a Valle Vista Avenue railroad crossing was “Use another one”. (It was eventually fixed. Now they just need to get somebody on the "Flordia" street sign.)

 

My mom's stalker turned out to be a kid; he was arrested for burglary elsewhere and isn't a threat to her anymore. Still, she’s since been fully armed with pepper spray, knives and a bat inside her house and in her car/purse, but in the back of my mind I can’t help but fear for her. My long term goal, hopefully by age 40, is to have enough put away to move her out of there for good.

Because I’ve accepted the facts.

 

My hometown isn’t home anymore…