There are tens of thousands of strip malls in the United States -- 68,128 of them, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. You can find these open air markets conveniently located not far from nearly every highway off-ramp and two-lane road across America -- places where grandmas go to pick up their medications and kids can get a scoop of ice cream. They typically don’t have much to offer teens. Strip malls are often maligned as feeling empty; culturally, aesthetically and sometimes even commercially.

Except, that is, for one we heard about in Stockton, California.

The Normandy Village Shopping Center has a secret.

The town has lots of strip malls on one of its main drags, each one nearly indistinguishable from the next. In fact, when we first arrive, we accidentally pull into the wrong one. I’m here to visit the Normandy Village Shopping Center, which is home to a dozen businesses, including a big Asian foods grocery store, a pet shop, and a second hand store called D. Thrift. On a Saturday night earlier this summer, there are about 50 kids, all in their late teens and early twenties, talking and smoking in front of one vacant storefront with taped up windows. It used to be a cell phone shop, and before that, a place that sold diet pills.

Tonight, it’s Stockton’s premier underground concert venue.

During the day, this storefront is what real estate developers refer to as a “vanilla shell”: white walls, large windows, and generally dull surroundings. But at night, bands come in early to deck the place out with flame-shaped Christmas lights, large speakers perched on a Persian rug, and a DJ booth in the back. Outside, friends and fans of tonight’s acts gather, tattoos peeking out from under their sleeves, some looking like they just got off work, in T-shirts emblazoned with fast food insignias. At the door of the storefront, a dark-haired guy in his twenties is wearing all black, with combat boots on his feet. He greets friends and passersby with a welcoming smile and a wave. He tells us to come in to hear the first band play.

says Frankie Soto of the shopping center space

This is Frankie Soto, the frontman of the indie band Surf Club. He’s the guy in charge here. A lot of the musicians we talk to have memories -- fond ones, even -- of hanging out at this strip mall as kids. Back when the mall had a kids’ discovery zone, and a mini golf course across the street, two of Soto’s birthday parties were held here.

Both Kim Eng and Bob Guevara (who make up tonight’s opening act, Kismet Aura) have been coming to this mall all their lives. Eng remembers coming to the laundromat; Guevara gestures towards the baseball card shop behind him, “I got my Yugioh cards there.” Now this space means something else to him. “Where I hope it goes, is the direction where…we find a new community out here.”

This strip-mall-as-concert-venue seems like the type of unsanctioned underground party that gets the attention of local law enforcement. But these kids aren’t breaking and entering. They don’t need to -- they have the keys.

That’s thanks to an unlikely friendship between Soto and Long Nguyen, whose family runs the Normandy Village Shopping Center. To Nguyen, the mall is more than just a place for people to buy groceries or clothes. It represents his family’s long history in California, which began as a refugee story more than three decades ago. His parents came to the Golden State from Vietnam, slogged at building a new American life, and finally, began snapping up real estate.

In 2008, Stockton became one of the largest cities in America to have declared bankruptcy. In 2011, it ranked number one on Forbes Magazine's "America's Most Miserable Cities" list (since then, it’s dropped to #8).

Nearly one in five houses here faced foreclosure, and housing prices remain nearly half of what they were before the crash.  

"It was called the foreclosure capital of the unbelievable period," said Rudy Willey, who's been a realtor for more than 20 years. In one particularly hard-hit neighborhood, he recalls, a home was sold for $14,000 when the market hit bottom. "Within a half mile radius (in Weston Ranch), there would be 350 suburban homes for sale, and 95 percent of those were foreclosures."

Weston Ranch was developed in 1989 as a bedroom community for people who worked in the Bay Area and commuted from South Stockton, according to Willey, who sold some of the first homes there. He's now the chair of the county housing authority's Board of Commissioners, and says Weston Ranch is "still a great neighborhood: a large high school, shopping. As with anywhere in Stockton, there's some gang activity."

Frankie Soto lived in Weston Ranch for almost 11 years, until he was 18. But after his parents divorced, “they had to do a short sale on the house because of the market being so bad,” he said.

The story of how these two men -- a 20-year-old Mexican American indie rock kid and a Vietnamese American real estate developer in his 40s -- came together starts at a music festival, not in Stockton, but more than 80 miles away in San Francisco, back in 2012. Nguyen was amazed to see a Stockton band, Soto’s Surf Club, onstage.

“They just blew me out of the water,” Nguyen recalls. “They were really young. I think half of the band was under 21. So after they were playing at the bar, they had to immediately get off the stage...and they could only watch from the sidewalk.”

Nguyen eagerly (Soto says tipsily) introduced himself, saying, “I own the D. Thrift! Just come play in it.” Feeling cautious about a drunken offer of a free concert venue, it wasn’t until a few months later, with few local music venues left in Stockton, that Soto decided to take a chance on the D. Thrift.

All the kids I met in this scene call their empty storefront the “D. Thrift” even though the concerts aren’t, and never have been, held in in the thrift store of the same name. Nguyen, the landlord of the shopping center and until recently, the manager of the second hand store, is the only connection between the two.

The D. Thrift concert venue is a “vanilla shell” before band members transform it.

The concert space itself isn’t that big -- I’ve been in living rooms that were roughly the same size. But Soto says that the space is the right fit for the bands that play here. “It’s super intimate. It’s kind of small but it’s like, exactly what we need.”

There’s enough space for their audiences to gather around and sway to the sometimes peaceful, sometimes frantic, music that Stockton’s bands are producing. Marketing for the shows is minimal. Before a concert, Soto and his crew distribute flyers and post a few invitations on Facebook. Over two years, the scene has gained enough steam that now there’s about a show per month in the strip mall. Some of Stockton’s younger bands have played their first concerts at the D. Thrift, unlike Soto’s Surf Club, which debuted in a theater elsewhere in town that’s since closed down. The burgeoning scene has even attracted touring acts that otherwise wouldn’t have decided to stop in Stockton.

But Soto says generally, Stockton is devoid of much of a nightlife. “I think that’s why a lot of kids come out to our shows every time. It’s something to do.” The town shuts down at nine or 10 at night, Nguyen points out, so it’s not a surprise there are so many people wandering around when the D. Thrift concerts are kicking off.

Tonight, three guys covered in tattoos are waved into the space when they get curious about what’s going on inside, and they spend most of their time there pushing each other like elementary school boys with shy smiles on their faces. A teenage boy and his little brother wander by and ask what’s happening -- “is it a rave?,” but decline offers to come in. The older one says he has to get his younger brother home soon. Soto says he and Nguyen make a point of making the space as welcoming as possible to community members.“We know that struggle too, of like, not being able to get into shows because we’re not old enough,” Soto said.

Other than a $5 suggested donation to get touring bands a place to stay and some gas, there isn’t any fee to enter the sweaty, strobe-lit room. Inside the concert, I’m swept up in a crowd of people, some moshing playfully in the center of the room, and other people swaying gently on the sidelines. Three bands perform sets of at least four songs each. Most of the musicians, when they're not on stage, are in the crowd, dancing to music their friends are creating a few feet away. One band stops to sing “Happy Birthday” to an audience member, and everyone else joins in. Then it’s back to the music. People crowd surf almost every song, and one fan’s written band names on his chest with a Sharpie.

Later that night, members of the band Kismet Aura chat with us about Stockton and its vibe. Bob Guevara gets worked up talking about the violence immediately surrounding the D. Thrift. “We’re hearing (about) people shipping out M16s to kids. There’s parks right here that you can find guns in.”

They tell us, talking over each other, that the music scene here is messy and chaotic, but compared to the rest of Stockton, the D. Thrift is a sanctuary. “We’re just here smoking weed and drinking beer,” Guevara says, which was apparent as we talked to the duo.

If you don’t live in California, you probably don’t hear much about Stockton unless Forbes magazine is telling you not to move here, or 60 Minutes is reporting on the housing crash. A recent brush with notoriety happened when a “hot” mugshot of Jeremy Meeks, who’s facing felony charges after Stockton police found a semiautomatic handgun in his trunk, went viral online.

Early on the day I arrived here, the sun was shining onto a festival at the marina, where people were milling around outside wearing bright clothes, with smiles on their faces. It hardly seemed like the Gotham-esque city of the headlines, besieged by violence and crime. Despite pockets of serenity, though, I still couldn’t help feeling that the city had an air of desolation -- like a place where someone salted the land and nothing was going to grow.

The neighborly atmosphere at D. Thrift seems to turn the little space into something a lot bigger, a place where the band members and their fans freely express a bit of relief -- perhaps because it’s a reprieve from the ennui and violence outside.

It’s a little disappointing when the police pull up after midnight to end the concert, leaving those of us inside confused as to what's happening. But the audience stays cool and respectful -- no rushing into the street or broken windows. Nguyen wonders aloud how long this all can last. He says that there isn’t enough development money being spent in Stockton for the scene to become something bigger, not right now. “But for the time being, it’s working,” he says resolutely.

“Without culture, there’s nothing for people to hold onto when infrastructure fails. People need something else to turn to when things go bad.”

There are scenes like this, that feel like little pockets of magic, in distressed cities all over America. A musician turned a condemned house into a music box in New Orleans, an artist blasted a foreclosed house into an igloo in Detroit.

Nguyen, with the hopeful enthusiasm of an artist’s patron, mentions that these concerts in Stockton remind him of a scene that happened in San Jose while he grew up there. “Twenty to 30 years ago if you wanted to see a show or see a music event (in San Jose) you’d probably have to go to San Francisco, Palo Alto (for) the closest events. But I had friends, what they did was they would have these ‘X’ shows...these shows that would creep up, pop up, and then disappear.”

The Normandy Village Shopping Center has a secret.

Long Nguyen's family is unaware that rock concerts are held in their empty storefront.

Soto, however, seems to just be glad to have the opportunity to continue making music. “No one in Stockton throws shows like we do,” he says, but he recognizes that not everyone has access to a real estate developer who remembers what it's like to be a teen. “I consider us super lucky to have Long on our side.”

And the stores in this strip mall will open for business in the morning as usual, their owners never knowing what happened here last night.

Editor: Nishat Kurwa
Producer: Ike Sriskandarajah
Video Producers: Chaz Hubbard, Jenny Bolario, Luis Flores
Photographers: Brett Myers, Jenny Bolario

A version of this Youth Radio story aired on NPR's malls series. More stories from the series here: