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San Bernardino: Broken City?

June 14th, 2015 · 7 Comments · Long Beach, The Sun

I was not born in San Bernardino. I didn’t go to school there. I lived inside the city limits only a few years. Pretty sure I won’t die there.

But I worked there as a journalist for more than three decades, and during that stretch of time I felt like I knew the city pretty well.

So I was sure to read the Los Angeles Times story today that carried the oh-only-slightly-melodramatic headline: “San Bernardino: Broken City”.

And my take on that?

Well, first, I can assure you that the Times has been writing unflattering stories about San Bernardino for decades. It is smoggy. It has race issues. Violent crime is not uncommon. The schools could be better. It’s hot in the summer. The wind blows. The Dodgers don’t play there. It’s not L.A.

The tenor of the stories has rarely changed: “San Bernardino, a mess pretty much any way you want to cut it” … when LAT could have written the same story about dozens of cities a lot closer to Times Mirror Square. (I grew up in one of them, Long Beach.)

This time, San Bernardino may actually be nearly as bad off as the newspaper would have you believe. It is bankrupt. Too much of its limited revenues go to public-employee pensions. Its housing stock is dated and the economy is a mess.

But LAT surely could have found meth addicts in a rundown motel within a few blocks of its offices. It didn’t have to drive all the way to Berdoo.

Granted, San Bernardino has seen better days. It was ranked an All-America City in 1976-77, back when it was blue-collar, sure, but people mostly worked and it had a new mall downtown.

It might still be something similar if not for a pair of crushing economic blows.

One was the closure of Norton Air Force Base in 1994.

The second was the closure of the Kaiser Steel mill in nearby Fontana in the late 1980s.

A case could be made that San Bernardino never recovered from those two events, which stripped thousands of well-paying job from the region.

Also, political leadership has tended to be weak and often corrupt or incompetent.

I am pretty sure, however, that some things still work. San Bernardino Unified School District. Saint Bernardine Hospital. Cal State San Bernardino. The San Bernardino 66ers baseball team.

Whatever the crime statistics may be (and they often are grim), my experience in 30-some years was that if you stayed out of certain areas and didn’t go looking for trouble, it was unlikely to find you. Much like many other cities in California, most certainly including L.A.

At the end, I suspect San Bernardino has the same problems many older cities in California have. Especially the struggle to pay for pensions and find a dependable economic base.

San Bernardino may be a lightning rod for criticism, especially after the bankruptcy, but I am fairly confident we could list 20, 30, 50 other cities in California with many of the same issues.

Los Angeles would be high on the list, but some sort of odd self-deception seems to push L.A. into ignoring its own problems and focusing on those of San Bernardino, out there on the edge of Greater Los Angeles.


7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jan Sears // Jun 17, 2015 at 9:58 AM

    Hi Paul
    I agree with many of your comments. I would add that it was three crushing blows that brought down the city — the one missing from your account being the departure of the Santa Fe Railway yards, a major employer for generations and the one that brought my family to the city in the 1920s-30s. The killing blow was Norton’s closure in the ’90s. That pretty much wiped out the remaining middle class.
    I also put a major portion of the blame for the mess the city is in on the endemic political dysfunction that even the everlastingly optimistic Pat Morris couldn’t overcome.
    I disagree with your take on crime. I took a job as an editor at The Sun to avoid being sent to cover stories in places I felt were unsafe. I was very careful where I went and was a diligent locker of doors. And yet I was beaten and nearly carjacked on my way home from work on a Cinco de Mayo night many years ago…and robbed, and burglarized and threatened on separate occasions, in supposedly safe places. No place really was safe.
    I did think the story was pretty fair, and as a daily Times reader I can’t agree that the paper ignores LA’s problems. As for SB, the writer at least made note of the fact that there still are decent places, and some good employers, in town. The photographs, however, with one exception, focused on the worst of the worst…
    So, I applaud the good people who remain in SB, trying to make it a better place. That’s a tough row to hoe. I’m happy to have moved on, and to be living in a city that feels a lot safer. I remain a diligent door-locker…

  • 2 r.a. contreras // Jun 18, 2015 at 7:27 AM

    Hey Paul. I enjoyed reading your take on the matter. I agree that the Times’ piece was balanced, and yes, they could’ve gone to many other places to cover the negatives. SB, however is magnified in the news because of the BK problem. I choose to keep my heart in SB even though I am not currently living there. I do take classes online at CSUSB and follow almost daily the goings-on of my fractured birthplace. Good to hear your perspective. I remember working at the D-Street offices on the second floor!

  • 3 Babs Moore // Jun 18, 2015 at 10:58 AM

    To me its not a matter of, ” its no worse than most older cities in, California. ” Colton is a, City right next to, San Berdoo. It was hurt the most by the closure of so many, Santa Fe jobs…they didn’t land in the shape, San Berdoo is in, or Bloomington, or, Fontana (Kaiser steel) They stayed either the same, or grew. Fontana grew a lot, and don’t have the blight and issue, San Berdoo has. San Bernardino didn’t have to end up this way. The same mistakes happening over and over…like who you elect into office that have no clue what they are doing, but stealing from the, City. City employee’s with no, shame. Its beyond rediculous their salaries. How did they ever get away with it?? The biggest issue to me, is, that, San Bernardino City, sits in the middle of, EVERYTHING. YOU NAME IT, ITS THERE OR CLOSE BY. And now, either people are locked into their home with no way to get out, or, people are able to, and they leave, as fast as they can. Everything we loved about it isn’t gone, Its just no one is willing to live in a place any longer, that is so unsafe, with all the drugs. It truly is a mess.

  • 4 Ron Coats // Jun 18, 2015 at 6:31 PM

    As a lifetime resident of SB I believe I am more than qualified to voice an opinion on SB. I worked with both Paul and Jan for numerous years. Everything they have said is correct, but I would add one more death blow to SB’s history.

    Ever since Bob Holcolm, SB has done whatever they could to get a city full of public assistance citizens living here. Absentee landlords, no homeowners, people who have no disposal income, have nothing invested in the place they live or the city are the problem.

    Mr. Morris did all he could to get everyone within 500 miles, who was looking for FREE services, to come here and get in line. Morris did more in his 8 years to sink the city, then all of the other mayors combined.

    Until the demographics change, until the welfare numbers are in the 10 to 15% range, instead of the present 54.3% range, SB is doomed. It’s just rhat simple.

  • 5 Sonia F. // Jun 19, 2015 at 12:58 AM

    Thank you for writing this. It’s nice to see someone take the time to point these things out. I do not live there now but for more than 30 years it was my home and it always will be.

  • 6 Diane S. // Jun 19, 2015 at 9:26 PM

    I agree that there are still plenty of nice areas in SB, but even though I live in an area that used to be very nice, I wouldn’t feel safe going for a walk at night. When we moved into our neighborhood 34 years ago, we had the lowest income on the block. Now, we have the highest. Our professions haven’t changed, but half of the houses are being rented by absentee landlords. We maintain our home and yard, but the poor neighborhoods around have brought our home’s value down so low as to be unreplaceable in another city. As we drive around the city I see persistent trash and unmaintained yards. We definitely have far too many people who have no pride in their home, much less their city.

  • 7 Nate Ryan // Jun 20, 2015 at 9:53 PM

    To bolster PaulO’s point about the Times’ obsession with chronicling Berdoo’s demise … the month after I started working full time at The Sun, there was a Column One story in the Times with a headline I never will forget: “A City Racked by Woe” (partly memorable because the one-column hed was so short on each line in the print edition, i.e. A City/Racked/By Woe).

    It prompted such outrage in Berdoo, a demonstration was held at City Hall in the days after the story. The Sun actually supplied signs that read “I Stand Up for San Bernardino” for the rally.

    So I Googled that old LAT story just for fun … and stunningly, it remains online. Might be interesting case study to compare it to the most recent story nearly two decades later and see how much really has changed …

    The link:

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