San Bernardino: You’re livid, you’re proud, and I’m listening

By Joe Mozingo


his summer, photographer Francine Orr, videographer Liz Baylen and I have been reporting on the city of San Bernardino.

When we published our first story June 14, I asked readers to share their memories and views of this city that has become one of California’s poorest. Hundreds of you emailed, commented, tweeted and posted. Your reactions were strong and varied.

Some of you said you recognized the beleaguered civic landscape we were portraying and left San Bernardino as many of these problems — including a methamphetamine epidemic and municipal bankruptcy — grew.

Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Some of you lamented the tough realities: 91% of San Bernardino students qualify for subsidized school lunches. 54.3% of residents are on public assistance. The city has the lowest median income of any city in the state with more than 50,000 people.

Some of you who still live in the city lambasted the civic leaders who let it come to this.

And some of you were angered to see us portray your hometown as a wreck.

"Here I sit in a perfectly nice home, in a good neighborhood, getting ready to go to church — all in San Bernardino — and then I open my Sunday Times and the first thing I see is your depressing article. I can’t argue with the basic facts, but there is so much more to this city than strung-out drug addicts and the homeless," Cassie Levy wrote.

One group staged a protest along a freeway offramp carrying signs reading "I Love San Bernardino."

The San Bernardino Sun ran a column by Michel Nolan saying residents felt the article didn’t balance the good with the bad.

"The impact of the recent L.A. Times article on San Bernardino had found its mark, triggering a tsunami of emotions for locals — and a call to action," she wrote. "There have been a million stories written about San Bernardino — many by Sun reporters but none with the same impact."

It’s only natural for residents and city leaders to bristle when outside journalists come in with a stark report about their town. In the 1960s, author Joan Didion portrayed the city as the place the California Dream went to die, and residents rallied to defend the city then too.

That's a sign of its ongoing vitality. I’ve met dozens of inspiring people in San Bernardino, and I’ve seen many aspects of the city that are pleasant and worth bragging about:

• There are hidden gems of historic homes throughout town, some on beautiful, shady streets. And the middle-class neighborhoods in the foothills are a world apart from some of the squalor I saw in other parts of town.

• The International Baccalaureate program in the school district sends students to top universities across the nation.

• Cal State San Bernardino is thriving and giving many first-generation college students a chance to step ahead.

• The California Theatre is a historic beauty, home to the esteemed San Bernardino Symphony, a great source of pride for many longtime residents.

• Numerous companies are doing innovative work. Garner Holt Productions on East Cooley Avenue, for instance, makes the animatronics for Disneyland and other theme parks and museums around the world.

Borrowing a phrase from Mike Gallo, the school board president and founder of Kelly Space, there are clearly plenty of "random acts of excellence" in the city. But they have not yet coalesced to markedly improve the overall situation, which is dire.

As I suggested in the first article, the problems that have hammered San Bernardino affect almost every American city. They just hit San Bernardino harder. And from more angles.

This is why we can all learn from what happened and is happening there.

As we continue to publish stories, photos and videos about this symbol of the problems that are shaking much of urban America, we will continue to listen to our readers and viewers.

Could your city be the next San Bernardino? »