San Bernardino: Broken City

June 14, 2015

By Joe Mozingo
Photos by Francine Orr
Video by Liz O. Baylen

San Bernardino, once a sturdy, middle class "All-America City," is now bankrupt, the poorest city of its size in California, and a symbol of the nation's worst urban woes.

Top to bottom: Sam Maharaj, the manager of the Country Inn, evicts a couple and their 4-month-old baby for not paying their bill. More photos »

With a rake and a mask, the motel manager steps carefully into Room 107.

This afternoon, Sam Maharaj will evict a couple and their 4-month-old baby for not paying their bill. The mother sits on the side of the bed, still twitching from slamming methamphetamine the night before.

Maharaj sinks the rake’s tines into an ankle-deep thicket of dirty diapers, hypodermic needles, crusted food, hot sauce packets, broken Tupperware and cockroaches, living and dead. A South African immigrant of Indian descent, he never expected that his piece of America would look like this.

Four decades ago, this motel boasted a cheery coffee shop, a heated pool, valet parking and palm trees that swayed in the hard wind coming over the Cajon Pass.

Now it’s a way station for broken people in a broken city.

Top to bottom: Sam Maharaj, the manager of the Country Inn, evicts a couple and their baby. A couple and their 4-month-old baby will be evicted for not paying their bill. More photos »

As other California cities lift themselves out of the recession, San Bernardino, once a blue-collar town with a solid middle class, has become the poorest city of its size in the state and a distillation of America’s urban woes.

Could your city be the next San Bernardino?

Hello, I’m Joe Mozingo. In reporting these stories, I met a lot of hardworking people, but found a city overwhelmed by economic and social problems. If you live or have lived in San Bernardino, tell me how you see the city. And it’s not the only place struggling in California. If you live somewhere you think has more dire circumstances, please tell me about it. What can cities do to improve residents’ lives? I plan to share what you tell us.

Discuss this story »

Maharaj, who manages the Country Inn, rents his rooms to copper wire thieves, prostitutes and the working poor. He does what he can to help them, and often stands in the parking lot watching with sadness as their children play between the freeway’s sound wall and a swimming pool with just enough water for mosquitoes to breed.

He and his wife keep their own two children locked away in their fortified apartment behind the motel office. One day, they plan to buy the motel from Caltrans — which purchased the property as part of a freeway expansion project — and turn it into clean and comfortable lodging. One day, they hope the Tripadvisor reviews no longer begin: “Hookers, crack, blood and bullet holes.” Maybe the motel will have charming postcards again.

As his rake claws at the debris of crumbling lives, he keeps his expectations low. This is Berdoo, a city his friends at the Hindu temple in nearby Riverside mock as “the ghetto.”

Look at the news, he says: the county assessor arrested on charges of meth possession, the city attorney challenging the police chief to fight at City Hall, one City Council member arrested on charges of perjury, another on charges of stalking, and a federal indictment of the developer who was supposed to transform the airport into a source of civic pride.

Of the 100 biggest cities in the U.S., San Bernardino, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, was ranked the second-poorest in the nation in the 2010 census, behind Detroit. Two years later it filed for bankruptcy. Last month the City Council approved a 77-page plan that it hopes will move the city toward solvency, in part by making residents pay higher taxes and fees while further cutting their services.

Former Mayor Patrick Morris, 77, jogs several mornings a week. “I believe that membership in a community is an essential feature of a prosperous life,” he says.

Former Mayor Patrick Morris has seen the people living in San Bernardino’s motels, squatting in abandoned houses and sleeping in its parks and vacant lots. To him the bankruptcy is the culmination of what happens when forces internal and external conspire to bring a city down. On a recent afternoon Morris, 77, and Sally, his wife of 54 years, pull bags of mulch out of their old Toyota pickup at Wildwood Park, on the city’s middle-class northern edge.

A nonstop volunteer now, Morris sinks a shovel into the small garden at the park’s entrance, replacing plants that gophers killed.

Morris grew up in the desert town of Needles. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he decided that he wanted to live in the closest California city to his hometown, one with a similarly scrappy, working-class soul.

He bought his modest ranch-style home on Maywood Avenue for $25,000 in 1964. Realtors tried to lure him into a bigger house as his stature in the city rose. He said no. Nor did he join the many professionals moving next door to Redlands, with its outdoor amphitheater, manicured streets and solvent economy.

In a place that many middle-class children leave as soon as they are adults, Morris’ children went to the public schools, then settled in San Bernardino, and his grandchildren are doing the same.

“I believe that membership in a community is an essential feature of a prosperous life,” he says. “We need to take care of where we are.”

In his 50 years in the city, Morris has been a prosecutor, a civil litigator, a Juvenile Court judge, the chairman of the school board and the presiding judge of the Superior Court. He founded and led the local Habitat for Humanity chapter and the San Bernardino Boys and Girls Club. He started one of the state’s first drug courts to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail and headed the Juvenile Court. And last year, he finished his second and last term as mayor.

The San Bernardino to which Morris has such loyalty is one of California’s oldest cities, founded in 1851 by Mormon missionaries. It was the birthplace of McDonald’s and the earliest incarnation of Taco Bell. The Rolling Stones played their first U.S. concert at the Orange Show Fairgrounds. Little League picked the city for its Western region headquarters. And in 1976, the National Civic League designated it an All-America City.

From top to bottom: The San Bernardino Metrolink Station at dawn. Backstage before the Mr. Cardinal pageant, San Bernardino High School contestants warm up at the Sturges Center for the Fine Arts.

San Bernardino also had its curses. This rail and highway crossroads at the edge of the Los Angeles metropolis attracted hobos, misfits and con men selling cheap land. The Hells Angels roared to life in the area in the 1950s. As the valley became the region’s downwind cul-de-sac for some of the worst smog in the nation, the looming mountains disappeared and lungs burned.

Over the last three decades, the economy imploded. The rail shops and the nearby steel plant closed. So did Norton Air Force Base, costing the city 12,500 jobs. Downtown businesses vacated. Law offices decamped to Riverside when the federal bankruptcy and state appellate courts moved.

But there are still middle-class neighborhoods and amenities: a symphony, a country club, the Starbucks and El Torito along Hospitality Lane.

At least some members of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, descendants of the original Serranos who had been segregated in an impoverished reservation, now live in mansions in the hills above their casino. It’s one of the area’s biggest employers, providing 2,500 jobs catering to gamblers from all over Southern California.

In the southeast part of the city, Morris shows off the new headquarters and distribution center for Stater Bros., which he helped lure to the closed air base. It employs 1,800 people. Giant new warehouses for, Pep Boys and Kohl’s are nearby, among vacant fields with scattered clumps of eucalyptus and collapsing clapboard homes.

On the city’s northwest edge, Morris drives past the latest developments of large Spanish-style homes on curving, smooth-black streets with banners reading “New Frontier” and “The Colony.” It’s suburbia at a fraction of what it would cost closer to Los Angeles.

Median income in this area is above $65,000, nearly five times what it is in the bleaker parts of town. Stay very close to home and you might imagine you’re in Irvine or Santa Clarita.

Yet even this relative upper crust lives with the problems of a city gone broke: subpar schools and potholed streets just outside their immediate neighborhoods; high crime, slow police and fire response times; and trash and tumbleweeds that pile up against rusty chain-link fences.

From top-left, clockwise: A boy races past an abandoned home. A burned-out, abandoned property in San Bernardino. A window overlooking San Bernardino International Airport, built on the site of the former Norton Air Force Base.

During several boom-and-bust waves, homeowners sold or lost their homes to investors and speculators. Some landlords see little return in keeping their properties well-maintained.

“They’ll bleed the property until it’s blighted and then desert it,” Morris says.

When the recession hit, San Bernardino’s foreclosure rate was 3.5 times the national average. It was inevitable: Only 46% of San Bernardino’s working-age residents have jobs — the lowest figure in the state for cities anywhere near its size. And so the statistical landslide built momentum as property and sales taxes fell by more than a third in recent years.

As the economy unspooled, the police and fire unions kept shoveling money into council members’ campaigns. In 2008, over Morris’ objections, the council gave them a generous gift. Employees of the Police and Fire Departments could retire at 50 years old and their pensions would give them 3% of their final pay for every year they had worked.

A fire battalion chief making $148,000, could retire at that age and collect $133,000 a year for life — with increases for cost of living.

By 2012 the city was spending 72% of its general fund on the Police and Fire Departments, mostly on salaries and pensions — compared to Los Angeles, which spends 59% of its general fund on those services. More than half the sworn fire personnel earn more than $150,000 a year according to city records.

The city downsized, cutting 350 municipal employees, but that wasn’t nearly enough. Many municipalities faced pension problems, but the trajectories here were extreme. Facing a budget deficit of $45.8 million that year, with little more to cut, officials filed for bankruptcy.

By 2013, the median family income, adjusted for inflation, had dropped to $37,440, the lowest in the state for a city its size. In some parts of the city, it’s about $15,000.

Top to right: Jesse Lopez, a 42-year-old Army veteran, puts on his work ID before riding his bike to Kohl's warehouse. Lopez checks the spider-cracked screen of his Samsung cellphone.

Jesse Lopez hopes to make that much this year. He is one of the San Bernardino residents who have tied their ambitions to the distribution centers.

One afternoon, the 42-year-old Army veteran smokes, paces and watches the spider-cracked screen of his Samsung cellphone, still bleary from the 5 a.m. warehouse shift he just finished.

Many of the warehouses send texts to announce what shifts are open the next day. Workers usually have seconds to claim one by typing in a code. Lopez still berates himself for mistyping a few weeks back, losing a day of work.

The phone chirps.

“There it is,” his wife, Sherri, exults. “Is that it?”

“No, that’s not it,” he says.

He yawns.

Unlike the explosive push driving people from hollowed-out Rust Belt cities, San Bernardino’s economic implosion is sucking people in: immigrants, parolees, Los Angeles gang members and those like the Lopezes, who can’t afford to live anywhere else in California.

Between 1979 and today, the city has almost doubled in population, from 117,000 to 214,000, and it’s still growing, with more than half of its residents — 54.3% — on public assistance.

Lopez makes $12 an hour. But some weeks, he gets only a single shift. He recently looked at his pay stub and realized he made $1,352 between Jan. 1 and March 20.

He had gone to college to get out of this cycle of temporary warehouse jobs. But his GI Bill expired in October.

At 4:30 p.m., Lopez looks at his wife and puts the phone in his pocket. “Nothing.”

A few weeks later in April, the Lopezes move into a $595-a-month apartment with help from Sherri’s daughter, who paid the first and last month’s rent.

By May, they can’t pay their bill and Edison shuts off their electricity as summer’s 110-degree days approach. Lopez needs a steady job. The couple had been sleeping on the couches of family and friends for months and fear eviction.

In San Bernardino, the typical trajectory for someone in their spot is not to those “New Frontier” developments in the better part of town but to places such as the Country Inn.

Liz Gonzales, 50, bottom, and Tim Wilburn, top, bathe together in the ‘spa,’ a drain pipe near the Second Street bridge.

It could be worse. Liz Gonzales, 50, looks forward to the rare days when she somehow pulls together enough money to stay in one of the city’s low-rent motels.

She grew up in motels, where, she says, she was sexually abused. Her own children also grew up in motels and chaos. One is in prison now, the other won’t talk to her.

Today, she lives in Meadowbrook Park where a sliver of stream gurgles through a cluster of tents and lean-tos. The water reflects the new marble and blue glass courthouse that Morris helped get the state to build.

Liz has bright green eyes and sporadic teeth, and is slowly dying of lung cancer and emphysema.

On a warm afternoon, she wanders to where the stream becomes a concrete flood control channel and settles in under the 2nd Street bridge.

As she looks for her syringe, a teenage boy looking for turtles crouches in the mud with an aquarium net.

Ten yards away, a man slips into a tunnel in the wall of the channel. Inside, the park’s residents have created a subterranean “spa” fed by 90-degree water from the city’s geothermal heating system. It’s marked with street art, including the grim reaper drawn in colored chalk.

Kevin Creamer, 33, left, asked Rachelle Oliveira, right, if he can pray with her under the bridge next to Meadowbrook Park.

Among the people who soak in the tunnel is a friend who was hit in the gut by a stray bullet as she sat in her tent. Doctors fitted her with a colostomy bag, but it was too much trouble and she abandoned it. It comforts her to sit in the tubular concrete tunnel, letting the warm water flow over the puckered hole in her abdomen.

Gonzales, too, appreciates the spa. In her raspy voice, she quips that the city has the cleanest homeless people in America.

But like most people in the park, her main source of comfort is the methamphetamine that has settled into San Bernardino so deeply that downtown doughnut shops sell glass pipes and torches.

She pokes her finger at a vein on the inside of her elbow.

“It’s not a good vein,” she says. “But it’s the only vein I could pick right now.”

She sticks the needle in and lifts the stopper a bit to pull out blood.

She doesn’t see it. Then a spot of red swirls into the clear solution. “Oh, there it is.”

She plunges it into her arm.

She waits, leaning back against the redwood bridge’s bracing, charred into black scales. She doesn’t feel much. The crystal wasn’t pure.

She heads off in hopes that someone has a better batch.

Liz Gonzales, 50, shoots meth beneath the Second Street bridge.

Wisps of hope are what the city gets by on.

Lopez hopes that he will land a steady job.

Maharaj hopes that someday the Country Inn attracts a less troublesome clientele.

Morris hopes for a city that offers its people better lives.

He quotes author Wallace Stegner, who wrote that a place “forms like a coral reef, by slow accrual.”

It takes the contributions of generations for a city to succeed, Morris says. “I think to be rooted is one of the most important and least recognized needs of our human soul.”

“We leave a Detroit. We leave a Stockton. We leave a San Bernardino. That’s a great sadness to me,” Morris says.

And so he stays.

Times data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

Could your city be the next San Bernardino? »

Hello, I’m Joe Mozingo. In reporting these stories, I met a lot of hardworking people, but found a city overwhelmed by economic and social problems. If you live or have lived in San Bernardino, tell me how you see the city. And it’s not the only place struggling in California. If you live somewhere you think has more dire circumstances, please tell me about it. What can cities do to improve residents’ lives? I plan to share what you tell us.

Additional Credits: Digital design director: Stephanie Ferrell. Digital Producer and Developer: Evan Wagstaff. Caption for final photo: During several boom and bust waves, homeowners sold or lost their homes to investors and speculators.