A BRO­KEN CITY

San Bernardino, once solidly mid­dle class, has be­come a dis­til­la­tion of Amer­ica’s ur­ban woes as it strug­gles to re­cover from bank­ruptcy

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Joe Mozingo

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 an­kledeep 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.

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

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 swim­ming­pool 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. One­day, 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 Ber-doo, 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

Bro­ken, meth pos­ses­sion, the city at­tor­ney chal­leng­ing the po­lice chief to fight at City Hall, one City Coun­cilmem­ber 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 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 Cal­i­for­nia city clos­est to his home­town, one with a sim­i­larly scrappy, work­ing-class soul.

He bought his mod­est ranch style home on May wood 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 mid­dle­class 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 Fair grounds. Lit­tle League picked the city for its West­ern re­gion head­quar­ters. And in 1976, the Na­tional Civic League des­ig­nated it an All-Amer­ica City.

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 Nort on 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 fro­mall 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 em--

Pho­to­graphs by Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

MO­TEL MANAGER Sam Ma­haraj, left, cleans out a room at the Coun­try Inn while a renter rocks back and forth as she is be­ing evicted. Ma­haraj and his wife hope to one day buy the ho­tel, now owned by Cal­trans, and of­fer clean and com­fort­able lodg­ing.

EX-MAYOR Pa­trick Mor­ris re­mains loyal to the city he’s lived in for 50 years.

A WOMAN

and her 4-month-old baby await evic­tion from the Coun­try Inn in San

LIZ GON­ZA­LES and TimWil­burn bathe in a culvert near the 2nd Street bridge. Home­less res­i­dents of nearby Mead­ow­brook Park have cre­ated a sub­ter­ranean spa fed by 90-de­gree wa­ter from the city’s geo­ther­mal heat­ing sys­tem.

A BOY races his scooter past an aban­doned house. When the re­ces­sion hit, San Bernardino’s fore­clo­sure rate was 3.5 times the na­tional av­er­age.

JESSE LOPEZ heads for work at a ware­house. Lopez, an Army vet­eran whose GI Bill ex­pired, makes $12 an hour, but some weeks, he gets only a sin­gle shift.

THE METROLINK sta­tion in San Bernardino. Dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters have opened on the old Nor­ton Air Force Base, which cost 12,500 jobs when it closed.

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