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
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--
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.
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.