ONCE-PROUD CITY

Los Angeles Times - - THE NA­TION - Joe.mozingo@la­times.com Times data an­a­lyst San­dra Poin­dex­ter con­trib­uted to this re­port.

ploys1,800 peo­ple. Gi­ant new ware­houses for Ama­zon.com, 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.

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 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.

Jesse Lopez hopes tomake 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 to­get 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 as­sum­mer’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.

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.

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 warmwa­ter 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 seeit. 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.

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.

Photographs by Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

Bernardino. Four decades ago, the mo­tel boasted a cheery cof­fee shop, a heated pool, valet park­ing and palm trees. The city has be­come the poor­est of its size in the state.

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