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.
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.