COLUMN ONE : A City Racked by Woe : San Bernardino's future has gone from bright to blight. Residents who once sought refuge from L.A.'s problems now struggle to overcome high crime, welfare and jobless rates.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1976, this foothill community was honored as an All-America City, one of 10 in the nation cited for having its act together, a city on the go.

Today, San Bernardino still stands apart from most other urban areas, but for decidedly less august reasons.

You hear it from residents such as 35-year-old Sandra Marzullo, who was feeding her three young children at a local McDonald's. "I was born here and I figured I'd die here--but now I'm afraid I am going to die here," she said.

"My kids can't play in the park because of the transients, I'm afraid to let them in the front yard because they might be snatched, and they're afraid to be inside because we've been broken in three times."

And you see it in statistics and surveys:

Among San Bernardino's 185,000 residents, 40% are on welfare, compared to 18% just 10 years ago.

The city's unemployment rate--11% in August--is the highest of any metropolitan area in Southern California.

Zero Population Growth, the environmental advocacy group, in June ranked the city as the worst in which to raise children, among 207 it reviewed nationwide.

Money magazine rated San Bernardino the state's most dangerous city and the sixth most dangerous in the country, based on violent crimes per capita in 1993.

Even the local police have been selling T-shirts that depict a pair of vultures sitting on a bullet-riddled "Welcome to San Bernardino" sign, with the population figure scratched out and reduced, one by one, to represent murder victims.

Woe be San Bernardino, a victim of a star-crossed confluence of circumstances that have compounded themselves into crisis proportions. The city has been pummeled by crippling losses in employment, a drain of civic leadership, a massive influx of low-income residents, gang crime and dilapidated housing. For years, local government reacted like a deer frozen in headlights.

"I don't sleep at night," said Tom Minor, a former assistant police chief who inherited many of the city's headaches when he was elected mayor two years ago. "It's tough when your peers jab you--'Well, how's the murder capital doing these days?' I wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I can't go back to sleep."

The widely held feeling here is that the economic downturns that have hit the nation, striking Southern California harder, have been felt hardest of all in what was once a proud, archetypal blue-collar town steeped in the railroad, steel and defense industries.

Today, San Bernardino--the seat of the geographically largest county in the nation--is a gaunt and shadowy ghost of its former self. Signs of decay are evident in the homes and businesses that are abandoned and boarded up or have bars over their windows. From their striking, flash-cube office building, city officials are struggling to get a fix on the future but seem overwhelmed by circumstance and the attendant bad publicity.

Case in point: those T-shirts being hawked by the San Bernardino Police Officers Assn. to raise funds for a police memorial. On the back, the inscription "All-American City" is crossed out to read, "The Murder City."

More than 10,000 T-shirts have been sold, to the consternation of city boosters who complain that the rank-and-file officers--most of whom live outside the city--have turned against the very public they have sworn to serve.

Detective Steve Filson, the group's president, says the T-shirts were intended to compel City Hall to more forcefully address the crime problem. "This town has a lot of potential--but we're in a septic tank," he said.

City officials recoil at the mention of the shirts.

"Police have a gallows humor and that's what these T-shirts exemplify," said Acting Police Chief Wayne Harp. "Unfortunately, the message brought some unfavorable attention to the community . . . and I've told the officers I don't want them sold or worn around here."

Harp says the city's notoriety over crime is unfair.

Indeed, violent crimes--homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults--reported in San Bernardino in 1994 dropped 27% from 1993--the year measured by Money magazine, according to Police Department figures.

Part of the reduction is credited to reinforcements from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol, which offers assistance to cities that have exhausted their own police resources.

Nonetheless, the violent crime rate in San Bernardino in 1993 was 3,190 per 100,000, compared to 2,332 per 100,000 in Los Angeles, according to the FBI's most recent accounting.

Harp contends that the underlying source of the problem is clear: "the run-down housing stock and the bad people it attracts."

"We're trying to clean up those old areas," he said, "but San Bernardino is an old town and we've got a lot of areas like that. We've got a lot of work to do, to clean up the city."

Community activist Juanita Scott, who has lived in San Bernardino since 1962--and who served as the city's affirmative action officer for four years--cringes at Harp's linkage of inexpensive housing and crime.

"That's ridiculous," she said. "I know a lot of people who live in poor housing who are honest people, out there trying to do their best. We need cooperation and confidence between the community and the Police Department, and statements like that--that if you live in poor housing, you're a crook--don't help."

The primary cause of the city's high crime, she said, is the lack of jobs.

Signs of Rebound

Boosters at City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce are quick to point out that, on some fronts, San Bernardino is starting to show signs of rebounding.

The closed Norton Air Force Base on the southeastern side of town is on the brink of commercial revitalization as a retail trade center and trucking center and an industrial park that, in a decade, may again employ 10,000 people. A new Postal Service facility ultimately will employ about 900. Another 750 will work at a new Defense Department finance and accounting center. And Santa Fe Railroad is developing a containerized shipping yard to replace its old repair yards, employing about 500.

Even as some longtime businesses close their doors and move to neighboring communities, others replace them, drawn by an abundant, albeit largely unskilled, labor force and relatively cheap land prices.

Hundreds of below-standard homes and apartments have been boarded up by city officials as they target concentrations of crime activity as well as absentee landlords who fail to maintain decent living conditions.

And despite the city's housing slide elsewhere, a neighborhood of swank homes on the city's north side surrounds the tree-shrouded Arrowhead Country Club.

The city also boasts that it is the home of a state university, the most popular Soap Box Derby in Southern California, the Western states' Little League headquarters, a civic symphony and other cultural offerings, a popular classic car show along old Historic Route 66, and a school district that is generally applauded for doing well despite a high percentage of at-risk students.

But by other and somewhat less tangible measures, the city continues to struggle.

Local civic leaders complain of the graying of service organizations. They say they lack fresh, visionary younger members because of the exodus of junior executives. The Chamber of Commerce has seen its numbers drop--from 1,200 to 1,000 in four years.

Minority community leaders complain that many police officers are insensitive to an increasingly diverse population; the city is 45.6% Anglo, 34.4% Latino, 15.3% black and 4.8% Asian and others. Nearly three-fourths of its 260 officers are white. The highest-ranking Latino is a lieutenant, and the highest-ranking black is a sergeant.

San Bernardino ranks third worst in the state for the number of babies born to parents who use drugs or alcohol; 69% of the city's schoolchildren qualify for free breakfast and lunch, compared to about 31% statewide.

Even the federal Bankruptcy Court and U.S. District Court are moving to nearby Riverside because, judges say, they can no longer tolerate the crime downtown.

"Morale in town is as low as I've ever seen it," said Rabbi Hillel Cohn, chairperson of the city's Human Relations Commission.

Indeed, some welfare residents--such as Karen Warrick, a 36-year-old single parent of nine children--express concerns about the city in which they sought refuge. She moved from Los Angeles 10 years ago and spends $550 of her $995 monthly income to rent a tired, four-bedroom home that is barely furnished.

Outside, some of her children cool off with a hose, turning the yard into a muddy mess.

"It's quieter here than L.A.," she said, "but it's getting more and more like L.A. The challenge is in keeping my kids from getting shot or beat up."

At a community center--where swimmers jump a fence to enjoy a pool that is gated because of budget cuts--Ray Menifee sought relief beneath a shade tree and philosophized that it's all a matter of perspective. He moved 10 years ago from Compton. "This is like a country town and now I don't have to pack a weapon," he said. "This is nowhere as bad as L.A."

Others are more bitter about their circumstances, such as Pam Waggoner, who lives here with her boyfriend, an unemployed tree trimmer, and the eight children between them.

"It would be great out here, if there were jobs," she said as she and her children sucked on snow cones on a sweltering and smoggy day. Sounds of gunfire are commonplace, she said. "You just have to put the kids on the floor until [the gunfire] stops."

"I hate this place," she said. "But where do I go? How do I get there? I'm stuck here."

Steady Growth

San Bernardino's decline followed decades of steady growth as a stable, middle-class community.

The city, founded as a Franciscan mission in 1810, was incorporated in 1854 and was nourished by an 1860s gold rush in the nearby mountains. The city evolved into a railroad center and boomed at the end of World War II, with a burst of single-family housing construction to accommodate returning service men and women. This brought families to a city previously notorious as a thriving center of prostitution. At the military's insistence, the city clamped down on the red-light district.

At election time, politicians regularly swung through town to shake the hands of thousands of blue-collar workers at each shift change. This was a city of steel-toed safety boots, of Falstaffs and Hamms being shared on front porches as children played in front yards, the San Bernardino Mountains a glistening backdrop.

But during the 1970s, the mission at Norton AFB--which generated the largest payroll in the area--shifted from Minuteman Missile deployment to an airlift command, and thousands of white-collar, high-paying engineering jobs were lost. And in the 1980s, the Kaiser steel plant in nearby Fontana--which drew heavily on the San Bernardino labor force--closed.

The early 1990s delivered a double blow.

Santa Fe Railroad's West Coast repair yard downtown--which had operated here for more than 100 years and which employed more than 4,000 workers at its peak--was relocated to Topeka, Kan.

The coup de grace was the long-anticipated closure of Norton last year, taking with it 10,000 jobs and the loss of hosts of allied businesses, from suppliers to restaurants.

The city's residential base was in dramatic transition too. Aerospace engineers and airmen moved out of their apartments; blue-collar workers moved up their retirements and left the area for cleaner skies or lost their houses in repossessions. Their homes were scooped up by out-of-town investors who gambled that because property values skyrocketed in Los Angeles and Orange counties in the late 1980s, San Bernardino real estate would appreciate.

But while the real estate boom stoked new-town developments elsewhere in the Inland Empire--places such as Temecula, Moreno Valley, Corona and Rancho Cucamonga--it never reached old San Bernardino.

The median value of a home--$94,000--was the lowest of any city in Southern California at the close of 1994, according to real estate analysts.

If home prices here are generally dirt cheap, the air is just dirty, frequently veiling the mountains. Last year, the ozone levels exceeded federal limits 96 days--more often than any city in Los Angeles County--and pollution particulates are considered among the worst in the nation, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

San Bernardino has been a magnet for welfare recipients from the Los Angeles area who found that because of lower housing costs, they could get more bang for their public assistance check, according to county officials.

City Hall approved the construction in the mid-1980s of still more apartments, frequently at densities over the prescribed levels during a boom period for developers. Today, about half of residents are renters.

Some tenants abused their homes. And some absentee landlords either couldn't afford--or didn't care to--maintain their properties, officials said.

"The deterioration in the city was unbelievable between 1985 and 1988," said urban economist John Husing, who has studied San Bernardino for years. "Whole neighborhoods of owner-occupied single-family were being replaced with whole neighborhoods of renters, and the character of those renters got rougher and rougher and rougher and the crime rate took off," he said. "A dynamic was set off which to this day has not stopped."

Bill Leonard, 78, a San Bernardino native and the father of a state senator, rues the transformation that was sparked by the loss of several major employers.

"The loss was beyond economics," he said. "We lost the people who were supporting our churches, involved in our service clubs, our YMCA and Boy Scouts. And those people were replaced by people who are on public assistance and who found it easier to live here than in the metropolitan [Los Angeles] area. The scales were tilted the other way now."

Critics then and now say City Hall itself failed to address the spreading blight. Officials sluggishly enforced building and safety codes, acted too hesitantly in keeping businesses here and were distracted by parochial infighting that obscured any sense of direction, critics say.

Confounding the problem is the form of local government: by charter, the mayor is independently elected and can veto City Council action. City commissions are only advisory, and the mayor hires and fires key staff. The result: Too much power was concentrated in the hands of one politician, said City Atty. Jim Penman. He and others blame former Mayor Bob Holcomb for allowing much of the unchecked growth while not acting aggressively enough to preserve commercial and residential neighborhoods and promoting quality-of-life standards.

Holcomb served as mayor from 1972 to 1986 and from 1990 to 1994 when, in the face of plummeting popularity, he decided not to seek reelection. He admits now that errors were committed on his watch.

"We overdid it on apartments, in retrospect," he said. "That's probably a big contributing factor. No one really looked at apartments as a problem because they had stable residents. But . . . code enforcement went downhill, and the blight got worse."

City Council matriarch Valerie Pope-Ludlam said she is frustrated by the years of municipal paralysis. "We still have to come to grips with the reality of our city," said Pope-Ludlam, who has served on the council eight years.

Pope-Ludlam says she is not surprised that the council has not attracted candidates better able to tackle the city's problems. The salary is $50 per month, unchanged in the City Charter since 1937.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°