'Inland' for sure, 'Empire' maybe: Where's boundary?

Times Staff Writer

It sounds like a vague hybrid of ancient Rome and a galaxy far, far away.

The "Inland Empire" is jammed with cars and blanketed with smog, stuffed with armies of spanking-new stucco homes and bounded by empty deserts and alpine peaks.

What the heck is the Inland Empire?

Almost everyone can agree the nickname for the nebulous region east of Los Angeles and Orange counties includes San Bernardino and Riverside, the area's two biggest cities, plus Ontario, Chino, Redlands, Corona and Norco, the string of towns closest to their coastal neighbors.

But what about Hemet?

Or Phelan or Needles or Palm Springs? That's where it gets as hazy as a smoggy summer day in Mira Loma.

The Inland Empire is, as historian Larry Burgess puts it, "an amorphous blob."

For some, the "Inland Empire" is less a geographic boundary than a state of being -- one often portrayed in unflattering ways.

The Fox network's teen soap opera, "The OC," loves to rag on Chino and Riverside, portraying the cities as roughneck trailer parks that epitomize "the 909" -- San Bernardino's area code and the Inland Empire's oft-battered alias.

"Our area gets a bad rap, gets a really bad rap," said Robert Gonzalez, an inland documentary historian who specializes in Mexican heritage.

Adding to the insult, director David Lynch's latest film, "Inland Empire" -- a three-hour psychodrama that revolves around an actress who finds herself in a world of trouble -- was shot in Poland.

The origins of "Inland Empire" are as obscure as its boundaries. A portion of the region, namely Redlands and Riverside, used to be known as the Orange Empire or the Citrus Belt when fruit groves carpeted the foothills, said Burgess, director of the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands.

Some local newspaper columnists and historians have attributed the designation to the marketing genius of an area bank or bygone radio deejays. The San Bernardino Sun ran a lavish illustration bearing the appellation "Inland Empire" in 1920, featuring cities from Upland and Ontario in the west to Beaumont and Banning in the east.

Late Riverside history buff and columnist Tom Patterson declared in a 1992 column that the Press-Enterprise first inked "Inland Empire" as early as 1914.

The Los Angeles Times began throwing the term around less precisely between 1910 and 1920 to alternately describe Fresno, Kern, San Bernardino and Imperial counties plus swaths of Western states -- any place considered rich with agricultural or development potential.

Folks in the Pacific Northwest had the same idea, decades earlier. Eastern Washington, northern Idaho and bits of Oregon and western Montana were known by the imperial nickname, hatched around 1880 by local entrepreneurs desperate to lure railroads and miners to the area, said Bill Stimson, a local historian and journalism professor at Eastern Washington University's Spokane campus.

Even though the I.E. has given way to the more modern "Inland Northwest," the name "just seemed to capture ... the tone and aspirations" of 19th century boom times, Stimson said. Spokane pioneers were "just working every angle they could to get it on the map -- give it some status like coastal cities got automatically."

Sounds familiar to the inland folk living in relative obscurity in the amoebic suburban neighborhoods of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, east of Hollywood and the glittery, prime-time beach communities of Orange County.

Adding to the confusion are a handful of communities along the border between Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, which, depending on whom you ask, may be unwitting subjects of the Inland Empire.

Inhabitants of Claremont, a tree-lined college town on the edge of Los Angeles County, take exception. They believe the city's neither an inland suburb nor an extension of L.A.

"We're right on the threshold ... the crossroads between the two," said Rufie Barnes, 30, instrument repair manager at the Folk Music Center in downtown Claremont.

For Barnes, the phrase conjures up thoughts of hicks, truckers and "speed freaks," a far cry from intellectual Claremont. It's a total contrast to his hometown, which he considers "really fifi" and "kind of snooty" -- the anti-empire.

Farther-flung locales like the Temecula wine country and the Coachella Valley's desert resorts also view themselves as distinct from the region.

"We're kind of geologically and geographically removed ... kind of a valley off on our own," said Joe Hart, 74, who owns Hart Winery in Temecula and is president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Assn.

But as long as population growth, home construction and employment remain red-hot, business leaders aren't too concerned with what folks across the country or Interstate 10 think of the Inland Empire.

"There's a lot of people that still have the 15- [or] 20-year-old stereotype perception of the area as being unsophisticated, undereducated -- that kind of thing," said Paul Hiller, former president and chief executive of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership.

The group, which tries to attract businesses and film production to the region, encompasses both counties plus six east Los Angeles County cities, including Claremont, Pomona and La Verne.

"For a long time, many of the coastal communities kind of looked down their nose at the Inland Empire. Now all of a sudden things are changing.... Everyone is migrating to the Inland Empire now," Hiller said.

Having a catch-all appellation makes good business sense, according to officials trying to market the region.

Beginning in the 1950s, when the state Department of Commerce lumped the region together, "Inland Empire became a convenient economic term," Burgess said. "It could mean everything east of Los Angeles."

"Any area that has a brand, I think, is useful," said Paul Thiel, editor and publisher of 951 magazine, a local publication delivered free to some residents of western Riverside County.

But even local boosters admit "Inland Empire" sounds strange.

"You don't want to build an economic engine on the name of something" that conjures up an ancient civilization, said Thiel, who favors labels like Dallas' Metroplex.

Special education teacher and local historian Nick Cataldo said he couldn't stand it when the minor league baseball team, the San Bernardino Stampede, was rechristened the Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino in 2003, a precursor to the naming fracas over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

"This is a San Bernardino team," said Cataldo, 52, who lives in the city. "You start putting Inland Empire [in front of it], this team belongs to the whole conglomerate of Riverside, Ontario, San Bernardino."

Unwieldy, largely misunderstood, encumbered by real or imagined baggage, the I.E. is too big to ignore: The region is home to nearly 4 million, more than 10% of the state's population -- and more than all of Oregon's.

"It's a representation of pride, of toughness, maybe even a little dignity thrown in there," Gonzales said, "of people that are on the edge of this huge megalopolis."

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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