The Tragedy of San Bernardino

The focal point of California's vast Inland Empire, the suburban city of San Bernardino was brought to its knees by the Great Recession. Its civic bankruptcy and its emergence as a suburban slum is perhaps America's most tragic story of urban sprawl.

Read Time: 2 minutes

July 4, 2015, 7:00 AM PDT

By Josh Stephens @jrstephens310

San Bernardino Skyline

If you had to choose between being Detroit and being San Bernardino these days, it might be a toss-up. In fact, you might choose Detroit. Though the Rust Belt giant has famously suffered through decay, decline, and the country's largest civic bankruptcy, its bones remain strong and its spirits are rising. As Detroit's suburban, West Coast counterpart, San Bernardino may yet have a ways to fall. Already rocked by local economic shocks, such as the closing of a nearby Air Force base, many of its 210,000 residents became classic victims of the mortgage crisis and Great Recession of the late 2000s.

With so many homes underwater and a relatively homogenous economic base, San Bernardino was ill-equipped to weather such a huge shock. In its recent profile of San Bernardino, the Los Angeles Times called it "the poorest city of its size in the state and a distillation of America’s urban woes." By some measures, among the country's 100 biggest cities, only Detroit is poorer. Just two months ago, the city finally approved a plan to stabilize the city's finances, by raising taxes and cutting services. 

"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 Norton 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."

"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."

By some measures, San Bernardino keeps getting worse, and more blighted. 

"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."

Sunday, June 14, 2015 in Los Angeles Times

Chicago Commute

The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

January 26, 2023 - Angie Schmitt

Green bike lane with flexible delineators and textures paint in Hoboken, New Jersey

America’s Best New Bike Lanes

PeopleForBikes highlights some of the most exciting new bike infrastructure projects completed in 2022.

January 31, 2023 - PeopleforBikes

Sharrow bike markings on black asphalt two-lane road with snowy trees

Early Sharrow Booster: ‘I Was Wrong’

The lane marking was meant to raise awareness and instill shared respect among drivers and cyclists. But their inefficiency has led supporters to denounce sharrows, pushing instead for more robust bike infrastructure that truly protects riders.

January 26, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

A tent covered in blue and black tarps sits on a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk with the white ziggurat-topped L.A. City Hall looming in the background

L.A. County Towns Clash Over Homelessness Policies

Local governments often come to different conclusions about how to address homelessness within their respective borders, but varying approaches only exacerbate the problem.

February 3 - Shelterforce Magazine

Rendering of mixed-use development with parks and stormwater retention on former Houston landfill site

A Mixed-Use Vision for Houston Landfill Site

A local nonprofit is urging the city to consider adding mixed-use development to the site, which city officials plan to turn into a stormwater detention facility.

February 3 - Urban Edge

Aerial view of downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin at sunset

Milwaukee County Makes Substantial Progress on Homelessness

In 2022, the county’s point-in-time count of unhoused people reflected just 18 individuals, the lowest in the country.

February 3 - Urban Milwaukee