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.

2 minute read

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

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