San Bernardino

San Bernardino, once a sturdy, middle class “All-America City,” is now bankrupt, the poorest city of its size in California, and a symbol of the nation’s worst urban woes.

June 14, 2015
By Joe Mozingo
Photos by Francine Orr

With a rake and a mask, the motel manager steps carefully into Room 107.

This afternoon, Sam Maharaj will evict a couple and their 4-month-old baby for not paying their bill. The mother sits on the side of the bed, still twitching from slamming methamphetamine the night before.

Maharaj sinks the rake’s tines into an ankle-deep thicket of dirty diapers, hypodermic needles, crusted food, hot sauce packets, broken Tupperware and cockroaches, living and dead. A South African immigrant of Indian descent, he never expected that his piece of America would look like this.

Four decades ago, this motel boasted a cheery coffee shop, a heated pool, valet parking and palm trees that swayed in the hard wind coming over the Cajon Pass.

Now it’s a way station for broken people in a broken city.

As other California cities lift themselves out of the recession, San Bernardino, once a blue-collar town with a solid middle class, has become the poorest city of its size in the state and a distillation of America’s urban woes.

Maharaj, who manages the Country Inn, rents his rooms to copper wire thieves, prostitutes and the working poor. He does what he can to help them, and often stands in the parking lot watching with sadness as their children play between the freeway’s sound wall and a swimming pool with just enough water for mosquitoes to breed.

He and his wife keep their own two children locked away in their fortified apartment behind the motel office. One day, they plan to buy the motel from Caltrans — which purchased the property as part of a freeway expansion project — and turn it into clean and comfortable lodging. One day, they hope the Tripadvisor reviews no longer begin: “Hookers, crack, blood and bullet holes.” Maybe the motel will have charming postcards again.

As his rake claws at the debris of crumbling lives, he keeps his expectations low. This is Berdoo, a city his friends at the Hindu temple in nearby Riverside mock as “the ghetto.”

Look at the news, he says: the county assessor arrested on charges of meth possession, the city attorney challenging the police chief to fight at City Hall, one City Council member arrested on charges of perjury, another on charges of stalking, and a federal indictment of the developer who was supposed to transform the airport into a source of civic pride.

Of the 100 biggest cities in the U.S., San Bernardino, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, was ranked the second-poorest in the nation in the 2010 census, behind Detroit. Two years later it filed for bankruptcy. Last month the City Council approved a 77-page plan that it hopes will move the city toward solvency, in part by making residents pay higher taxes and fees while further cutting their services.

Former Mayor Patrick Morris has seen the people living in San Bernardino’s motels, squatting in abandoned houses and sleeping in its parks and vacant lots. To him the bankruptcy is the culmination of what happens when forces internal and external conspire to bring a city down. On a recent afternoon Morris, 77, and Sally, his wife of 54 years, pull bags of mulch out of their old Toyota pickup at Wildwood Park, on the city’s middle-class northern edge.

A nonstop volunteer now, Morris sinks a shovel into the small garden at the park’s entrance, replacing plants that gophers killed.

Morris grew up in the desert town of Needles. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he decided that he wanted to live in the closest California city to his hometown, one with a similarly scrappy, working-class soul.

He bought his modest ranch-style home on Maywood Avenue for $25,000 in 1964. Realtors tried to lure him into a bigger house as his stature in the city rose. He said no. Nor did he join the many professionals moving next door to Redlands, with its outdoor amphitheater, manicured streets and solvent economy.

In a place that many middle-class children leave as soon as they are adults, Morris’ children went to the public schools, then settled in San Bernardino, and his grandchildren are doing the same.

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