Long Rife With Setbacks, San Bernardino Is Not Without Faith

Dec 13, 2015
Originally published on December 14, 2015 2:35 pm
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., was a cruel blow to a place that has had more than its share of adversity. In the last three decades, the historic city 60 miles east of Los Angeles has been battered by economic calamity, wildfires, high crime, bankruptcy and now a mass shooting. As NPR's John Burnett reports, this resilient city is looking for better days ahead.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A Spanish missionary named this valley encircled by rugged mountain peaks for Saint Bernadine of Siena two centuries ago. It forms the eastern gateway to Los Angeles. They called it the Inland Empire. San Bernardino was a thriving railroad and military town with orange groves, the world's first McDonald's and a famous highway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROUTE 66")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

BURNETT: Now, the nation's worst terrorist attack since 9/11 has happened in San Bernardino, and the city is reeling. Michel Nolan has been a columnist for the San Bernardino Sun for 20 years. She sits in a booth in Molly's Cafe, a downtown hangout.

MICHEL NOLAN: From now on, all these people who had never heard of the - of San Bernardino before, you just can't believe it when it's where you live or where you work. But, you know, every time something horrible happens, we come back, so that's why I have faith.

BURNETT: San Bernardino has had more than its share of hard luck. This majority Latino city of 200,000 is the poorest of its size in California and the second poorest city in the country after Detroit. And it's no stranger to violence. LA gang members fleeing a police crackdown moved east and settled here. In 2012, San Bernardino became the biggest city in the nation to file for bankruptcy. It hopes to emerge sometime next year. City Council member Virginia Marquez says it's been tough retaining and recruiting good employees.

VIRGINIA MARQUEZ: Most people don't want to work in a bankrupt city because they don't know if they're going to get paid. There's no stability right now.

BURNETT: Marquez sits on a bench outside City Hall resolutely smiling.

MARQUEZ: We are going to be OK, and it's just a test of faith, and I wouldn't live anywhere else.

BURNETT: The city is still $186 million in the hole. To lower expenses, garbage pickup is being outsourced, the fire department will be taken over by the county and the police department has been slashed by nearly a hundred officers. This apparently did not affect its heroic response to the active shooter call. Economic setbacks have been piling up for decades in San Bernardino. The Santa Fe Railroad closed its Western headquarters here. Norton Air Force Base and the Kaiser Steel Plant pulled out. The Great Recession hit like a bomb. Meanwhile, the city continued to overspend. Former Mayor Pat Morris says the terrorist attack on a local holiday party is just the latest misfortune.

PAT MORRIS: And to add this, a human tragedy, to that economic tragedy compounds our challenges.

BURNETT: Morris thinks scrappy San Bernardino is on the verge of a comeback. He mentions the new transit center and courthouse, the mammoth Amazon distribution center and the new museum in the old train station.

MORRIS: We are here at the historic Santa Fe Depot, which is a beautiful Moorish style edifice built in 1919. It is restored at the cost of about $15 million and now a very important transportation center.

BURNETT: How will San Bernardino get past its association with the slaughter of innocence that has become an international story? Terrance Stone is director of Young Visionaries Leadership Academy, a local nonprofit that works with at-risk youth. Stone is a former Crips gang member. By his own account, he was a very dangerous thug, in and out of jail when he turned his life around. Stone hears echoes of his own story in San Bernardino's agony.

TERRANCE STONE: You know what? This event was so horrific that good has to come out of it, you know? It's - because if we just focus on the bad, then we'll be stuck in the bad. If San Bernardino can't find the good to come out of this, then shame on us.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, San Bernardino, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.