The job candidate I was interviewing in the Southern California desert town of San Bernardino said he wanted to be a writer in part to tell the stories of the local people because “San Bernardino really is a great place.”
In almost the next breath he mentioned he had been mugged twice in his life.
When asked about any local issues out-of-towners like us might not know about but which are important, he told the story of how he and a friend were carjacked and it took police 2 ½ hours to show up, even though when they called the dispatcher said they were on the way.
Though I tried to book a hotel in the heart of the seat of the largest county by land mass in the nation, I was dismayed to find not a single decent-looking hotel anywhere near downtown – but I noticed a convention center listed on a map. Thinking maybe I just missed the hotel, I looked up the convention center and found it and the hotel had closed years before.
My research indicated the convention center is owned by a company in Bahrain, and though there have supposedly been attempts to reopen, both remain closed.
I asked an Uber driver about the convention center, who chuckled and said, “There’s a convention center in San Bernardino?” I explained where it was and he said, “Oh yeah,” and then opined that the city seemed to have given up on the notion of re-opening it since the hotels built in the last decade near the interstate on the edge of the city now host any events that the convention center would have in the past.
I had booked a room at what was supposedly the highest-rated hotel in the city, in large part because it was less than a quarter mile away from multiple restaurants and bars. I like options, and being able to walk to and from my destination.
After a day of traveling followed by a quick trip to the California “Alps” in the nearby San Bernardino mountains, including stops in the towns of Crestline and the Swiss chalet-themed Lake Arrowhead Village, I made my way back to the valley floor.
Back in my hotel room, I checked the walking route to a nearby bar and restaurant. Though Google Maps indicated the bar was a mere two-tenths of a mile away, the walking directions gave a circuitous route taking 15 minutes and covering 3/4 of a mile.
I asked the very friendly clerks at the hotel if that really was the quickest way to walk to the hotel.
“To walk? Um, yeah, but why are you walking?” the puzzled young clerk asked.
Ah Southern California, smoggy heart of car-driving culture, I can’t say that I’ve missed you.
“Because I’m going to be drinking, and I’m trying to be responsible,” I replied with a smile.
“Well, there is a more direct route, but you have to climb a 10-foot wall,” another clerk replied with a laugh.
I thanked them and walked away, first across the large parking lot my hotel shares with the one next door, then through a seemingly unending Costco lot, then down the sidewalk of a broad street with ten lanes for cars, then to the right down another street and through parking lots of a mall until I arrived at my destination.
After a few beers and a decent if uninspiring dinner at an extremely busy chain bar and restaurant, I began the walk back to the hotel. The wall mentioned by the clerk drew my eye. While not quite 10 feet tall, it was formidable. In a couple spots, it looked like there might be gaps in the wall that one could walk through and cut the journey back to the hotel by half. They turned out to be merely indentations to house dumpsters from the chain restaurants, cafes and bars along the strip.
When I mentioned my adventure to the Uber driver on a trip back from a company dinner in Rancho Cucamonga the next day, the driver – a longtime San Bernardino resident who was moonlighting for the car-share company from his regular gig as a music teacher for the local high school – said San Bernardino had failed miserably in urban planning, and that was one of many things holding the city back.
He also mentioned the high number of parolees in the city, saying the county had a larger share than most others, and that parolees chose to live in the city of San Bernardino rather than the outer environs of the county to the north and east or the more expensive areas to the west.
When one adds in poor air quality, its location at the far end of the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles and enduring hard-drug problems, I got the feeling San Bernardino was stuck in a losing battle against circumstance.
After all, the two biggest news stories to come out of the city in recent years both involved shootings: the infamous terrorist attack in 2015, and more recently a murder-suicide at a local school that didn’t get the media attention it deserved in my mind – perhaps a telling indication of how jaded we’ve all become.
The same Uber driver mentioned that employers wishing to set up distribution centers have been moving into the city because it has multiple rail lines, freeways and a commercial airport, the latter of which hosts a microbrewery that serves forgettable beers in plastic cups that all taste more or less the same. The beer snob in me travels too, and never misses a beat.
When I mentioned they might also be able to pay lower wages than many other similar areas in California he replied, “Oh yeah, that’s a big factor.”
Whether such low-wage jobs are a boon for a place like San Bernardino is up to debate.
A co-worker who calls San Bernardino “the pit of the pit” had admonished me for walking around the city at night, even sending an email with a study that concluded San Bernardino was the most dangerous city in California. (I was content that the mid-sized, thoroughly middle-class city in the Bay Area that I call home ranked almost exactly in the middle of the study, a few spots down the list from Pasadena – home of Courthouse News Service.)
When I said as much to the Uber driver, he replied that where I was walking was basically in neighboring Redlands anyway, so not to worry.
While I didn’t experience any violence or negative experiences in San Bernardino, the city seemed to have more than its share of clearly disturbed people walking the streets, as well as empty lots, congestion and shuttered businesses.
I also noticed more cars that appeared ready to fall apart than any other city I can recall. Be they equipped with a donut wheel, bald tires, dented doors, broken windows or smashed front or rear ends, the battered and bruised vehicles seemed an apt symbol of San Bernardino.
At least the court let the down-on-his-luck guy napping on the third floor of the courthouse remain for a couple hours before shooing him away on one of the days I was training our new reporter.
The state, in its infinite wisdom, built a glimmering new courthouse a few years back to replace the classic and beautiful, if a bit dilapidated, old courthouse. The grand new courthouse would look out of place in many cities, and though there is what looks like a nice park – at least during the day – to one side of the building, behind it lies a vast empty lot inhabited only by overgrown weeds and a few homeless people.
This bureau chief made an extra trip to the court on a state holiday to take pictures of the behemoth, and was serenaded by the sound of one particularly troubled homeless woman shouting at her grocery cart.
After informing four different groups of people that the court was closed due to a state holiday – the county couldn’t be bothered to put a sign up on any of the entrances that I could see – I quickly made my way back to my little rental car and sped off, happy to leave San Bernardino behind. But not before taking a drive through the rest of downtown, full of big buildings in various states of disrepair, devoid of pedestrians aside from the random frustrated would-be court visitor or homeless person, often with shopping cart and/or dog in tow.
Just on the edge of downtown there is a run-down motel boasting new management and cheap rooms. Across the street lies a shuttered gas station and repair shop surrounded by a chain link fence, the lot filled with debris and weeds growing through the top.
But many big cities have similar problems. Some would say it comes with the territory. I suppose the hope is that the positives outweigh the negatives.
Though the city itself lies in the heart of the busy and often smog-filled valley, the mountains in the distance beckon. This wettest of winters – by California standards – brought even more snow than usual to Big Bear in the distance, and turned many of the other camelhair-colored mountains varying shades of green.
After a short visit with the down-to-earth ladies at our Rancho Cucamonga office, this bureau chief took advantage of a late flight and the holiday that left him relatively free of pressing work by taking the short ride up to Mount Baldy and then the very long way down the hill via the Glendora Ridge Road through the San Gabriel Mountains, shimmering in their ephemeral velvety green glory, before driving into gridlock on the way to the airport in Ontario.
While I’m not a spokesman for the San Bernardino tourism office which, if there is one, can’t be an easy gig, I strive to find the good parts of every place I visit while keeping my eyes open to the not so good.
Though service industry workers are often quite nice – the chief qualification of their jobs – the folks at the hotel and at various restaurants and other retail locations throughout the city had a genuine friendliness and openness that I haven’t experienced in most parts of California.
Whether it was reminiscing about when the show “Full House” was a phenomenon or making wisecracks about our hard luck, the tough people of San Bernardino touched a nerve.
Perhaps the job applicant had a point when he talked about the beauty of San Bernardino and the strength of the people. Maybe one day the absentee owners of the convention center and attached hotel will make good on their promise to re-open, and maybe the distribution-center jobs will benefit the city.
After years of drought, the lush mountains and the green valley floor were signs that maybe hope really does spring eternal.
About our coverage of California’s Inland Counties
For more than a decade, Courthouse News has provided daily coverage of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the Riverside division of the United States District Court for the Central District of California as well as regular coverage of Imperial County.
Riverside County Facts
County Seat: Riverside
Population: 2.1 million
Named After: The county seat of Riverside, located beside the Santa Ana River.
Riverside is the fourth most populous county in California and the 11th most populous in the nation.
Between 1980 and 1990, the population almost doubled in size from 600,000 to 1.1 million.
Most of Joshua Tree National Park is in Riverside County, as is the desert resort town of Palm Springs.
Riverside County hosts the annual Coachella Music Festival, a two-weekend event that in 2016 sold almost 200,000 tickets, as well as the country music-themed Stagecoach Festival.
Riverside County is the birthplace of road lane markings.
Read more CNS coverage of Riverside County news
San Bernardino County Facts
County Seat: San Bernardino
Population: 2 million
Named After: The saint of the same name.
San Bernardino is the largest county in the United States by area at more than 20,000 square miles, though some of Alaska’s boroughs and census areas are larger.
San Bernardino is home to parts of several national protected areas, including Angeles National Forest, Death Valley National Park and Mohave National Preserve.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, San Bernardino ranked third in the nation in recent employment growth behind San Francisco and Riverside counties.
San Bernardino County has been sued by the state and multiple environmental organizations for failing to account for global warming in growth plans and over other environmental concerns.
The town of San Bernardino was founded by Mormon colonists in 1851. Two years later the county was formed from parts of Los Angeles County. Some of the southern parts were later ceded to Riverside County.
Read more CNS coverage of San Bernardino County news
Imperial County Facts
County Seat: El Centro
Named After: Imperial Valley, which was named after the Imperial Land Company, a subsidiary of the California Development Company, which had claimed the southern portion of the Colorado River for agriculture.
Imperial County was the last county to be established in California, in 1907.
Imperial County is the only California county that borders both Arizona and Mexico.
Portions of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park lie in Imperial Counties. The park is the largest state park in California and the second largest in the continental United States behind New York’s Adirondack Park, and a favorite of this bureau chief.
Though located in a desert, Imperial County’s economy is largely based on agriculture. Irrigation is supplied by the Colorado River, portions of which flow through the county.
Home to the Salton Sea, the world’s only artificial inland sea was created when the Colorado River flooded in 1905 due to torrential rains.
Read more CNS coverage of Imperial County news