Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

San Bernardino: Portrait of residents of a problem-plagued city

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Despite San Bernardino's unending supply of bad news — bankruptcy, city officials recalled from office, high rates of poverty and crime — the city has fans who want to be there and have high hopes for its future.

One of them can be found most weeknights at Meadowbrook Boxing Academy. The music is loud and a few dozen boys and a few girls wear themselves out shadow-boxing, punching heavy bags and sparring in the elevated ring.

Alex Ortiz watches his nephews, David, 13, and Daniel, 16, warm up in the ring.  Ortiz volunteers here most nights, helping youngsters build strength and endurance, but also the backbone they need to get along in this tough city.

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"I try to teach them a lot of confidence, like, when you go in that ring, you gotta know that you're going to win," Ortiz says.  "What keeps me inspired is seeing them being inspired to do other things."

Ortiz grew up in a house next door to Meadowbrook Recreation Park. These days, the independent producer and sound engineer runs Heat Squad Muzic from  a studio he built from the ground up behind his parents' house.

"That's what I like to do," says Ortiz, "discover local talent so I can try to make a name for ourselves and get more of the spotlight away from L.A. and more into the Inland Empire so we can actually, you know, move forward.

"I hope [San Bernardino] can clean up a lot. Being born and raised here, I have a lot of pride for this city."

It's a pride tinged with regret, because despite his volunteer and music work, his past involvement with gangs makes San Bernardino too dangerous a place for him to live. He and his wife live miles away, in Beaumont.

"San Bernardino is a lot different, especially where I was born and raised. That's part of the reason why I can't do really do certain things how I'd want to," Ortiz says. "I'm not comfortable, I don't want to run into the wrong people."

At 31, Ortiz recalls the city thriving in the 1970s and '80s. He attended school with the children of people stationed at Norton Air Force Base.

"I remember being a kid and seeing air shows," Ortiz says. "We didn't have to go to the base; we could see it right here from the house, and now, it's like, all that is gone."

The downsizing and eventual closure of the air base and loss of local jobs in the early '90s coincided with a rise in gangs and a spike in the rate of violent crime rate. Ortiz was in in junior high in 1993, the worst year, when the city had 82 murders. The crime rate today is about half what it was then.

"It's still high," says Ortiz, "but to me it doesn't seem that high because I've experienced a lot worse."

Beth Ulmer, 59, lives in Highland Palm, a very different part of San Bernardino — far safer — but she still gets the question: "I've had friends ask me: Why are you still there?"

At dusk, neighbors in this neat tract of mid-sized homes in the foothills walk their dogs on the steep sidewalks, waving to each other as they pass. It's  a friendly wave, a Neighborhood Watch captain says, but it's also meant to let strangers know they've been seen.

Highland Palm is a neighborhood about as far as you can live from downtown and still vote in city elections. Ulmer moved to the city in 1966 when she was in junior high school. Like Ortiz, she remembers the city in better times.

"The economy was booming here primarily because of Norton Air Force Base," Ulmer says. "I know half the kids at my school were Air Force kids. They had travelled everywhere, their parents were highly educated."

In those Cold War decades following World War II, the biggest employers were Norton, which employed 10,000 people, the Santa Fe Railroad  maintenance yard representing some 4,000 jobs, and the Kaiser Steel mill in nearby Fontana, which employed 13,000 at its height of production.

"That's who was here, which is the lifeblood of the middle class," Ulmer says. "It was a healthy place!"

San Bernardino was named an "All-America City" in 1977. That might have been the city's high point.

But Kaiser Steel closed in the mid-'80s. By 1994, the air force base and the Santa Fe rail yard were also shut down. Some 27,000 jobs had vaporized in just a few years.  

A lot of people left town, and that triggered a cascade of economic and social problems.

"There was nobody replacing those families," Ulmer notes. "That opened up a lot of housing. We became know for a place with cheap housing and we also saw an influx of people from Los Angeles area who came here because their dollar went farther.

"We didn't get really great neighbors from that — let's put it that way— and it got really scary."

As crime peaked in the mid-'90s, a former police officer sold t-shirts on which  San Bernardino's proud "All-America City" logo was crossed out and replaced with "Murder City."

Ulmer moved from the flats of San Bernardino up the foothills in 2002.  The city recovered somewhat during the housing boom of the early 2000s, but when the recession started in 2008, San Bernardino was hit hard with unemployment, home foreclosures, and businesses and restaurants shutting down.

Those businesses are what Ulmer misses most: "It's sad because I want to spend money here. I make a point to spend money here."

The city's employment and tax base has withered, taking the stability of the city government with it.

"More recently, with the bankruptcy, that was just confirming what we already knew," Ulmer says

City Hall appears to have hit rock bottom, but so far, the trash gets hauled and the police assigned to Ulmer's neighborhood still show up when called. Despite the troubles, she's not leaving.

"I never got totally scared where I wanted to leave here," she says. "I guess if the time comes, yeah, but there's nothing right now that's making me say we got to pack up and leave."

Marine Corps veteran William Valle is a relative newcomer to San Bernardino. He's lived in the city since 2004 and works as a clerk for the local transit agency. On a recent weeknight, he sits outside a sparsely populated downtown cinema complex and chats about how the city could emphasize its positive side and attract the restaurants, clubs and shopping centers he says are lacking.

"We need to find a narrative that's San Bernardino-exclusive, so that we can actually sell our city," Valle says. But it's got a big image problem to resolve first.

Valle recalls volunteering for the 2008 Barack Obama campaign at the local Democratic headquarters in the Carousel Mall, the once-thriving downtown  retail center that has emptied out and become a metaphor for San Bernardino's economic decline.

It bothered Valle when campaign workers and others insulted San Bernardino and its black and brown residents. Valle describes himself as African-American and Latino.

"I felt like we were defenseless, and that it needed something, somebody, someone, to go out there and just defend it," he says.

The insults that focused on African-American single mothers who receive public assistance particularly bothered him. There are a lot of them — nearly two-thirds of black single mothers who live in San Bernardino are below the poverty line.

"They're just single women trying to survive in this world," he says.

Valle, 31, says the city's youth and poverty often define the city in the public consciousness. Nearly 30 percent of San Bernardino residents live in poverty. One-third of the city's residents are under 18— the median age is 28.

"We do have a younger population," says Valle, "and younger populations tend to be a little more rambunctious and and I think that's where we get our reputation."

Valle sees opportunity and energy in the young population, if it can be channeled constructively.

He ran unsuccessfully for City Clerk two years ago, but the loss didn't discourage him.

"Our city is a great transportation hub, let's build off of that," Valle says. "We got a lot of youth, they're hungry, they want to make the city great — let's work off of that. Let's get the energy, let's try to focus that."

Valle includes himself in that pep talk. But he could as easily be referring to Alex Ortiz, another young talent who has pride in the troubled city.

The music producer is considering moving back to San Bernardino. It's affordable, close to family, and would provide his wife an easier commute to her school and job.

"Now, as long as I stay around my family and work with the kids and all that, I don't really have no problems with nobody," Ortiz says. "So as long as I mind my business, I'm alright."

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