Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Bankruptcy and political turmoil plagued the city long before Wednesday’s shooting.
14 people were killed and 21 were wounded in San Bernardino, California, Wednesday, when masked assailants opened fire on a holiday party for county workers at the Inland Regional Center, a facility for people with developmental disabilities.
The massacre is the deadliest since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And it came in a city that has long faced tough challenges.
An ‘All-America City’
San Bernardino, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, is one of California’s oldest cities. Once the hub of the state’s so-called Inland Empire, for decades it supported a diverse, prosperous, blue-collar workforce. It even won the National Civic League’s “All-America City” award in 1977.
But the three pillars of the city’s economy crumbled soon after. First, the Kaiser Steel Mill closed in 1983, scattering thousands of workers. Then the repair yards at the Santa Fe Depot—once a major hub for rail passengers entering southern California—ceased operations in 1992. Finally, the end came for the Norton Air Force Base, which provided 12,600 jobs the year before its closure was announced, according to the San Bernardino Sun.
A new freeway built in the early ‘90s drew business away from the city and aided a mass exodus of middle-class workers and families. A real-estate boom briefly brightened the city’s prospects in the early 2000s, but the recession darkened them, more than just about anywhere else in the state.
Now, with just over 200,000 residents, San Bernardino is the poorest city of its size in California and the second-poorest in the nation, after Detroit. In 2012, it declared bankruptcy, and is still working with a bankruptcy judge on its exit plan. There’s been a torrent of civic scandals therein the past few years, from leaders’ denial of looming financial problems to the city attorney’s alleged threats to the chief of police to city council members being arrested on charges of perjury and stalking, as well as “a federal indictment of the developer who was supposed to transform the airport into a source of civic pride,” writes the LA Times.
The biggest knot, arguably, has been how little power top elected officials have to apply resources or make changes where needed. The best-known example, as the Atlantic’s James Fallows has pointed out, is the lack of direct control San Bernardino officials have over pay for public-safety workers. Because of a requirement in the city charter to match police and firefighter pay with those elsewhere in California, “a city with per capita income of $35,000 ends up paying its public safety workers total compensation of about $160,000 apiece,” Fallows writes. This imbalance, in an atmosphere of political infighting, has been a major roadblock as the city attempts to recover from insolvency.
Wednesday, local and federal agencies worked in tandem. San Bernardino police arrived on the scene within minutes of the first 911 call about the shooting. The fire department was en route shortly thereafter. SWAT teams and Homeland Security officers also arrived promptly.
Suspected shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik—reportedly a married couple with a six-month-old daughter—were located within a few hours of the massacre. They were both killed in a gun battle with police.
Their motives are still uncertain. The names of victims are just beginning to come out.
How the hardscrabble city of San Bernardino will fare in the wake of the shooting is impossible to say. But a narrative of dogged resiliency—in the face of so much fire—has emerged from city leaders.
“San Bernardino is a resilient community,” city council member John Valdivia told MSNBC. “We’ve been in the crosshairs of bankruptcy for three years … What we want to convey to our residents is that San Bernardino is safe, that we’re conscientious of the issues that we’re facing today, and that we are on the recovery.”
City council member Virginia Marquez told media on Wednesday that her heart was full of pain. “How much more can we take?” she asked. Still, she said, “We are still a resilient city, and it’s amazing how the city, county, state, and federal agencies came together here.”
She added, “It’s going to be a long night.”