Its proper name is San Bernardino, and once upon a time it was an all-American city. But people who grew up there call it San Berdino, or Sam Berdino, or sometimes just Samberdino, and today it's an all-American mess.
What makes this sunny, smoggy city of 200,000 or so such a fascinating study is its prototypical decay. Sam Berdino has declined much in the same way as most of the rest of America has, at the same rate, and over the same period. Its illnesses -- pollution, a shrinking tax base, a dying downtown, the eclipse of agriculture and collapse of key industries, petroleum dependency, and a widening gap between a small, rich elite and the increasingly nonwhite and non-English-speaking mass of workers, their dependents, and other assorted hangers-on -- typify the malaise afflicting the U.S. as a whole.
If citizens of our country once considered the U.S.A. paradise on earth, then Sam Berdino was big "P" Sam Paradiso. When local merchants the Harris family opened their massive, palatial department store at Third and "E" Streets in 1927, the springtime air in Sam Berdino was heavy with the syrupy fragrance of orange blossoms wafting from the thousands of acres of groves surrounding this gorgeous town of 35,000. The white, heavily-ornamented Harris Building, as beautiful as it was prosperous, was a source of pride to the community as well as one of its primary economic mainstays, much as similar independent, family-owned community department stores all over the country were during the half century between 1925 and 1975.
Twenty years after the opening of Harris's masterpiece, another local Sam Berdino business took a great leap forward, one which carried with it extraordinary cultural, gastronomic, and nutritional significance for the entire country. In 1948 the brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald decided their barbecue restaurant at 16th and "E" needed something to set it apart from the other cheap eateries downtown and hatched an original idea. They called it the "Speedee Service System," and their new McDonald's Restaurant was an overnight sensation. The birth of fast food did not go unremarked by other entrepreneurs, one of whom, Glen Bell, began opening taco stands featuring the McDonald brothers' instant service system. His fast-food mini-empire culminated with the appearance of the first Taco Bell in Downey in 1962.
Another So-Cal entrepreneur attracted by the McDonalds' success was milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc, who at first partnered with the brothers, then bought them out in 1961 for $2.7 million, and proceeded to carpet the earth with McDonald's restaurants.
By the time the McDonald brothers' new marketing idea was up and running, Sam Berdino's population had ballooned to almost 75,000 as the city was transformed once again during World War II, when it found itself with an air force installation and a major steel mill. Thanks to Congressman Harry Shepard, the city's WWII air depot was preserved, expanded, and christened Norton Air Force Base. Kaiser Steel, looking for inland plant locations during the war, built the steel factory, which was actually next door to Sam Berdino in the Hispalachian town of Fontana, sometimes called Fontucky due to its hillbilly/Mexican ambience. But the extension of the Sam Berdino freeway, also accomplished during the war, made the Kaiser mill an easy commute for the many Sam Berdinoans who found work there.
To the discerning eye, the seeds of destruction are found in the glow of success, and as Sam Berdino's orange groves and sleepy, two-lane streets gave way to steelmaking, aerospace activity, and freeways, the quality of life in Paradise insensibly declined. Plus, Sam Berdino's relationship with the great city to the west, Los Angeles, usually called "Allay" by its residents, had always been uneasy. Less prosperous Angelinos seeking cheaper rents had gravitated toward the eastern side of the basin for decades, and the increasingly dangerous clouds of toxic smog generated by Allay's auto traffic tended to drift eastward also, carried by the prevailing westerlies, only to lurch to a sudden stop against the wall of the converging San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountain ranges which stand on the city's eastern margins.
By the time Sam Berdino was designated an All-American City by the National Civic League in 1976-77 it was on its way down. Business was off at the Harris store, although it would limp along another 20-plus years, finally closing its doors for good in January of 1999. By that time Kaiser Steel was already long gone. During the 1980's production at the plant gradually slowed, and it had already gone cold by the time Norton Air Force Base was deactivated in 1994.
Today the empty, still-imposing shell of the Harris Department Store broods over the bleak vista of Sam Berdino's nighttime nightmare downtown streets, now peopled mostly by winos and crackheads. What commerce is left in the city has migrated miles to the south, to a smoggy, treeless, paved-over expanse called Hospitality Lane, a five-mile-long strip mall bordering the freeway, whose interminable vistas of fast-food joints, gas stations, muffler shops, and standard chain retail outlets are a microcosm of the complex of diseases killing the United States.
For as it turns out, the McDonald brothers' Speedee Service System, which so delighted customers and restauranteurs alike in its salad days, is now seen to be the pestilent agent responsible for the twin plagues of obesity and diabetes from which America suffers so grieviously. As for Hospitality Lane itself, like any other petroleum-dependent nexus of commerce built at the very end of the age of cheap oil, it will be a ruin by 2027, just as downtown Sam Berdino is today.
Does Sam Berdino have a future? It might. It was Paradise once, and it could be again. But if Paradise lost is to be regained, Sam Berdino has to correct it's past mistakes and do one thing differently.