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COLUMN ONE : A City Racked by Woe : San Bernardino's future has gone from bright to blight. Residents who once sought refuge from L.A.'s problems now struggle to overcome high crime, welfare and jobless rates.


SAN BERNARDINO — In 1976, this foothill community was honored as an All-America City, one of 10 in the nation cited for having its act together, a city on the go.

Today, San Bernardino still stands apart from most other urban areas, but for decidedly less august reasons.

You hear it from residents such as 35-year-old Sandra Marzullo, who was feeding her three young children at a local McDonald's. "I was born here and I figured I'd die here--but now I'm afraid I am going to die here," she said.

"My kids can't play in the park because of the transients, I'm afraid to let them in the front yard because they might be snatched, and they're afraid to be inside because we've been broken in three times."

And you see it in statistics and surveys:

Among San Bernardino's 185,000 residents, 40% are on welfare, compared to 18% just 10 years ago.

The city's unemployment rate--11% in August--is the highest of any metropolitan area in Southern California.

Zero Population Growth, the environmental advocacy group, in June ranked the city as the worst in which to raise children, among 207 it reviewed nationwide.

Money magazine rated San Bernardino the state's most dangerous city and the sixth most dangerous in the country, based on violent crimes per capita in 1993.

Even the local police have been selling T-shirts that depict a pair of vultures sitting on a bullet-riddled "Welcome to San Bernardino" sign, with the population figure scratched out and reduced, one by one, to represent murder victims.

Woe be San Bernardino, a victim of a star-crossed confluence of circumstances that have compounded themselves into crisis proportions. The city has been pummeled by crippling losses in employment, a drain of civic leadership, a massive influx of low-income residents, gang crime and dilapidated housing. For years, local government reacted like a deer frozen in headlights.

"I don't sleep at night," said Tom Minor, a former assistant police chief who inherited many of the city's headaches when he was elected mayor two years ago. "It's tough when your peers jab you--'Well, how's the murder capital doing these days?' I wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I can't go back to sleep."

The widely held feeling here is that the economic downturns that have hit the nation, striking Southern California harder, have been felt hardest of all in what was once a proud, archetypal blue-collar town steeped in the railroad, steel and defense industries.

Today, San Bernardino--the seat of the geographically largest county in the nation--is a gaunt and shadowy ghost of its former self. Signs of decay are evident in the homes and businesses that are abandoned and boarded up or have bars over their windows. From their striking, flash-cube office building, city officials are struggling to get a fix on the future but seem overwhelmed by circumstance and the attendant bad publicity.

Case in point: those T-shirts being hawked by the San Bernardino Police Officers Assn. to raise funds for a police memorial. On the back, the inscription "All-American City" is crossed out to read, "The Murder City."

More than 10,000 T-shirts have been sold, to the consternation of city boosters who complain that the rank-and-file officers--most of whom live outside the city--have turned against the very public they have sworn to serve.

Detective Steve Filson, the group's president, says the T-shirts were intended to compel City Hall to more forcefully address the crime problem. "This town has a lot of potential--but we're in a septic tank," he said.

City officials recoil at the mention of the shirts.

"Police have a gallows humor and that's what these T-shirts exemplify," said Acting Police Chief Wayne Harp. "Unfortunately, the message brought some unfavorable attention to the community . . . and I've told the officers I don't want them sold or worn around here."

Harp says the city's notoriety over crime is unfair.

Indeed, violent crimes--homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults--reported in San Bernardino in 1994 dropped 27% from 1993--the year measured by Money magazine, according to Police Department figures.

Part of the reduction is credited to reinforcements from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol, which offers assistance to cities that have exhausted their own police resources.

Nonetheless, the violent crime rate in San Bernardino in 1993 was 3,190 per 100,000, compared to 2,332 per 100,000 in Los Angeles, according to the FBI's most recent accounting.

Harp contends that the underlying source of the problem is clear: "the run-down housing stock and the bad people it attracts."

"We're trying to clean up those old areas," he said, "but San Bernardino is an old town and we've got a lot of areas like that. We've got a lot of work to do, to clean up the city."

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