The economy bypasses San Bernardino

San Bernardino's famous McDonald's self-service drive-in restaurant.

In the 1920s, San Bernardino used to be called "The Pay Roll City."

Kai Ryssdal: If tonight's agenda for the city council meeting in San Bernadino, Calif., is to be believed, it's going to become soon the third city in this state to file for bankruptcy protection.

Marketplace's Adriene Hill drove out there the other day to get a sense of the city and its problems.


Adriene Hill: This is a story of shifting fortunes. Of being on the right side, and then on the wrong side of change.

And we'll start it, here:

Albert Okura: Dick and Mac McDonald opened the world's first McDonald's self-service drive-in restaurant on this site in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 1948.

Albert Okura reads from a plaque. He runs the office of his fast food chain, Juan Pollo, here. And has also set up an unofficial McDonald's museum, anchored by remnants of the original restaurant; some pavers, some of the original sign.

Okura: It kind of looks like it, but it's not an exact replica.

This is a relic of success. Which can be what San Bernardino feels like. Richard Thompson is a local historian. He pulls out a newspaper from the 1920s, which called San Bernardino "The Pay Roll City."

Richard Thompson: Everybody had a job. Everybody was busy working.

Rail built this town. The auto, Route 66, kept it going. But over the decades, good paying jobs left. Today the unemployment rate is near 16 percent. The housing bubble burst. Property values collapsed. Tattered lease signs hang off tattered buildings.

Hill: Do you think San Bernardino is ever going to be "The Pay Roll City" again?
Thompson: No, no.
Hill: Why not?
Thompson: It hasn't got anything going for it.

But Wayne Austin hasn't given up hope. He lives here and heads the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Wayne Austin: I have strong faith here, because I know we still have many, many, many, many, many, many good hearted people that really love and want to get involved in the city of San Bernardino.

Sure, he says, it'll be painful. San Bernardino has lost its tax base, but still has high expenses for services like police and fire. It can't afford to spend like the city it used to be.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

In the 1920s, San Bernardino used to be called "The Pay Roll City."

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