From affluent Riverside neighborhoods to disadvantaged communities in San Bernardino, the proliferation of warehouses across the Inland Empire is affecting everyone who calls this region home. Yet despite the increased pollution and risk of displacement near proposed sites, residents are struggling to be heard by their elected representatives.
Jennifer Larratt-Smith lives in a comfortable, prosperous community close to March Air Force Base. There are well-appointed homes, parks with brightly colored playgrounds and ball fields. The Grove Community Church, with its preschool and sports ministries, sits at the edge of a large open area, crisscrossed by trails.
On a recent morning, residents were walking dogs, riding mountain bikes and greeting each other with quiet nods as they passed. Planes from the nearby base occasionally rumbled overhead, but in between, it was quiet.
About 25 miles north is a grittier San Bernardino neighborhood next to the airport where most residents are renters. Many do not speak English. A community garden offers a chance to raise herbs and vegetables, and Daniel Jivanjee tends it with loving care.
The property sits between a busy street and a large, imposing warehouse.
These communities in Riverside and San Bernardino are undeniably different but share a common foe. They are confronted by the Inland Empire’s warehouse boom, a galloping triumph of globalism that is streamlining the shipment of goods across America while hammering some of this region’s residents – regardless if they are well-to-do or struggling, English or Spanish-speaking, owners or renters. Some are at risk of being displaced.
“We are neighbors who are angry,” Larratt-Smith said as she walked an open field near her home slated to become a sea of warehouses. If approved, the proposed 4.5 million square feet of warehouse space will support roughly 2,000 truck trips a day (as well as 34,000 passenger car trips).
“This is going to have significant impact,” she added, opting for understatement.
Warehouse construction in the Inland Empire has brought jobs and growth. Partly because of it, the region is one of the last to suffer in a recession and one of the first to emerge from a downturn. The logistics industry, which warehouses anchor, helped the region bounce back from COVID. But how deep is the economic benefit? And at what cost?
Warehouses create mostly low-wage jobs – packing and shipping and truck-driving, the Southern California Association of Governments recently noted. And many of those who work in the new warehouses live outside the area. No one making minimum wage could afford to buy a home in the Riverside community where Larratt-Smith lives; most could not do so in the area near the San Bernardino Airport, either.
SCAG emphasized that the per-capita earnings in the Inland Empire consistently rank below most of California, a fact the regional planning agency described as “alarming.”
While the progress has been uneven, the price has been heavy. Trucks bring goods in from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, among other places, then ship them across the country. That ties up roads and highways – the major thoroughfares to and from Los Angeles these days are stuffed with truck traffic. And, of course, the workers at these warehouses commute, many across great distances. Add to that the air pollution that comes from truck commuters, and it’s a major imposition on these communities.
Diesel exhaust has contributed to worsening air quality in the region, which now has the nation’s highest concentration rates of ozone, according to two recent studies. Activists link the proximity to warehouses to unusually high incidences of asthma and cancer.
In 1980, there were 234 warehouses in the Inland Empire. Today, there are more than 4,000. Altogether, the huge buildings cover roughly 40 square miles. More than 1 billion square feet of the region’s land is under a warehouse roof, and many more projects are in the pipeline.
Residents with little else in common share a sense of being plowed under, their concerns and cries for help ignored as local governments approve one project after another until the region seems to groan under the collective impact.
One dismaying byproduct of all this is the effect it has had on confidence in government. Residents of these communities understand the pressures of growth and the interests of companies in expansion and profit. They turn to their elected representatives to balance those pressures with the needs of their constituents – for clean air, convenient commutes, safe spaces for children and families.
To a person, however, these residents feel abandoned and unrepresented. In San Bernardino, Michael Jones-McCrary, Sr., pointed to the apartment complex where he’s lived for 15 years and raised four children. There’s a high school directly behind it, and he spent more than a decade watching his children head out the backdoor to make the short trip to class. That parcel is now slated for a warehouse.
Jones-McCrary will either have to suffer a giant new neighbor or move – in the service of jobs and trade that mean little to him. The San Bernardino project would displace more than 2,000 people, and they do not know whether they will get relocation assistance. Even if they do secure some money to relocate, this is their home. Moving will strip them of friends, neighborhoods, routines, their sense of community.
“We’re constantly told to be good soldiers,” Jones-McCrary said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
The puzzle is over who to ask for help. Notices often arrive in English to homes where Spanish is the primary language. The project straddles jurisdictions. Some live in Highland, some in San Bernardino. No single office or official is responsible or responsive. Residents look for help, only to find themselves passed from one entity to another.
In Riverside, Larratt-Smith and neighbor Andrew Silva recalled that when they sought answers from the Joint Powers Authority that is overseeing development around the periphery of March Air Force Base, they were directed to the developer. But the developer does not represent them, the government does.
That naturally breeds suspicion. Residents wonder why elected officials ignore them. They speculate about campaign contributions and bribes, point to violations of open meetings laws, scour transcripts for signs of collusion. Distrust curdles into anger. In desperation, activists recently asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency for the area.
“The community doesn’t want these things,” said Alicia Aguayo of the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice. Jivanjee, the community garden’s caretaker, agreed. It may be good for shippers, he said, but it’s hard to see how evicted renters or bulldozed neighborhoods benefit from yet another warehouse.
That’s not to say that every proposal for change should be rejected or that every community should be allowed to veto development. These residents insist they don’t oppose change, just this change.
“We’re not anti-growth,” Silva said. “This is just bad land use.”
So far, those appeals have yielded little from the elected representatives of these neighborhoods. The march of warehouse construction continues, in one community after another, and the cumulative weight is hard for some to bear.
“I love (my) home,” Jones-McCrary said. “But I might have to leave … Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s happening.”
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