The Inland Empire doesn’t so much welcome people as it traps them in its grip—less ticker-tape parade, more tar pit. Spend a Friday night in any IE bar, and you’ll hear the tragic tales from world-wise wayfarers who were only supposed to be “passing through.” Nevertheless, San Bernardino is now host to the newest California Welcome Center, a small building that’s supposed to attract tourists and enlighten them about all of the IE’s vast entertainment offerings.
The Weekly dropped by for a visit on Friday, the center’s grand opening day. Along with copious amounts of elbow room—during our half-hour visit, we were the only “tourists” in the place—the center’s walls are lined with backlit posters telling the history of the San Bernardino area, albeit from an insultingly Anglo perspective, referring to white settlers as “Godfearing” and barely touching on the persecution of local native peoples or the Chinese immigrants of the late 19th century. The wondrous attractions of cities like Rancho Cucamonga (Victoria Gardens!) and Riverside (The Mission Inn!) are touted, but there certainly were no leads on where to pick up a 20-sack or watch naked people go on weapon-wielding rampages, nor were there any maps to the IE’s world famous toxic sludge pools. There also weren’t any pointers on where to find the one thing we’ve most notably contributed to society: our artery-clogging fast-food joints that pimple the entire globe, several chains of which have their origins in San Bernardino. But those shouldn’t be hard to find—they’re everywhere.
In a May 16 column for the San Bernardino Sun, John Weeks wrote—dreaming out loud about the perfect welcome center—“We could definitely put up a sign that says, ‘Best Drinking Water In The West.’” He also dreams of a center that sells Route 66 stemware and other “classy” swag. Unfortunately, the center offers little more than maps, magazines and plush cacti—basically, rest-stop souvenirs that are just a slight step above your average county fair prize. As for the drinking water, Rialto residents, who’ve been fighting with the city to clean the toxic perchlorates out of their water for years, might have a legitimate gripe about that claim.
Surely, the center isn’t going to spend its energy—or your tax dollars—convincing tourists that they chose the wrong place to vacation, but the center is exactly what it appears to be: a walk-in advertisement for local businesses and museums. But since the advertisements are paid, visitors are left with an incomplete picture of the surrounding area. Mom-and-pop shops and restaurants are pathetically overlooked. So is our creative culture—museums that censor and theatres that forever stage Forever Plaid are hardly representative of the IE’s art scene.
The center paints the IE as an even blander Orange County—and they have the brochures to prove it. But it also boasts a talking animatronic bear. Sadly, Berdoo Bear—at a less-than-imposing three-and-a-half-feet tall—hadn’t yet reported for work the day of our visit. (We blame the immunity-suppressing qualities of particulate air pollution and contaminated water.) But the Berdoo Bear photos we’ve seen are intriguing, eschewing the hokey pants-and-hat-wearing cartoon style of lesser animatronic bears like those in Disneyland’s old Country Bear Jamboree in favor of a slightly more realistic, creepy-looking one, destroying our theory that Berdoo Bear may have been pilfered from the Disney attraction. It doesn’t wear anything, actually, and we know it’s tough to take a talking animatronic bear seriously when it’s flaunting its knowledge of local attractions and history in the buff, but maybe it’ll give rise to another theory we have—that San Bernardino isn’t the new Anaheim after all. Maybe when that truism sinks in, other IE cities will jump on the insight bandwagon, and Rancho Cucamonga will stop pretending to be Irvine.