What did I expect to see on a private tour of San Bernardino’s former Carousel Mall, boarded up the past five years and facing demolition?
I knew the interior would be a wreck after a series of break-ins and small fires, without knowing details. That squatters are living in the mall was also a given.
But I didn’t expect to see sleeping quarters.
One former school district office inside the mall has blankets, sleeping bags and clothes for maybe three to five people laid out.
Off a loading dock, a small sleeping berth occupies a nook 6 feet off the floor, reached by a wooden ladder exactly like one from a bunk bed. No one is home. The location is near an entry point to the mall that has been repeatedly breached.
“This is for surveillance,” a security guard theorizes.
And in the back reaches of a former anchor store, beyond what was once the shoe department, is a small bedroom.
A guard’s flashlight plays over the details in the darkened room.
Four walls, kind of cheerful, kept up neatly. An improvised mattress on the floor is made of fluffy white insulation, folded over, a blanket over it like a duvet. Two chairs, clothes draped over them. A couple cans of food. For art, a framed optical poster on the wall.
Whoever is living there had left prescription medicine. A security guard picks up a pill bottle and reads the patient’s first name aloud from the label: “Elon.”
I’ve sometimes wondered if a certain billionaire by that name is off his meds. At least San Bernardino’s Elon is trying to maintain.
This is part of the scene inside San Bernardino’s once-proud mall, which closed five years ago after decades of decline. A big-money partnership is negotiating to buy the 43 acres in the heart of downtown from City Hall and in its place build residences, shops and offices.
After a raft of break-ins and fires at the mall, the City Council decided in July to seek bids for demolition rather than wait for a developer to tear it down. A half-dozen demolition companies have already toured the mall.
“It’ll be coming down later this year or early next year,” says Jeff Kraus, the city’s spokesman.
Offered a tour of the mall myself, I accept. (I’m worried City Hall considers me the newspaper equivalent of a wrecking ball.)
As arranged, I show up in the parking lot Tuesday morning, meet a half-dozen city employees and security guards, and am handed a KN95 mask and hard hat.
Redwood Security on Aug. 1 began providing eyes on the mall 24/7, with multiple indoor sweeps a day. It’s effective, Kraus says, but it’s a losing fight.
Squatters keep coming. Despite arrests, they return. A drive around the mall shows dozens of potential entry points, even if they are boarded up and blocked by metal strapping.
“We’re boarding up here, they’re breaking in there,” says Manuel Sanchez, a public works maintenance mechanic. “It’s been a battle.”
“By the time we get in at one end of the building,” security guard Joe Guy said of the two-story mall that sprawls over 1 million square feet, “they’re either exiting or hiding.”
The mall, which used to produce revenue, is now a drain on city resources, with facilities staff spending 25% of their time addressing issues there and Redwood being paid $40,000 a month for more aggressive patrols until demolition can take place.
Two squatters set a small fire in the roof Aug. 19 as they attempted to burn their way out. Both were high on meth. Security got them.
At 3 a.m. the morning of my tour, security arrested a man inside who was completely naked and unembarrassed about it. Guards show me photos on their phones. The man should have been embarrassed.
A man was stopped recently while backing a U-Haul up to the loading dock, as if he were going to pick up his new sofa.
“They’re stealing whatever they can to feed their habit,” Guy says.
Public works staff opens a door for us. We walk inside in the dark, path lighted by flashlights until we get to the concourse.
Power has been shut off, but skylights provide natural light here. What a scene is on view. The floors are littered with broken glass, broken mirrors, bits of ceiling insulation, aluminum cross-ties from the ceiling and trash of all kinds.
The first people who broke in were scavengers looking for copper and other metals. That’s pretty much all gone.
“They would break sprinklers to get a piece of brass,” says Tim Barnhart, city facilities manager. “Scrap prices are pretty high right now.”
Thankfully the beloved carousel that gave the mall its name was sold at auction in 2018, fetching $79,000. At this point it’s hard to see anything in the mall worth stealing. Even most of the store signs are trashed or missing.
The elevator and escalators are inoperable. To get to the lower level, we take the staircase.
It’s like descending to another world.
Post-apocalyptic would describe it. I felt like I’d wandered into one of the original “Planet of the Apes” movies, surveying the wreckage of the 20th century long after humanity’s downfall.
As Guy observes later: “When the paper called it a zombie mall, believe it. All we’re missing is the music.”
Store interiors, offices and loading areas are away from the skylight and often pitch black. Security and city staffers shine flashlights to light the way.
I don’t see any people, but as security roams ahead of us, guards call out about a man and about a child, who each flee. A cat is seen. Dogs have been heard.
Evidence of human habitation is everywhere. In a flashlight beam, we see a hibachi grill on a wooden plank on the floor next to an empty jar of spaghetti sauce and a bottle of seasoning. Empty liters of soda, candy wrappers and packages of snacks are strewn underfoot throughout the mall.
Incongruous, darkly humorous sights are everywhere.
I see a “20% off” sign on the tile outside one store, the mall directory sign flat on its back, a basket of dusty greeting cards. Six water heaters are clustered in a walkway, ready for surreptitious transport.
Near a dead planter, Kraus points out a wire that is stretched across the gulf of the second level and, weighted by a clip, descends to the first. This, he says, is a pulley system that scavengers installed to more quickly send items up or down.
A girl’s bike, no tires, is lying amid the detritus on a second-level walkway. A store security grate is in the half-closed position, as if the shop keeper is preparing to either open or shut for the day.
The mall’s code of conduct sign still tsk-tsks from its perch on a graffitied wall. Among the behavior that can get you kicked off the property by security: if you “willfully disrupt the good order of the mall.”
Near a loading dock is a dusty, worn LP jacket for Neil Diamond’s “The Jazz Singer” soundtrack, splayed open on the floor. Maybe someone’s a fan of “Love on the Rocks.”
Another oddity is seen inside a vast, darkened store as flashlight beams light our path. On the floor, standing up, is a Carousel Mall shopping bag in mint condition, as if a shopper had set it down to rest a moment.
“This looks like a prop,” Kraus exclaims. Inside the bag: two electrical meters. Is there a Meters R Us store here?
Kraus removes the meters and claims the keepsake on behalf of the city. Mordant slogan on the bag: “Carousel Mall, Where Shopping and Fun Come Together.”
The mall opened in 1972 as Central City Mall and in 1991 was rebranded as Carousel Mall with the addition of the merry-go-round. In its heyday the mall was a regional draw.
Security guard Melvin Fernandez had visited the mall since childhood in 1978. It’s where he saw “Saturday Night Fever” at the CinemaStar, met up with friends, bought a gift for his first child. He remembers $15 dates: a single flower from the flower shop, a movie, dinner from Papi’s Tacos, a cookie from Mrs. Field’s.
As a boy he once was separated from his family and promptly went to the Information Center to report himself as a lost child. And this month he’s back, patrolling what’s left of the mall of his youth.
“It breaks your heart,” Fernandez says. “This was the greatest mall.”
Our tour is over and we’re standing in the parking lot, chatting, regaining our equilibrium.
The security guards are hardened — a couple mention military service — but they seem disturbed by some of their encounters with squatters who are wired on drugs, unpredictable, angry, acting as if their privacy is being invaded.
“It was overwhelming,” Guy admits, “to come in here: 113 units, all destroyed, just because somebody thinks it’s theirs.”
“They think it’s theirs,” Fernandez agrees. “We’ve had guns pointed at us. We have pimps, drug dealers.”
I ask Guy how many people may be calling the mall home. There’s no way to know, since people disperse or slip away as word spreads that security is coming their way. “If I had to take an educated guess,” Guy tells me, “I’d say 40.” My mouth falls open.
If they’re not in the mall, the guards say, the squatters are lurking nearby, outside a couple of stores across Second Street, keeping an eye on security just as security keeps an eye on them.
“I guarantee they’re watching us now,” Guy says.
It’s a skin-prickling thought. If you loved Carousel Mall, cherish your memories. At this point, they can’t tear the mall down fast enough.
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, speaking of disasters. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.