Bakersfield, as soon as the butt of jokes, is booming. So are many different inland California cities.
There’s a relatively new roadside sign that now informs drivers that there may be a little more here than the highway views. It reads: “Bakersfield – Next 13 Exits”, a kind of invitation to a large and growing city that was once the abbreviation for a place to be avoided.
“It tells people we’re not just a Jack in the Box,” said David Lyman, a gray-bearded doctor who runs the city’s tourism office. “The challenge has never been to get people to come. It was to get people to stay. “
Many Californians frequently sack inland cities like Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, and other transit cities that seldom made the state’s tourism maps and lag behind the coastal appeal. But a transformation is taking place in the Central Valley. Once best known as the core of the country’s agricultural engine, these secondary cities are pulling new businesses and young people away from cosmopolitan enclaves where the high cost of living has priced them out.
The dynamic underscores the priority of Governor Gavin Newsom’s relatively new administration: in recent years, California’s traditional north-south rivalry has given way to an east-west divide over government policies and resources. Newsom, a Bay Area liberal, pledged during last year’s campaign to make closing this void a priority.
Shortly after taking office, Newsom (D) put the coastline of the state’s proposed high-speed rail system on hold. At the same time, he affirmed that the 119 mile route between Bakersfield and the town of Merced in the Central Valley will be the first to continue. The project will cost $ 20.4 billion and last at least seven years.
“We can’t have two Californians,” said Lenny Mendonca, Newsom’s chief economic and business advisor, who grew up in Turlock, just up Highway 99 from here. “We need more housing development on the coast where jobs arrive, and we need more jobs in parts of the state where the population is growing. And that’s in the diverse, interesting east of the state that people normally fly over. “
California’s population grew 0.47 percent last year, the lowest rate in the state’s history. But here in Bakersfield the rate of growth has more than doubled, and the city of nearly 400,000 is the second fastest growing of the state’s major metropolitan areas. Sacramento, also far from the coast, was the first.
Many of those who arrive – and stay – are young people. The median age of Bakersfield residents is just over 30 years.
Youth migration gives this traditionally conservative area a new ethic – part cowboy, part craft cocktail – that is driving a revitalization of the inner city districts.
There has always been a rural culture here, which for decades has been shaped by the “Bakersfield Sound” of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, whose names adorn important avenues and landmarks. The challenge for developers is to make the era of “Hee Haw” – the Twangy variety show that Owens have co-hosted for nearly two decades – into something more modern.
A Lululemon yoga clothing store has opened downtown, and a former old bank building has been skillfully converted into a hot new restaurant with exposed brick walls and standing-room crowds.
But longtime landmarks like Zombie Apocalypse Gear and Guthrie’s Alley Cat beer-for-breakfast bar remain an integral part of the urban landscape, which probably won’t be too difficult to maintain.
“Our community needs to learn to love ourselves,” said Jacquelyn Kitchen, a native Bakersfield American and proud millennial who was just named Bakersfield Assistant City Manager at the age of 35. “We’re our toughest critic on social media and beyond.”
Bakersfield’s new appeal comes with challenges. The weather is hot in the wood stove in summer, the air quality is often poor, as the oil fields between the sierra and the coastal areas are polluted. The place is being shaken, as happened twice recently by severe earthquakes that cut the power supply in more remote parts of the county.
There’s a drug problem, a murder problem, and a homeless problem that last year led normally conservative voters to approve a sales tax hike to address them. That month it was revealed that more than 13,000 barrels of oil and water have been spilled from a Chevron-operated field outside Bakersfield since May.
The changes are also evident.
Bakersfield’s burgeoning frontier hip can be seen at the Padre Hotel, a historic landmark with a red neon sign that’s the main feature of the evening skyline in a city that has always grown up and never grown up.
Opened in 1928, the Bakersfield Oil Man’s luxury eatery has followed the city’s uneven trajectory ever since. The Padre was closed for years and reopened as a boutique attraction in 2010 after a renovation that was partly backed by government-backed loans. The new western atmosphere has become a model for rediscovering the city.
A pop art design of a cowgirl looking over her shoulder with the caption “That Dog’ll Hunt” covers the wall behind the registration desk. The Brimstone lobby bar is full during happy hour, and the red felt pool table is occupied for hours.
The question Rachel Parlier heard many times during her senior year at San Diego State University, where she studied marketing, was, “Why do you want to return to Bakersfield?”
After graduating from Ridgeview High School, Parlier set off for the Pacific coast, usually a one-way trip for the city’s teenagers.
But she returned to what the locals call Bak-o and surprised her college friends. At 22, she is now the digital media marketing manager for Bakersfield Condors, a popular ice hockey partner of the Edmonton Oilers.
“If you had asked me this question in my freshman year, I’m not sure how I would have answered it,” Parlier said.
Together with the metropolises Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Diego recorded the highest inflation rates of all cities in the country last year. Real estate prices in particular are driving the increase. The median home price in Bakersfield is $ 237,000. In San Francisco it’s $ 1.2 million. Recently, a start-up began offering a bunk in a bunk bed in San Francisco for $ 1,200 a month.
Parlier missed home. The nowhere better chicken steak. Your family. What she calls the “big city-country feel” is Bakersfield’s signature.
“We’re growing so fast now that I don’t know if we’ll keep that country feeling,” she said. “I think we’ll see.”
Indeed, the priest will soon have more competition.
Three hotels are being built across the city and three more are being planned. The surge has made Bakersfield the hottest hotel construction market in California.
This in a city that Johnny Carson ridiculed for decades on “The Tonight Show” as the definition of provincial boredom. Carson admitted he once bombed a Bakersfield nightclub and never fully forgave the town.
“We have always been extremely defensive when people say negative things about our community,” said Nicholas Ortiz, president of the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce. “Traditionally, California’s interior has been part of California, but apart from California, too.”
Ortiz, 37, was born and raised in Bakersfield. He then went to school at the University of California at Santa Cruz, without thinking of returning. There he met his future wife, also from Bakersfield, and the two began their careers in the tech mecca of San Jose.
At the time, just over a decade ago, the couple was paying $ 1,100 a month for a 900 square foot apartment. Ortiz said it was a stretch.
He recently visited San Jose. The same unit rents three times that amount while he and his wife pay less for a 2,700 square foot home with a pool in Bakersfield. Ortiz and his wife have two children, now 6 and 7 years old, and Ortiz said if they had stayed in Silicon Valley they would probably only now be considering raising a family.
Among other things, Ortiz has worked with city officials on a new Bakersfield branding campaign. It will be a way to sell the town to those who still consider it the bum of a joke.
The aim is to expand an economy that is still largely dependent on volatile agriculture and the oil industry, and in part to address a technology sector whose political existence in many coastal communities is declining. Bakersfield’s oil fields – and those of surrounding Kern County – account for more than half of California’s oil production.
“How much are we moving towards an urban LA model while respecting the fact that our resource-intensive economy is what we rely on?” Ortiz said. “How do we diversify our industries at the same time to protect ourselves from downturns?”
The city’s emerging tech industry received a huge vote of confidence last month when Bitwise, a Fresno-based technology center, announced plans to open a new facility in Bakersfield.
Irma Olguin Jr., 38, was born in a small town outside Fresno. She co-founded Bitwise in 2013 and has since trained 4,000 students in coding and brought 1,000 engineering jobs to Fresno. The company recently announced that it has received $ 27 million in new investment that will fund its expansion here.
“Bakersfield’s history and the problems it faced are so similar to Fresno’s,” said Olguin, adding that “it resonates with the rudeness and scrapping of the people.”
“Young people in Central Valley have gone too long to pursue their careers,” she said. “We want to make sure that you don’t have to do that anymore.”
Young people like fun, never something that Bakersfield exuded. But if the microbrew metric is a measure, the city is developing rapidly along with its population.
Temblor Brewing Co. is located in a large warehouse on Buck Owens Boulevard, where the late country star’s Crystal Palace remains the city’s main tourist attraction.
Temblor is more San Francisco than Central Valley, with its stainless steel tanks and leather couches. The Bakersfield Jazz Workshop takes place here on Tuesday evening.
“The more young people move in, the more demand there is for better restaurants, beer and other things bigger cities have,” said Francesca Colombo, Temblor’s 31-year-old operations manager, who returned to Bakersfield from San Francisco.
Since Temblor opened four years ago, three more local breweries have opened across the city. Colombo doesn’t mind the competition because they say about Bakersfield and where they are going.
“It’s just not as boring here as it used to be,” said Colombo.