Of all places, is downtown Bakersfield in the midst of an urban renaissance?
Ten years ago, that claim would have been laughable. Bakersfield’s economic future was clearly to the far west, where affluent new strip malls, subdivisions, and high schools were sprawling incessantly in the direction of Interstate 5. Any neighborhoods east of State Route 99 had been left on the dusty shoulder of Edison Highway, while downtown itself was on life support in Memorial Hospital.
When I was a boy, my father used to drive me down to the Kern Island Canal on 21st Street, where we fed pieces of bread to the ducks. (I shudder now at the ecological devastation that probably caused.) It was an unremarkable dirt-lined ditch back then, a relic of the nineteenth century rush to harness the Kern River, surrounded by derelict low-rise factories and warehouses. As late as the 80s, there was also a large Southern Pacific railyard nearby that occupied several city blocks.
Then, in the twenty-first century, things began to change.
Planners in the City of Bakersfield and the County of Kern set their sights on the industrial district surrounding the canal. They made changes to the zoning code and created new incentives to encourage the development of infill housing. Q Street got a pedestrian-friendly makeover with new brick-lined, high-visibility crosswalks. Bike lanes, a landscaped median, and trees on sidewalks were installed.
The centerpiece of the revitalization effort was the Mill Creek Park, a total transformation of the utilitarian Kern Island Canal into a humane linear park in the spirit of San Antonio’s River Walk or even New York’s High Line. Stretching half a mile from Union Avenue to 17th Street, just a block shy of the Beale Memorial Library and the Amtrak Station, the new park would become Bakersfield’s one-and-only piece of waterfront. The entire complex opened in 2010. Another section south of the library is in place, but awaiting further development.
Seven years later, have the planners achieved what they set out to do? On one blistering August afternoon, I set out on foot to investigate that question myself.
Let’s start with the businesses and streetscape around Q Street.
At least within the Kern Council of Governments, there seems to be a tremendous amount of interest in building sustainable, living communities. The Mill Creek project represents Bakersfield’s efforts to outgrow its twentieth century suburban architecture. Meanwhile, Golden Empire Transit radically reorganized its bus network back in 2012, several years ahead of the “new bus network” wave kicked off by Jarrett Walker in Houston. But are these efforts enough?
Bakersfield’s housing and transportation policies remain largely business as usual. Urban sprawl continues unabated, not just to the west but also to areas north of Oildale, south toward the Taft Highway, and east to the Rio Bravo Country Club. It seems market forces are overshadowing regional planners; surveys show that Bakersfield residents still overwhelmingly prefer large single-family homes.
A new freeway, the Centennial Corridor, is currently being rammed through established neighborhoods just west of 99. Meanwhile, even Westchester could not stop the widening of 24th Street, another project that required the demolition of homes. (I have considered documenting the construction of the Centennial Corridor in the spirit of Jeff Gates’ photo essay, “In Our Path,” about the construction of Los Angeles’s Interstate 105. I shall title my essay “The Last Freeway.”)
Downtown may be on the rebound, but though it is rightly the home of important governmental functions, its business scene remains relatively lifeless. Homeless roam the streets while Bakersfield’s most affluent residents continue to seek west-side homes abutting country clubs. The planners are simply several decades late; development patterns in Bakersfield are largely locked in step with the rest of auto-centric Southern California.
Mill Creek and Q Street cannot turn back the clock on so many years of sprawl. But for the lively Hispanics I saw at the park, the hipsters I saw in the cafe, and the seniors I saw out for walks, the quality community these projects have fostered will do just fine.