Inland California cities boom as costs of living rises on coast
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - For this pass-through city, long a favorite target for jokes from late-night comedians, the small stuff turns out not to be small at all.
Highway 99 races through almond groves and oil fields here, then bends north toward Fresno and the flat croplands of the Central Valley. This high-speed vantage provides the blurry view of bobbing derricks, fuel storage tanks and fast-food billboards that has defined the city for Californians and tourists traveling between the sunny coast and the Sierra.
There's a relatively new side-of-the-highway sign that now notifies drivers that maybe, just maybe, there is something more here than the freeway vista offers. It reads, "Bakersfield - Next 13 Exits," a kind of invitation to a large and growing city once shorthand for a place to avoid.
"It tells people we're not just a Jack in the Box," said David Lyman, a gray-bearded PhD who runs the city's tourism bureau. "The challenge has never been to get people to come. It's been to get people to stay."
Many Californians often dismiss inland cities such as Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced and other towns that seldom made the state's tourism maps, languishing behind the allure of the coast. But there's a transformation happening in the Central Valley. These cities, once known primarily as the core of the nation's agricultural engine, are drawing new businesses and young people away from cosmopolitan enclaves, where the high cost of living has priced them out.
The dynamic underscores a priority of Gov. 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 policy and resources. Newsom, a Bay Area liberal Democrat, pledged during last year's campaign to make closing that gap a priority.
Soon after taking office, Newsom placed the coastal leg of the state's proposed high-speed rail system on hold. At the same time, he affirmed that the 119-mile stretch linking Bakersfield and the Central Valley city of Merced will be the first to proceed. The project will cost $20.4 billion and take at least seven years to complete.
"We can't have two Californias," said Lenny Mendonca, Newsom's chief economic and business adviser, who was raised in Turlock, just up Highway 99 from here. "We have to have more housing development on the coast where the jobs are arriving, and we need more job production in parts of the state where the population is growing. And that is in the diverse, interesting east of the state that people usually fly over."
California's population grew 0.47 percent last year, the lowest rate in state history. But here in Bakersfield, the growth rate was more than double that, making the city of nearly 400,000 the second-fastest-growing of the state's large metro areas. Sacramento, also far from the coast, was first.
Many of those arriving - and staying - are young people. The median age of Bakersfield residents is just over 30 years old.
The youth migration is infusing this traditionally conservative area with a new ethic - part cowboy, part craft cocktail - that is propelling a revival of downtown districts.
There always has been a country culture here, marked for decades by the "Bakersfield sound" of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, whose names adorn major avenues and landmarks. How to make the era of "Hee Haw" - the twangy variety show Owens co-hosted for nearly two decades - into something more modern is the challenge for developers.
A Lululemon yoga apparel store has opened downtown, and a vintage former bank building has been restored skillfully into a hot new restaurant of exposed brick walls and standing-room-only crowds.
But longtime landmarks such as Zombie Apocalypse Gear and beer-for-breakfast Guthrie's Alley Cat bar remain fixtures on the urban landscape, which probably will not be too difficult to keep weird.
"Our community needs to learn to love itself," said Jacquelyn Kitchen, a Bakersfield native and proud millennial who at age 35 was just named Bakersfield's assistant city manager. "We're our own toughest critic on social media and beyond."
There are challenges to Bakersfield's new appeal. The weather is wood-oven hot in the summer, the air quality often abysmal with oil-field pollution caught between the Sierra and coastal ranges. The place gets shaken, as it was twice recently by major earthquakes, which knocked out power in more remote parts of the county.
There is a drug problem and a homicide problem and a homelessness problem, which last year prompted usually conservative voters to approve a sales-tax increase to address them. It was revealed this month that more than 13,000 barrels of oil and water have spilled since May from a Chevron-run field outside Bakersfield.