Anna Smith

Anna Smith

Jenifer Pitcher was having lunch at Luigi’s with friends, and they were walking over to (what was then) Narducci’s and onto Pyrenee’s Cafe for live music.

This was a pub crawl, of sorts. It was a spring afternoon, so it was warm outside but not scorching. As they were walking, she noticed that the area felt so empty. There were few trees and no greenspace, nothing to cool them down. And as Jenifer describes it, “It just looked hot, you know what I mean?”

The area was far from walkable and welcoming. And Jenifer thought it felt weird to be passing through what appeared to be a ghost town when there had been so much national recognition in the area 一 Guy Fieri from "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" recently came to several local eateries, and The New York Times wrote a glowing review of Noriega’s as the owners were granted a prestigious James Beard Award.

Jenifer loves Old Town Kern, it has historical significance, and she knows the community takes pride in the restaurants. When Jenifer and her friends returned home from college for the holidays, they came here for Basque food. There’s a sense of familiarity in a meal at a long family-style table in the back room at Wool Growers or Noriega’s. And so many of the bland industrial facades have dignified pasts.

The businesses in this “Basque Block” are Bakersfield institutions. But, at the same time, she explained that it looked from the outside like it had been ignored; frankly, the area lacked the upgrades and upkeep it deserved.

So Jenifer leapt into action and organized a group of volunteers and city leaders to focus on improvements. Her team is called the Old Town Kern Beautification Committee. They have a vision to make Old Town Kern an inviting hub for both Bakersfield residents and visitors. Her concept, developed in cooperation with a range of community members and organizations, is a full-scale beautification project that includes many parts: large-scale murals, electrical box art, trees, lighting, litter pickups and more.

Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales is proud of Jenifer’s vision for the area and very supportive of the project. He explained that Baker and East 19th streets were recently reconstructed, a sign that the City values reinvestment in the area.

“Old Town Kern is an important part of our community and our history. For years, many of our City’s most popular restaurants and businesses have called Old Town Kern home. I’m excited to see a renewed partnership to make this area an even better place,” Gonzales said.

The project area is two square miles, from Union Avenue east to Beale and East Truxtun north to Sumner. Due to cost and jurisdictional issues, the project has been pieced out. The entire thing will likely take years to complete.

The first portion of the project includes enhanced litter removal. The Mission at Kern County and the Church of God have been doing monthly cleanups. These are dedicated groups of volunteers that spend about four hours a month with large crews picking up litter. The results have been impressive. The theory is that these frontline litter pickups will help visitors see the potential and send a message that the area is a treasured and respected part of town.

The next segment of the project involves large-scale murals and electrical box paintings. Jenifer’s group completed its first large-scale mural (on the wall of Bob’s Auto Glass, facing the Wool Growers parking lot) in December 2016. This mural is an homage to the French Basque. The Camou family was helpful in making sure everything in the mural was culturally accurate, down to each piece of traditional Basque clothing. The group’s first electrical box mural is also complete; it’s on the northeast corner of Baker and East 19th streets. The second mural, sponsored by Harvey Hall, will be painted soon. All of the large-scale murals are being handled through the Arts Council of Kern. The group is receiving assistance from Keep Bakersfield Beautiful for the electrical box paintings, which are on city property. All murals must be approved by the City Community Development Department.

So far, all of the artists have been local. The group hopes to use only local artists throughout the project. Ultimately, they would like eight to 10 large murals in the area. And six electrical boxes could be painted. The murals will not only add vibrant color to the area but will also tell the story of the Basque’s cultural influence on Bakersfield.

Improvements won’t stop at murals. The Committee will also work with the Tree Foundation to organize additional tree plantings in the area to add shade during hot summers. The group hopes to add or improve lighting and other infrastructure. They are pushing to get trash receptacles installed to help prevent litter. The Mission at Kern County will be maintaining the receptacles. The group also hopes to expand the Street Ambassadors Program through the Downtown Business Association into the area.

Jenifer hopes to have a map created so that visitors can take themselves on self-guided walkable tours of the murals and learn the significance of each. She envisions a true “Old Town” with eventual monuments, events, identity and purpose, such as those in other cities like Sacramento and San Diego. This is a huge undertaking, with many layers, but the community has been very supportive of the idea and the project.

However, the project has not been without its challenges. The main roadblock has been legal. It has been difficult for Jenifer and her group of volunteers to complete portions of the project while navigating the legal parameters set out by the City Attorney’s office. Jenifer understands the desire to protect the city from legal risks. And there have been differences of opinion, but Jenifer’s Committee and the City are working through these issues.

Another large challenge has been funding. This project is far from cheap. Jenifer is modeling it after other redevelopment endeavors but without the state redevelopment funds, which were dissolved by the State. So, they are working on the easiest, most affordable aspects of the project while they continue to look for solutions to the other components.

There are several ways residents can get involved. The group is looking for more volunteers to do litter cleanups. If you’d like to assemble a team of volunteers or join existing team, contact Jessica Felix with Keep Bakersfield Beautiful at (661) 326-3539.

The group also needs sponsors. Each of the electrical box murals cost $500, and the large-scale murals are $5,000. They will also need sponsors for the trash receptacles, trees and other larger parts of the project. If you or your organization are interested in sponsoring a portion of the project, contact Jenifer at jpitcher@wspa.org. Current sponsors include: Harvey Hall, Robin Brassfield-Cooper, JP and Ingrid Lake, the Camou Family, and PG&E.

The group is looking for local artists. If an artist is interested, they can also contact Jenifer. And, any property owners in the Old Town Kern area that have walls which would be available for murals should contact Jenifer as well.

Perhaps someday soon, residents will feel an extra sense of pride when they meet friends for a Picon punch at the bar or family members for a traditional Basque dinner at one of the modest buildings with a neon sign, as they pass beautifully painted murals by local artists through tidy, leafy, well-lit streets. It’s this sense of authenticity and fresh energy that Jenifer’s group hopes to spread. Old Town Kern has seen better days; her team is working to infuse it with new life and transform it into a place of pride, rebranded as a vibrant part of the city experience.

•••

New Local Favorites

Hen’s Roost: Have you tried the Thai fries? I recently ordered this Hen’s Roost staple, and they’re better than ever. Get yourself an order! You’ll thank me later.

Wreaths and wine: The Belle Rae, a regal looking home next to the Junior League Building, which has served as a boarding house, office space, youth counseling center and telecommunication business in past lives, has been transformed into a beautiful new event space, coffee bar and flower shop. They will be hosting a “Wreaths and Wine” workshop on Nov. 8 at 6 pm. (RSVP by calling 748-1070.) If you’re not feeling crafty, stop in for a locally roasted coffee and a slice of pumpkin loaf - a delicious treat on a crisp fall day.

Anna Smith writes a weekly column about downtown Bakersfield. She can be reached at anna@sagebakersfield.com. The opinions expressed are her own.

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