I went looking for Stonecreek Park's legendary creek Tuesday. Evidently the meandering little waterway has some admirers.
I must have taken a wrong turn because all I found were five older, long-bearded gentlemen sitting around an aluminum picnic table. No creek. Not even much stone.
If this part of south Bakersfield does not quite qualify as a Sikh enclave, it has to be close. Officials at the Panama-Buena Vista and Greenfield school districts, two of the three K-8 districts that serve the area, list Punjabi, the primary language of the Sikh people, as the third most-often spoken language in students' homes, behind only English and Spanish. Third and closing, demographers might note.
Greater Bakersfield has an estimated 35,000 Sikhs. Where were they all Tuesday?
"Come back at 3 or 4," said Gurdial Singh, the only nonbearded Sikh at the picnic table. "That's when too many people are here. Talking, playing cards, walking for exercise. Forty people. Fifty."
Among them, he said, will be local Sikh leaders who would like the City of Bakersfield to acknowledge their culture and contribution by renaming Stonecreek Park for a hero of the Sikh people, Jaswant Singh Khalra. The late human rights activist is considered the Martin Luther King Jr. of the Sikh community.
Not everyone is impressed.
Wait for the next park to come along, some say, even though the dozen Sikh boys I saw playing basketball in Stonecreek Park Tuesday might have long gray beards themselves by the time that happens.
Name the park after an American Sikh, some say, not an Punjabi Indian Sikh like Khalra, who in 1995, at age 42, was murdered by Punjabi police for exposing other color-of-authority murders. Who among us will choose that individual? I'm inclined to leave it up to a local Sikh, and they have spoken.
Preserve the name Stonecreek, others say, because it's familiar and matches the name of the housing subdivision that surrounds it. Perhaps those traditionalists — if that term applies here — have an affection for other contrived names conjured up by homebuilders' marketing departments as well. You know, Silver Creek (no silver, no creek), Polo Grounds (not much polo to speak of), Seven Oaks (but mostly other kinds of trees).
Renaming Stonecreek Park would be a small gesture of acknowledgement to a local ethnic community that is both underappreciated and misunderstood.
Misunderstood is an understatement. Remember the knucklehead who in 2016 pitched his beer on a Bakersfield Sikh, because, as the assailant allegedly told Balmeet Singh, he "was a threat to the country I grew up in”? The attacker apparently mistook Balmeet for a Muslim, thereby slandering two cultures at once.
I say underappreciated because local Sikhs as a group not only give generously to the city that has for the most part welcomed them, they are law-abiding citizens.
Former Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels put it this way a few years ago: "There's virtually no crime in the Sikh community. Please bring us more Sikhs."
Former Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall also spoke highly of the Sikh people.
Councilman Chris Parlier, whose ward includes the park, told The Californian last week that the change wouldn't be as simple as switching a name. He mentioned public safety considerations. I assume he means Bakersfield Police would have to remember where they're going if they're ever called to the park. I have confidence they can handle it.
And yes, a new sign will cost some money.
Those near-insurmountable obstacles aside, the proposal is completely reasonable and highly appropriate.
Sikhs, predominantly from the Punjab region of India, have managed to both honor the cultural traditions of their homeland and integrate into the economic and civic fabric of their adopted home. By all accounts, they are models of respectful civility.
We in Bakersfield should be able to distinguish the practitioners of various southwest Asian religions better than most: One of Bakersfield's sister cities is Amritsar, India, a city of about 2 million people that is home to the Golden Temple, the holiest site in the Sikh religion.
Sikhs are part of this city. Let's tell them so.
The Jakara Movement, the organization heading up the effort to change Stonecreek Park's name, will hold a town hall meeting at the park at 6 p.m. Wednesday.