A year ago, Bakersfield’s Arts District founder and champion of all things downtown, Don Martin, sat at a crossroads. The man, whose popular Metro Galleries had become the centerpiece of First Fridays, making it cool again to venture downtown after dark and enticing other establishments to reinvest in the neighborhood, was facing a rise in rent that made the foreseeable future fiscally uncertain.
Many credit Martin with sparking the revitalization a decade ago of the area west of Chester Avenue that includes a new-and-improved Padre Hotel and restaurants that attract a steady stream of patrons to the once-overlooked part of downtown. Long before others, Martin saw enormous potential and launched an impassioned campaign to change the area’s public perception.
It worked. The Arts District was formed, First Fridays have become a monthly staple, and the collective celebration and patronage of the occupants of the city’s commercial blocks is still palpable.
Martin could have just as easily walked away from the gallery and venue space. But there was still a creative thirst that needed to be quenched. As he pondered his next move from inside Cafe Smitten, he didn’t have to look far for his inspiration and next project: Across the street at 910 18th St., sat the future home of his gallery’s latest incarnation. But what looked to most like nothing more than a dilapidated building for lease, Martin envisioned a modern interior cosmetic facelift.
But the move had to be kept under wraps. Over the past decade, in addition to its prominence as the hub of monthly First Friday exhibits, the 19th street gallery has also become a sought-after venue for special events. If word of a move leaked, existing event renters might cancel.
Seven months ago, in the dead of summer, with no working air conditioning, Martin began tearing down dated paneling and making way for surface changes, tapping into the migration to the hip, revitalized pocket of businesses and living spaces between Chester and Union Avenues and 17th and 21st Streets affectionately dubbed Eastchester.
I too had my reservations about whether my friend was up to the task. To fully appreciate the enormous undertaking, Martin created a secondary website, www.buildinganewmetro.com, where before and after photos chronicle the refurbishment of the space.
As he peeled back decades of layers of old paint, he discovered pieces of a part of Central Bakersfield’s history. Turns out, for many years, the building was home to Ed Pfalzgraf Automotive Electric. Hans Edward “Ed” Pfalzgraf was born in Colorado but moved to Bakersfield with his wife and young family in the 1920’s. He started the business in 1930 and moved it to the 18th street location in 1947.
After much elbow grease, sweat and likely a few tears of uncertainty, Metro Galleries will open its doors next month to new art exhibitions and event celebrations.
“It’s been a delight to do this project. To hear from so many and how they’ve loved Metro and the difference they’ve felt it made, it’s reinforced what I love so much about our town,” Martin said.
Proponents of downtown expect Martin to replicate the same interest and energy just seven blocks east from where it enjoyed success for many years on 19th Street.
“Nothing has changed because I am a few blocks away,” he said. “First Friday has just moved down the street. This is our downtown.”
And in reinvigorating the property, he anticipates it will once again be a place where someone will always be “stopping by for a visit,” more than 27 ago.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.