For his fourth-grade science experiment, Matt Haley got himself a radar gun, sat on his driveway and, for hours at a time, clocked drivers as they raced down Nantes Drive, the street where he'd lived since the day he was born.
"I called the experiment something like, 'Who puts the pedal to the medal?'," Haley said, admitting that, yes, he'd misspelled "metal" on his poster board. "I wanted to see which gender sped more."
It was no contest: Females, and specifically, although the evidence was purely anecdotal, 40-year-old soccer moms in SUVs. "With kids in the back, probably driving home from the grocery store," said Haley, now 22 and working in Dallas as a financial analyst.
That type of thing is still what passes for controversy in Haggin Oaks, the leafy, 35-year-old neighborhood of broad streets and big lots that was probably southwest Bakersfield's first truly upscale, post-1980 development.
In 1995, though, Haggin Oaks was ground zero in a fight over the pace of the city's growth, commercial development standards and appropriate levels of public input. The battle, centered on developer Castle & Cooke's proposed shopping center, The Marketplace, divided not only the residents of the adjacent tracts of Haggin Oaks and The Oaks, but all of Bakersfield. Where do a developer's property rights end and a neighborhood's right to pursue a collective vision, however vague or internally contested, begin?
It's a debate that continues, in other settings and with other subplots, throughout the city to this day.
The Haggin Oaks of today, comfortable, even idyllic, might strike one as the last place likely to harbor anti-growth agitators, one of the terms tossed around at the time.
A first-time visitor to Bakersfield could be forgiven for mistaking these homes for some of the million-dollar-plus mansions of L.A. and the Bay Area. No, homes in Haggin Oaks typically go for between $350,000 and $700,000 — well above Bakersfield's median home price of $244,000 but steals, relatively speaking, in the context of California's overheated real estate market.
"It's aged pretty well," said Bruce Freeman, who for 21 years was president of Castle & Cooke of California Inc. and now represents Haggin Oaks as its Ward 5 city councilman. "Huge lots, high ceilings, one-story design, elegant lawns. The backyards are so big. It's not gated — it was built before that was really big. But it has a unique look."
It also has a sense of community that one might expect of older neighborhoods with second-, third- and fourth-generation residents, not tracts of 1985-95 vintage. But that's the case here: Neighbors band together for Fourth of July extravaganzas, Halloween parades and, of course, the Christmas light displays that draw lines of cars from all over the city. Tradition in a neighborhood some might still mistake for a new development were it not for the mature trees? Yes, and passionately observed.
"My kids are 21 and 16, but when they were little we always had a Halloween parade and an Easter egg hunt," said Liz Howard, who, with her husband, Lance, has lived on Dinard Place for 15 years. "Then there was Christmas."
When original Haggin Oaks residents Dave and Danielle Kilpatrick moved to Orange County, other neighborhood families stepped up and assumed ownership of Dustin's Diner, the makeshift, Christmas-season charity fundraiser the Kilpatricks' son Dustin started in front of their house 20 years ago.
"It's really cool," said Kim Hamilton, who now hosts the December street-front cookies and hot chocolate concession with husband Scott, their kids and two other families. "We had to keep it going. This is such a great place to live and Dustin's Diner is a big part of it."
The Hamiltons' next-door neighbors are Ed and Susan Thomas, original Haggin Oaks homeowners who are also heavily involved in the neighborhood's traditions.
Ed, a family law attorney, operates the Grinch Mobile, which he inherited from a former neighbor and refurbished for another generation of young Christmas revelers. "If I'd known how much (the Grinch Mobile) was going to cost" to renovate, he said, "I would never have done it."
Well, yes, he probably would have anyway.
Thomas, who estimates that he gives out 10,000 candy canes every holiday season, also splurges on Independence Day. He and Susan have a deal, he said: She doesn't ask him how much he spends on "safe and sane" fireworks every Fourth of July and he doesn't ask her how much she spent on daughter Nicki's wedding dress.
"It was a really spirited neighborhood," Matt Haley said. "Around Christmas and Halloween, it could be frustrating because the streets really got backed up, but the community really got into the spirit. It was a great place to grow up."
Haggin Oaks is named for 19th-century attorney and land baron James Ben Ali Haggin, who invested heavily in Kern County in the 1870s and 1880s and was at the center of a historic and long-running battle over water rights. However, he is much more closely associated with San Francisco, where he had a law practice with his brother-in-law, Bakersfield pioneer Lloyd Tevis, and especially with Sacramento: His vast, world-class Rancho Del Paso Horse Farm was eventually folded into what would become metro Sacramento, and the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex is today home to two of that city's finer 18-hole courses. Haggin's obituary in The New York Times of Sept. 13, 1914, does not even mention Bakersfield.
The Bakersfield housing development that nevertheless bears his name is directly across six-lane Ming Avenue from The Marketplace, the upscale outdoor shopping center and community gathering place that was the focal point of a memorable battle that, if not quite as consequential as Haggin's water wars, still had a lasting impact.
A dozen or so residents of Haggin Oaks and The Oaks sparred for nearly a year with Castle & Cooke and Bakersfield city officials even before construction began on the 299,900-square-foot shopping complex in 1996.
The group, known as the Southwest Community Action Committee (or, derisively by supporters of The Marketplace, SWACKOs), filed a lawsuit in August 1995 to block construction of the project. The lawsuit claimed that the city’s approval process for the center was inadequate because public hearings were not held and an environmental impact report never provided.
As a result of the lawsuit, which was settled seven months after it was filed, the city of Bakersfield changed the way it handles the site review process for commercial and industrial projects.
A quarter-century later, though, few Haggin Oaks residents could imagine life in Bakersfield without the option of a short walk across Ming for dinner at Mama Tosca's, a movie at Edwards Cinemas, a community event like the Via Arte street painting festival, or, just a bit farther north, a basketball game or lecture at Cal State Bakersfield.
Bakersfield has continued to grow to the southwest in the intervening quarter century and other upscale developments have sprung up, most notably Seven Oaks. But, unlike some neighborhoods, Haggin Oaks has maintained its charm — and its property values.
"People just want bigger houses these days, and they want gates," said Liz Haley, Matt's mother, who with her husband, Russ, built their first Haggin Oaks home in 1987 and their second — where they've stayed — in 1989. "But we're happy here."
When the Haleys moved in, Ming Avenue was a two-lane road, The Marketplace a huge vacant lot and Old River Road, a half-mile west, the edge of civilization. Now, given the city's growth to the west and especially the south, a satellite view places Haggin Oaks nearly at the center of the metro grid.
It's still a good place to be, Ed Thomas said.
"When we moved to Bakersfield in March 1986 from Huntington Beach, it was the best move we ever made in our lives — for our children, for my profession," he said. "Bakersfield has been good to us. This is more my kind of people."