Over the past week, parked in a gravelly lot in Eastchester, sat a white taco truck. Wafting from the truck was the scent of spray paint with a garnish of wood chips wrapped in hope, not the baja fish taco variety I typically order.

For November’s Second Saturday, there was a line of people outside the truck engaged in an activity to draw on a map what they considered to be the boundaries of the Eastchester neighborhood. People were hungry for change, salivating for progress, filled with optimism … and satisfied with caffeinated beverages from the nearby cafe. Throughout the course of the week, residents also expressed their desire for more amenities and safety measures in the area, such as parks, lighting, entertainment, food and drink, retail and housing.

For the current food revolution, with skyrocketing startup costs for restaurants in large cities, food trucks have become some of the newest incubators of culinary innovation. The Food for Thought Truck, a mobile design lab from San Francisco interior design firm Studio O+A, serves as an incubator on wheels for urban design.

Bakersfield was lucky enough to host the truck and profit from ideas it fostered because the energy, vibrancy, authenticity and accessibility of this place, our city, enticed the group to add us to its route.

The truck’s full journey will be detailed in a book planned for publication by Artifice Books in 2019.

Its temporary location was strategic. Studio O+A team members explained that parking the truck in a place that serves as a creative hub is key to its success. Local architect Daniel Cater worked to bring the team to Bakersfield and suggested they park outside Cafe Smitten.

“On Google Earth, this area still looks so bleak. Will we go down there and have it be empty?” Al McKee, head writer for Studio O+A, said about the team’s thoughts prior to visiting.

This lot between Cafe Smitten and 17th Place Townhomes is brimming with potential. It’s located in the center of town, in the revitalizing Eastchester neighborhood between two of the city’s most successful new downtown developments. The group’s chosen location implies that this unpaved rectangle of land could serve as much more than a lot with unmarked parking spaces for a nearby cafe.

The Studio O+A Food for Thought Truck is a project devised by Verda Alexander, co-founder of the interior design studio based in San Francisco. From commercial interiors to branding and consulting, Studio O+A designs experiences. The firm developed this project to take its designs and process on the road to areas that might not otherwise have access to its services. So far, the truck has hit the streets of Fremont, San Jose, San Francisco and Bakersfield.

Members of the firm chose Bakersfield, the only Central Valley stop on their tour, because it seemed like a good fit.

When now-local architect Cater, principal of Cater Design Group, still lived and worked for an architecture firm in San Francisco, his energy and enthusiasm stayed with colleague Kristina Cho. When Cho joined Studio O+A and the firm brainstormed about the Food for Thought Truck, she shared about Cater and his passion for Bakersfield. The team immediately agreed that it should add the city to its list.

Out of all the stops the group planned, it was most excited about this one because of Cater, a fully engaged local partner. But even so, the group didn’t know what to expect.

It was Cater’s message that inspired the team to visit. “He convinced us that there’s a beautiful spirit in Bakersfield, a great story, and it hasn’t yet been communicated,” said Alexander.

Intrigued by this emerging neighborhood, the team called the Bakersfield leg of its project Imagine Eastchester.

McKee and Alexander described Cater’s story as a comeback tale that does not fit neatly within the common narrative about a place like Bakersfield. It was inspiring that Cater purposefully chose to come back and give back. Good talent often moves away from these cities to larger metro areas, McKee shared.

One of the positive potentials they see playing out in Bakersfield is part of a wider trend across the country. Larger metro areas are pricing themselves out for artists, new entrepreneurs and small businesses, McKee shared. They are not the creative hubs they once were. He explained that we’ll see over time an emergence of smaller cities that can offer the energy and creative density similar to that in large cities. The goal for places like Bakersfield is to cultivate art and culture and remain welcoming to those with a creative spirit. Positive growth happens this way; creatives are the change-agents.

Ariel Dyer, branch supervisor at Northeast Bakersfield Library and proponent of the library’s engaging event series, noted in a rapid-fire presentation for an Imagine Eastchester event at the truck: “There are two types of people that this community needs: people that show up and those that will keep fighting the good fight no matter who shows up.”

Residents did show up, and they were eager to express their support and ideas for Eastchester.

Aside from a visit by a health inspector checking to ensure the truck was not actually serving food, Alexander and McKee agreed that the Bakersfield community has been overwhelmingly positive and engaged. Locals arranged for team members traveling with the truck to stay at a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in town. On the first day, within a half-hour, the team realized it was an incredibly unique situation. The two have enjoyed visits from local classrooms, council members and enthusiastic residents young and old.

Speaking about the Food for Thought Truck’s visit to Bakersfield, Alexander gushed: “By far, this has been our best project. The response here has blown us away.”

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

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