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ANNA SMITH: The truth about Bakersfield's millennial boom

Late last month, Bakersfield was included in a top-10 list of what the National Association of Realtors is calling the “Most Popular Areas for Millennials: Where they Move and Stay." This is encouraging news for our city, but it really just confirms what many of us already know: Bakersfield is burgeoning, and mobile millennials are catching on.

On a daily basis, I interact with dozens of millennials who moved here from other cities and are pleased to call this place home. Bakersfield wasn’t their backup option; they came and stayed with intention. They moved here for career opportunities, increased earning potential, community engagement and an improved quality of life. The NAR study noted that 67 percent of recent movers to Bakersfield have been millennials, boosting that segment of our population to 28 percent.

I read multiple articles about Bakersfield’s inclusion in NAR’s list by publications outside of Bakersfield, including by SFGate, The Sacramento Bee and The San Jose Mercury News. They all incredulously questioned why Bakersfield was named in NAR’s top 10.

The authors were skeptical at best and disparaging at worst. The Sacramento Bee called our city a “dusty outpost in the Central Valley … home to bad air." The story out of San Jose described Bakersfield as a “rough-hewn California city”. The SFGate piece was dishearteningly inaccurate in its depiction. The article attributed the reason flocks of millennials are moving and staying in Bakersfield simply to affordable housing. But it missed a big point: A cheap house is not enough to lure a mobile, often highly educated millennial from a metropolitan area. Job growth and our economic outlook are also strong ingredients in the equation. Quality of life is another important factor. The SFGate article’s author, Michelle Robertson, made presumptions about Bakersfield without including so much as one quote from a local who lives here. (More on that below.)

These articles all seemed to ignore NAR’s clear statement that affordability was not the only consideration in compiling the top-10 list. This is from the original report by NAR released April 25: “[We] analyzed employment gains, population trends, income levels and housing conditions in the largest 100 metropolitan statistical areas across the country to identify the most popular areas for millennials. The top 10 metro areas were selected because of their high share of both present millennial residents and recent movers, as well as their favorable employment opportunities.”

What surprised me the most was that none of the original articles written in response to NAR’s list included interviews with actual millennials who moved to our city. All this was true until last week when I was contacted by Patrick Sisson for Curbed. Curbed is a popular online real estate site with reporters who cover cities all across the country. Curbed's stated mission is to “advocate for the places where people live, by celebrating, chronicling and explaining everything you need to know about homes, neighborhoods and cities”.

Sisson’s article, published Tuesday, was a more insightful and perceptive take on the topic. Sisson spent time doing research rather than restating stereotypes about Bakersfield. It’s titled “Could Bakersfield become a California boom town? Local entrepreneurs want to turn a boom in new businesses into an urban renaissance.”

To get the full story in light of the NAR stats on millennial movement to Bakersfield, Sisson spoke with a number of local residents. Most were young professionals who moved here to start businesses or pursue other career opportunities and enjoy a comfortable quality of life in a place they feel provides space and circumstances to make a meaningful contribution. He spoke with even more residents than were quoted in his article. I know this because I spoke with some of them. He explained that he really wanted to gain a full understanding of this millennial migration to our city.

The article in Curbed was honest, accurate and realistic. It did not paint an inaccurately rosy picture of this place, either. It included impressions from lots of local residents, including Daniel Cater, an architect from San Francisco who moved to Bakersfield three years ago.

“You’re beginning to see a city of half a million support innovation and change,” Cater said. “For me, it’s exciting to watch a city that hasn’t really found itself, where the entrepreneurial spirit is alive. It’s fun to be in a place where you can get to know the people making an impact, and make an impact yourself.”

All of this is a big part of why we created a non-profit called Be in Bakersfield (beinbakersfield.com). We know there is a contagiously inaccurate perception of this place floating around in the ether, and Bakersfield needs to proactively work to improve its image. The best way to do this is by simply telling more stories about real people who choose to call Bakersfield home.

The truth about Bakersfield’s millennial boom can only be understood when skeptics actually listen. And we will just keep telling that story like a drumbeat as the data compound to back us up.

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Within hours of the publication of the SFGate story, I, along with apparently dozens of other Bakersfield residents, sent Robertson a personal email. She wrote a follow-up story in SFGate the next day, after interviewing locals like Miranda Whitworth and Cybil Alexander (both transplants from other cities who happily landed in Bakersfield), to provide a more accurate picture of the landscape here.

Robertson mentioned in her subsequent article that she remained skeptical. Even after multiple exchanges with actual residents defending their choice to move to Bakersfield, Robertson suspiciously queried: “What would a former Bay Area resident think of the city? Would Bakersfield feel like a sweaty town draped with oilfields?” Her impressions never got close to matching the response she received from actual residents, and that’s OK. We can’t convince everyone.

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

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