One day 20 years ago, a slightly flustered UPS driver asked Margaret Hoover for directions. She’d seen him drive past her house three times already, so she wasn’t surprised when he stopped. “So,” he said, trying to get his bearings. “This is 621 Walnut Drive?”
“That’s right,” she answered. It took her a moment or two to realize her mistake. “No, no,” she said. “Now it’s 514 Walnut Ave.”
That didn’t help.
Bakersfield’s Alta Vista-La Cresta neighborhood has always had its quirks, most of them permanent and by design. But in 1999, one unusual feature was dequirked: Certain addresses that had been out of numerical order, with odd numbers, in some cases, on the same side of the street as even numbers, were reassigned.
What had once been a recipe for tragedy — emergency vehicles could be delayed, pizza could get cold — was rectified. Mrs. Hoover still lived in the same charming, stucco house she’d been vacuuming since Harry Truman was president. Only the address was new.
The neighborhood's most important feature remained: Its curvilinear streets, which rise and fall and swerve without rhyme or geometric reason, will always baffle strangers. Its street signs, many at triangular or rhomboid intersections, will still occasionally be obscured by mature elms or magnolias.
Two decades ago, the county — which has jurisdiction over most of this section of metro Bakersfield, surrounded on three sides by city — put its bureaucratic foot down and assigned some homeowners new addresses. But the winding, hilly, geometrically confounding nature of the twin neighborhoods, one (Alta Vista) built starting in about 1923, the other (La Cresta) first developed in 1937, would remain as much a part of life here as ever.
And that's just how the residents like it.
Jill Egland has lived just off Alta Vista Drive for 21 years, just a couple of blocks from where she grew up. Her house, built as a model home for one of the neighborhood's several tracts, dates to 1937.
"I like it because it has huge trees, it's hilly, and the streets are not geometrically sane," she says. "Also, if and when it floods — and it's really when — the city will be underwater, except for this rock." This rock being east Bakersfield's Alta Vista-La Cresta, which rises more than 300 feet in elevation from the valley floor to the precipice of the Panorama Bluffs, the neighborhood's northernmost boundary.
The pre-war architecture of the area ranges from tile-roofed Spanish-style villas to grandiose, Roman-columned plantation colonials.
It's not just the eclectic, physical uniqueness of the neighborhood that pleases her, though. It's the nature of the community, too.
"It's really mixed — economically, racially, culturally mixed. Those are values that are really important to me. And it's cajzh too. You can take out in your trash in your PJs; you can have more chickens than you can in the city."
Norma Diaz has lived in Alta Vista-La Cresta, but in a slice of city jurisdiction that lies a block south of Bernard, for 32 years. Her house was built in 1926.
"I love it there. Our one block is like an island. I love the fact that everybody here has been around for a long time. The neighbors next door — the husband's grandmother had that house built. Jim, in the two-story — that was his grandma's. Pretty much everybody is a homeowner. And I love that they are not clone homes."
Along with Oleander and downtown Bakersfield, Alta Vista-La Cresta was one of Bakersfield's first established neighborhoods.
The Alta Vista tract, known a century ago as the Bernard addition, was acquired by an entity known as the Bakersfield Investment Co. and in 1923 "placed in condition for building a large number of homes," The Californian reported. In April 1924, according to The Californian, the San Joaquin Valley Development Co. — which in 1921 had taken out a full-page ad soliciting investors — had begun construction of "six miles of boulevards on the Skyline Park tract," which evolved into what we now know as Alta Vista. The designer had good bloodlines: Donald McClaren was the son of John McClaren, the horticulturalist who, beginning in 1887, had laid out San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
By October 1925, lots for the "mammoth" Skyline Park tract had been plotted all the way to Panorama Drive. Its curves and unorthodox intersections were quite intentional. "Each lot of the 550 included in the tract will be individual. There will be no square or unsightly shaped plots and the streets will be curved in order to carry out the attractive effect planned by McClaren," The Californian reported. Access to the Skyline Park tract from downtown Bakersfield would be primarily via 34th Street, which would be "rushed to completion."
Developer George M. Wilkins, having already started a series of free outdoor concerts, held at dusk in a natural bowl near the Bluffs throughout the summer of 1925, now promised to build two houses on each block of the subdivision, ranging in price from $2,500 to $10,000, just to get things started. The new tract, Wilkins declared, would rival Hollywood Heights when it was fully built out.
In June 1937, developer Howard Nichols pit 12 contractors against one another in a model-home-building contest for a new, adjacent tract that he was then calling La Cresta Heights. The tract, also called La Cresta Village at one point, had by that time already doubled in size from February, when the first lots had been made available for home construction.
By late October "the south side of La Colina Drive (was) completely filled with new homes," The Californian reported. "Not a week passes but what one to four new homes are started in La Cresta." The new development, Nichols told The Californian, would soon be the residential showplace of the southern San Joaquin Valley.
When the war broke out, Nichols, a veteran, reenlisted and put his building skills to work. In 1943 then-Lt. Col. Nichols was cited for "outstanding service" for supervising the construction of a port at Koli Point, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, where only thick jungle had been before. He did so with limited men and resources, according to his commendation, "and set the stage for the smooth and efficient debarkation of large tactical units ..." The Battle of Guadalcanal, a difficult but resounding Allied victory, was the turning point in the war's Pacific theater.
Nichols returned to Bakersfield after the war. His La Cresta development was by this time thriving, and he turned his attention to other projects — among them Hillcrest, a 530-home development north of Niles Street and east of Mount Vernon. He also donated land northwest of Columbus and Oswell streets to what would become Col. Howard Nichols Elementary School, which opened in 1961. He often attended performances by the schoolchildren.
Three and in some cases four generations of families have occupied the Alta Vista and La Cresta neighborhoods. The residents would attend Longfellow or College Heights elementary, then Washington Middle School, then East or Garces high school, then perhaps Bakersfield College, just a mile or so east on Panorama Drive. They'd worship at Columbus Street Baptist, or Our Lady of Perpetual Help, or Temple Beth El. They'd shop at Green Frog Market, or Sears Market, or Columbus Market. They'd dine at the Tam O'Shanter or imbibe at Amestoy's on the Hill.
They might fly in and out of the La Cresta Airfield, 30 postwar acres situated near Panorama Drive and River Boulevard, or work in the Kern River Oil Field, visible in all its vast, sun-baked glory from the Panorama Bluffs. Then, eventually, they might find eternal rest at Greenlawn Cemetery, situated at the southwest corner of Panorama Drive and River Boulevard.
Along the way, as they often do, the weeds crept in. The plumbing rusted, the wiring frayed and Alta Vista-La Cresta became a patchy neighborhood with clusters of beautiful, well-kept homes interspersed with houses teetering toward neglect.
And as the neighborhood slipped, other sections of Bakersfield sprang to life. Doctors, lawyers and business owners who once preferred the balmy curves of Acacia Avenue or El Cielo Drive now went home to the city's west side — Seven Oaks, Haggin Oaks or something-else Oaks.
Green Frog closed, as did Sears Market (no connection to the department store). Beauty salons, yoga studios, insurance offices — they all closed their doors, leaving behind empty storefronts on what were once bustling intersections. Amestoy's, long plagued by trouble in its immediate neighborhood on River Boulevard, finally gave up the ghost last month.
The Tam O'Shanter, which offered both fine dining and a social hot spot for young singles, faded from the scene as well.
"It was a wonderful place," said Randy Fendrick, who played trombone in a jazz band, Electric Oil Sump, that appeared regularly at the Tam O'Shanter for a decade starting in 1978. "But when Bakersfield starting moving west of Highway 99, that changed everything. After 1960, everything on the east side began to decay."
Egland, for one, is sticking around anyway. Two reasons, at least.
"I own my house," she said. "Seriously, it's paid off. But this is the neighborhood I love, and if I'm going to be in Bakersfield, this is where I'm going to be. It has it all. Wealth, incredibly dire poverty and everything in between. It's part of this world."
"I'm not leaving," Diaz concurred. "This is home."