When I accepted a full-time teaching job at Bakersfield College two years ago, my friends worried. They said I would hate the area, and that the heat, bad air quality and ills of Kern County’s biggest city would negate the benefits of a tenure-track faculty position.
They were so wrong. Bakersfield quickly became my home, one that was easy to love. A hundred miles south in my native Los Angeles, people dismiss California’s Central Valley as a wasteland of poverty, crime, drug problems and pollution. They fail to see that the region also boasts a thriving agricultural and industrial community, growing higher education opportunities, and perhaps most elusive in California, affordable housing.
This is the place I fulfilled the dream of homeownership, something I never would have been able to swing in Los Angeles (or San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, etc.). The median home value in Bakersfield is $243,600, compared to $686,000 in Los Angeles and more than $1.3 million in San Francisco, according to Zillow. While the cost of gas, groceries and doggie daycare are similar, if not quite as expensive in Bakersfield, that stark contrast in home prices makes the most significant difference.
For nearly 11 years, I struggled to pay for a small, run-down condo in Studio City. I was a cynic who spent my days cursing, my blood pressure rising, as I crawled eight miles on the 101 freeway to my administrative job at a law school near downtown Los Angeles. For four years, I also spent up to three hours each way on the road to teach part-time in the San Pedro area. In Bakersfield, I live on the opposite side of town from work, a commute that averages about 22 minutes.
Much of the bad press Bakersfield has suffered is understandable. The city owns several dubious distinctions. In 2018, the American Lung Association rated Bakersfield’s air quality as some of the worst in the country. The Department of Justice reported Kern County had the highest homicide rate per capita in 2017 in the Golden State.
Like any town of substantial size, there are good and not-so-good neighborhoods. There are also hipsters, vegan eateries, day spas, overpriced coffee, craft breweries, farmers markets and an absolutely delightful melodrama theater.
In Bakersfield, I wake up every morning excited for the challenges of the day. This is easy to do when you work for a place like Bakersfield College, which is so fully invested in raising up the community with early education partnerships, an inmate scholars program, collaborations with Cal State Bakersfield to ensure students graduate from both schools in four years and rural initiatives to provide learning, trade and skill development opportunities to underserved people and areas.
Sexier places such as the coastal regions and cramped cities, where people expect to pay $20 for a cocktail and thousands of dollars in insurance for a modest car, certainly look better on paper. But they hardly reflect reality.
California tourism commercials would never feature this town’s vast oil rigs and dusty roads. Consequently, a broad audience does not get to see Bakersfield’s startlingly beautiful sunsets, created in part by the admittedly smoggy air. I continuously tell my students their education is what they make of it. So is their city.
Erin Auerbach, an associate professor at Bakersfield College, teaches journalism and is the faculty adviser of the Renegade Rip.