I moved to Kern County 14 years ago. The last decade and a half has been marked by transformation.
The carrot field across the street from my house has sprouted a housing tract. An excavator chewed through the walls of Wild West Shopping Center with the slow, powerful bites of a T-Rex. The old PGE building on Coffee Road was imploded. The Target on Ming Avenue is a furniture store. Bob’s Big Boy is now India Bistro. The statue of the cheery boy in the checkered overalls has skipped away, taking his giant burgers with him.
I suspect not many mourned the transformation of one big box store into another, but the closing of Noriega Hotel was hard to take. Some losses are felt more deeply than others.
There are more changes on the horizon. To developers, our flat, brush-covered fields are a canvas upon which they will create their own ideal, affordably priced neighborhoods. This is disorienting for me. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who have lived here for generations. Some locals will leave because of these changes (Indeed, they already have). But most will stay. And for those who remain, the question is not "How do we stop our world from changing?" but rather "How do we shape our own future?"
Bakersfield was never meant to be an urban metropolis. It is a place rooted in agriculture and oil, the home of its own genre of country music and the end of the journey for thousands during the Dust Bowl migration. So, for us now, who are having urbanity thrust upon us, it becomes imperative to guard and protect the parts of our community that are at the core of our being. Depending on your personal background, your neighborhood keystones will vary, but the beating heart of this effort of self-preservation is the Kern River that runs through the heart of our town.
Just as Bakersfield was never meant to be a metropolis, the Kern River was never meant to be a mere riverbed. The river’s parched and sandy state is not a result of mother nature, but of financial deals made long ago, some by people who were more interested in business transactions than community good. Deals can be changed, and we can restore and protect the parts of our town that remind us of who we are. Bring Back the Kern is a group of locals who are petitioning the governor and the State Water Resources Control Board to restore water to our river. You can read about their mission and sign their petition by going to change.org and searching "bring back the kern."
Their mission is not a fool’s errand. It is entirely feasible. For an example, look downtown: The Padre Hotel was a derelict building for 50 years until it was refurbished and restored. Now it is alive again, different, but alive, and once more a part of our city’s history and future.
Similarly, the Kern River will not be restored to its original, natural state. Nor should it be. We need water for valley agriculture and residents. However, the river can be revived. A motivated citizenry can put pressure on state decision makers to supply Bakersfield’s rightful water (water which the city paid for years ago) to the river. It is entirely possible to have a regular, steady flow of water in our river. A place where people can fish, where kids can play in the water, where wildlife can thrive. A place that reminds us that though we may look like the suburbs, we’ll always be country at heart.
Kelly Damian is a teacher and writer who lives in Bakersfield.