Drive east on Highway 178. As your car climbs a few hundred feet, you will see the lights of the teeming city fade away in your rearview mirror. In front of you, will be the calming panorama of the Sierra Nevada and its rolling foothills, a scattering of homes and lush groves of trees.
Northeast Bakersfield is like no other section of metropolitan Bakersfield. Take a calming breath. You are being embraced by nature – the best Bakersfield has to offer.
At Fairfax Road, head north, until you hit Alfred Harrell Highway. Gaze to the left at the historic Kern River Oil Field, where decades ago black gold fueled Kern’s economy – and where it continues to do so today. Grab a burger and beer at Ethel’s Old Corral Café, just spittin’ distance down the road. It’s a kick-back part of town just waiting for you to savor.
A right turn onto Alfred Harrell takes you east and beneath spectacular bluffs that create the entryway to Hart Memorial Park, Kern County’s 370-acre regional recreation area that includes two lakes, three canals, picnic areas, wildlife and an abundance of family memories.
Tucked along the banks of the Kern River, the park is the heart and soul of Bakersfield’s natural beauty. It’s a treasure that has brought joy to residents for nearly a century. It deserves the chance to bring that same joy to future generations.
But like much of northeast Bakersfield, Hart Park was left a bit in the dust, as the city grew to the southwest and northwest. There are plenty of reasons why that happened. The sale of the massive Kern County Land Co. to developers in the late 1960s opened the floodgates of growth in that direction. The state’s decision to locate one of its universities in southwest Bakersfield continued the push.
City parks and commercial entertainment venues in the “new part of town” turned attention away from Hart Park, which continued to be a relatively popular destination, but fell victim to neglect.
That is about to change as Kern County Parks and Recreation Commissioners last month approved a conceptual, multi-year master plan for Hart Park’s revitalization. The plan awaits approval by the Board of Supervisors.
“The value of that park extends way beyond those who live around it, or even those who live in the metro area,” Kern County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop told commissioners as he presented the plan. Unlike some past county administrators, who were reluctant to spend much money or effort on Hart Park, Alsop insists the park is worth maintaining and improving in a big way.
“This is among the most important work county government can do,” said Alsop, who was born and raised in Bakersfield, received his bachelor’s degree from Cal State Bakersfield, and returned in 2017 to be Kern County’s top administrator.
It won’t be easy to find the money needed to fund Alsop’s master plan to upgrade and improve Hart Park.
But then, that was the same problem that faced the late John Hart, the county supervisor who in 1921 proposed building a park along the Kern River, where local people could play and escape the summer’s heat.
Hart convinced his fellow county commissioners to buy land for the park. But no money was allocated to build it. Local companies, organizations and individuals stepped forward with the needed cash and labor.
It was slow going. The Great Depression derailed plans. WPA funds and labor helped a bit. But credit goes to local groups and individuals who provided money and labor to plant trees, build structures and create such amenities as a grandstand, and fishing and swimming lakes.
It took 15 years to complete the park. A decade later, it was named after the man who had the dream to create it.
It is now time for another generation of dreamers - people who love to picnic in Hart Park and feed the ducks; who ride bikes and horses along its trails; who long to feel the wind against their faces as they run through the park and surrounding hills; and who just enjoy kicking back and enjoying Hart Park’s beauty – to step forward.
Be inspired by those who gave of themselves and their treasure to build Hart Park to create its new future.
Nearly a century ago, Hart Park was built with volunteer hands and donated money. That is how it will be saved today and prosper tomorrow.