Some neighborhoods are working class. Some are white-collar professional. Some are retirement, some are historic, some are Bohemian.
Central Bakersfield's Oleander-Sunset neighborhood is not so easily pigeonholed — it fits all of those descriptions. And its eclectic mix is exactly what many residents consider its most endearing attribute.
California bungalows, built in the 1920s as starter homes, sit next to wrought-iron-enclosed mansions that occupy entire blocks. Legendary local architects like Clarence Cullimore and Charles Biggar not only designed some of the homes in Oleander-Sunset, they lived in the neighborhood. Just down the street from all that stately grandeur, working-class people assembled kit homes purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog and shipped into Bakersfield on Santa Fe rail cars — "early-day Amazon," in the words of retired Superior Court Judge Jon Stuebbe, an Oleander resident.
Oleander-Sunset has "huge houses with very established people that have lived there for (decades) ... and then there are small bungalows with families just starting out," said Jeran McConnel, who lives with husband Lonnie and their three children on one of the neighborhood's two namesake streets, Oleander Avenue, near Second Street. "There are rentals, there are apartments right beside mansions. The demographic is so mixed. ... That's why we love BHS, why we love the schools here. Our kids can (see that) not everybody looks the same as you or lives the same life as you."
BUT LOCK YOUR CAR
Oleander-Sunset also has its problems. Car break-ins are a persistent issue, as are package snatchings from front porches.
"We've got huge issues with crimes of opportunity," said Jennifer Clayton, who lives with her family in a 1930s Craftsman-style home on San Emidio Street. "Most houses don't have driveways or garages, so there's a lot of street parking, so a lot of people breaking into cars."
She figures thieves have broken into one or another of the Claytons' cars 20 times. They have also tried to steal knickknacks from her front porch.
"You see them all the time — we call them the backpack people. They're on bikes, carrying backpacks. People blame the homeless, but they're not homeless. If there's something on your porch and it's not nailed down, people will take it."
Oleander-Sunset had 166 burglaries in 2018, more than three a week, to go with 90 auto thefts, 29 robberies, 43 cases of aggravated assault and a homicide, according to the Bakersfield Police Department.
Last year, neighborhood activists lobbied City Councilman Andrae Gonzales and City Attorney Ginny Gennaro to rid the area of illegal nearby pot shops, which are often magnets for such crime. They succeeded in shutting down 20 illicit marijuana dispensaries within a half-mile of the neighborhood's southeastern border.
"We took back our streets, and the corresponding crime that went with it was greatly diminished," said David Brust, who lives with wife Lilli on Oleander. "But some dispensaries will still pop up now and then even though the shop owners know they're illegal. They don't care."
Illegal internet casinos still appear as well, whack-a-mole style, on the neighborhood's southern perimeter along Brundage Lane, sometimes, according to law enforcement, bringing drugs and guns with them.
‘WE SEE THEM’
Clayton, for one, likes to think the open, friendly nature of the neighborhood keeps it from being worse.
"I talk to everybody," she said. "Hopefully they like me and they don't want to take my stuff. It makes them aware that we know they're here, that we see them."
Everybody sees everybody in Oleander-Sunset, or so it sometimes seems. With its huge canopy of mature trees and traffic-quieting intersection roundabouts, this may be one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city.
Little wonder: Oleander-Sunset might be the oldest intact tract of homes in the city; locals believe that to be the case. It depends on how one measures: A few older individual homes dot the city, but no one street has the concentration of Teddy Roosevelt-era structures of Oleander, especially the half-dozen blocks closest to Bakersfield High School, the county's oldest secondary school, which borders the neighborhood's northeast corner.
A HYPHENATED NEIGHBORHOOD
East of A Street lies the Oleander half of the hyphenated neighborhood. The homes are generally older, some dating back to the 19-aughts, and those on Oleander Avenue itself are generally the most valuable in terms of real estate prices. Many multifamily dwellings are on the Oleander side as well, affecting the area's statistical profile: Despite the presence of those historic mansions, the Oleander side has a lower median household income, higher poverty rate and younger median age than Sunset, which lies west of A Street. Both sides have one thing in common: individuality in the structures — "not cookie-cutter," says Lonnie McConnel — and congeniality in the people.
"As someone that comes from a small community where you get to know everyone, I can tell you this feels very comfortable," says Barbara Norcross, a Realtor who owns five houses in Oleander-Sunset, has sold dozens more for clients, and has occupied her own 105-year-old Victorian at San Emidio and A for decades. "You know your neighbors. It's an older neighborhood where people value friendship."
Jeran and Lonnie McConnel have lived in the neighborhood for 19 years, first on G Street and now, for the past three years, in the Craftsman home on Oleander they'd been eyeing since the moment they laid eyes on it. When they learned that the previous owners were moving to New Orleans, they put their G Street house on the market that very day.
"The dream always was to live on Oleander," said Jeran, who produces a home renovation/cooking/lifestyle blog called Palm + Oleander, named for an intersection near their previous home. "I feel like these houses hold a big piece of history of what Bakersfield was and could be. ... This is our neighborhood."
"It has a sense of place," her husband agrees.
Georgia Cassel, known to a generation of Kern County citizens as the jury-duty welcome lady, moved back to Oleander four years ago after a long absence. "As soon as I walked in that front door (while house-shopping), that was it for me," she said. "I felt the charm, I felt the love. If you can feel love for a home and it can feel love from you," that's your house.
Yes, it's that kind of neighborhood.
THE SCION’S GIFT
The neighborhood as we know it today got its start in the 1920s when Henry J. Brandt purchased a combined 70 acres south of California Avenue and east of Oak Street from the Kern County Land Co., but Oleander-Sunset — at least the Oleander side — goes back much further than that.
From about 1870 until the early 1920s, having an address on Oleander Avenue — originally called D Street — was a symbol of success for the local elite, according to local historian Jerry Kirkland.
"It was there" on D Street, Kirkland notes, "that many of them built their homes, forming what would be called Milllionaires’ Row. They were the community's movers and shakers and their names are still familiar to us today."
The north end of the "row" was anchored by the home of Alfred Harrell, owner and publisher of The Bakersfield Californian, situated on the southwest corner of Oleander and California, according to Kirkland.
At the southern extreme was lawyer J.W. Wiley’s big white-pillared mansion on the west side of Oleander, a half-block south of Palm Street, Kirkland says. In between were the huge homes of stockman Robert Holtby, banker George Planz and George Haberfelde, an imposing structure built in 1918.
The city’s oldest park, Beale Park, was constructed in 1908 on 5 acres of land donated and landscaped by Truxtun Beale, the son of wealthy diplomat Edward Fitzgerald Beale. The park's most prominent feature is the Greek-style amphitheater, also built by Beale, that every June, off and on for years, has hosted Sunday afternoon concerts by the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. (This year's first concert is June 9.) Many who attend are Oleander-Sunset residents engaging in the neighborhood's favorite outdoor pastime: They walk.
"We sit on the front-door swing and we visit with whoever comes by," said Doug Delgado, whose home is at 809 Oleander, constructed between 1908 and 1912.
"Judge Stuebbe lives next door, across the street," said Delgado, who bought the home from the family of Alfred "Ted" Fritts, former publisher of The Californian. "Dr. (Charles) Phillips lives across the street from him. George Boyle lives on Holtby. Those are regular visitors through the neighborhood and we often see them on the sidewalk as we sit or as we walk the dog. This is a walking neighborhood."
"If you spend any time here, you're going to see huge numbers of people walking here, all over the community," agreed Stuebbe, who, with wife Kala, lives in the home built in 1919 by Henry J. Brandt, a blacksmith turned land developer. "Especially when school, just down the street, is in session. Mothers are walking their children to school in the morning and then you can see them going down in the afternoon and getting them and bringing them back. And that's just a parade that I love to watch."
Oleander-Sunset, generally bounded by H Street, California Avenue, Oak Street and Brundage Lane, is ringed with dozens of businesses, including several notable restaurants. Los Molcajetes, known for its steaming, dry-ice concoctions, is on Brundage at Cedar; Bootleggers Craft Pub and Eatery is on Oak at Sunset; Chalet Basque is on Oak at Verde, just around the corner from the Bellvedere Cocktail Lounge, a friendly dive on Brundage that honors the spirit of the old Blackboard honky-tonk as well as any surviving live music venue; and Dewar's Candy Shop, the city's oldest soda fountain, is across California from Bakersfield High School at Eye.
"Part of the joy of living in this neighborhood is we can walk to restaurants — and of course I can walk to work, ’cause I'm just down the street at BHS," says Lonnie McConnel, a science teacher at the school.
The McConnels, like many in Oleander-Sunset, know the history of their home, at least somewhat, but others do not. Few people, for example, likely know about the kit houses sold by Sears and other lesser companies between 1908 and 1940. Customers across the country ordered about 75,000 houses out of Sears mail-order catalogs over that span of time.
Each kit contained 30,000 pieces, including 750 pounds of nails and 27 gallons of paint and varnish. A 75-page instruction book showed buyers how to assemble those 30,000 pieces of house in several hundred easy steps.
One researcher determined that only about 2 percent of the people who now live in these homes know their provenance. And since 70,000 Sears homes remain undiscovered, it stands to reason that many could well be in the Sunset area.
The park's history is well-documented. Beale personally oversaw the Greek amphitheater's construction as well as the cinder running track that marked the park’s perimeter. Both were completed in 1908. Tennis courts were completed in 1910, the swimming pool in 1915 but almost a century later were replaced by a water-spray play area.
Beale could not have envisioned one of the park's most entertaining diversions. The great Kern County windstorm of 1977, with its 100-mph gusts, blew the roof off a local aviary and scores of birds escaped, among them two breeding pairs of rose-ringed parakeets. Almost 40 years later, those birds' progeny are thriving in Bakersfield — and many are Beale Park regulars. Documentation is sketchy, but some locals claim they now constitute the largest population of naturalized parakeets in the world.
The parakeets could not have settled in a more appropriate neighborhood. Over the years, Oleander-Sunset has welcomed residents of most every demographic station in life — old-moneyed, new-moneyed and no-moneyed. Winged residents, apparently, are welcome, too.