A flyer is taped to the front glass doors of Wattenbarger hardware, the Oildale lumber store and neighborhood institution founded in 1946.
It reads: "Oildale, CA: Home of Good Schools, Good Homes and Good Citizens."
The flyer, conceived, designed and posted by Fred and Linda Enyeart, conveys admirable aspirations and some core truths about Oildale. But it tells only part of the story of Bakersfield's northern appendage, ZIP code 93308.
The unincorporated blue-collar enclave of 32,000 directly across the Kern River from Bakersfield has a well-defined sense of place and a distinct personality, much of it good but much of it undesirable.
People like the Enyearts have been working hard to shift the perception, both among Oildale's own residents and the world beyond. As many as five separate citizens' committees, as well as local church groups, are actively working to alleviate the community's multitude of problems, but it is a daunting task.
"Oildale is a community full of hardworking people, many of whom are looking for ways to improve," Mike Maggard, Kern County's 3rd District supervisor and unofficial mayor of Oildale, says diplomatically. "Some are well along the path and some are at the beginning."
Some time after its founding in 1909, Oildale, originally known as Waits or Northside, grew into a modest village built around the Kern River Oil Field, a 2-billion-barrel field that at one time was the fifth-largest operating onshore oil field in the Lower 48 states. Today, at No. 10, it is still significant.
The Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and ’40s brought waves of migrants to California from Oklahoma, Texas and the southern Plains states, and many remained in Oildale after the war to work in agriculture and especially oil. The heavy concentration of Okies in Oildale seems to have made them slower to assimilate into the California mainstream than the progeny of other Dust Bowl migrants, creating the insulated culture that came to define the community.
TWEAKING ON THE SIDEWALK
The oil patch continues to sustain families in Oildale and throughout metro Bakersfield. But pervasive poverty and all that comes with it have rendered much of Oildale, especially south of Norris Road and west of North Chester Avenue, a white ghetto of scruffy rentals sprinkled with abandoned shacks. Some lots, especially south of Decatur Street, are almost Third World in appearance.
Exacerbating the struggle of south Oildale is a persistent drug problem of alarming dimensions. When the weather is warm, ashen people emerge midafternoon from the darkened garages and squatter-infested alleys around Warren Avenue to congregate, among other places, outside the Longbranch Saloon and a mobile-phone store next door.
It's not uncommon to see a user half-sprawled on the sidewalk outside the phone store in the throes of self-induced spasms — tweaking, in the vernacular of the street — from a blast of crystal meth or some other illicit drug.
This is Bakersfield's Tenderloin District.
Methamphetamine and heroin have been issues here for years. Then, a few years ago, along came fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It can be added to heroin to increase its potency or used by itself, street-marketed as highly potent heroin and injected by users who might never know the difference.
"We have to be careful just opening the bindle, because you can be overcome by it," Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood says.
"That's the stuff that takes a lot of people down," says Daniel Moffett, pushing a shopping cart down Roberts Lane, his dog, Rocket, in tow. "Too many people."
Moffett accepts a $5 bill and continues west on Roberts. If I need to find him later, he says, he sleeps behind the doughnut shop a half-mile down the road.
PREGNANT, HOMELESS AND HIGH
Danielle, 27, is sitting at a picnic table outside Young's Drive-in, a 1950s-era mom-and-pop burger joint on Oildale Drive. Danielle — not her real name — is high on meth and talking to her boyfriend, Bobby, in a speed-slur that defies comprehension. She is thin as a reed, except for the football-sized paunch that juts from her abdomen. She is five months pregnant.
Her mother, Ali, at times frantic with grief, at times resigned to her daughter's circumstances, has just pulled away in her little Hyundai, having met Danielle and Bobby here just long enough to buy them burgers, french fries, fried zucchini and milkshakes.
This is Ali's third trip of the week to south Oildale, having paid two nights ago for a medium-sized pepperoni at Santa Barbara Pizza & Chicken for Danielle to pick up later. The tattooed manager there knows Danielle's mother well by now and his gentle demeanor speaks to his genuine empathy.
Ali has tried pleading, ignoring, screaming and recruiting others to help get through to Danielle. She has tried guilt, prayer and tough love. She has entertained but rejected the idea of a forced abduction or some kind of trickery. Now that Danielle is pregnant, Ali has taken another tack: the welfare of the baby. Doesn't Danielle want a healthy child?
Young's Drive-in is exactly one block from an Omni Family Health Center — and a second Omni is close by, as are two medical offices run by Clinica Sierra Vista. Ali has assured Danielle that an appointment, even a walk-in visit, will be free or almost free of charge, and the doctors won't judge her. So far it hasn't worked; Danielle has previously promised she'd go, but in the end her fear that they'll take away her drugs wins out.
At least Danielle is communicative. If this were a heroin jag instead of a meth binge, Ali wouldn't have heard from her daughter at all. When days, sometimes weeks pass without requests for fast food or groceries, Ali knows.
So the dance continues. Maybe tomorrow night Ali will return and take Danielle grocery shopping at the 99 Cents Only store just west of Decatur Street. And then, in the parking lot afterward, she will plead or scream or try to reason with Danielle — or just give it a rest this time and go home and cry.
Six blocks north of the Longbranch, at the Wattenbarger Do-It Center, it's 1954 all over again: Customers and friends chat amicably with Ron Hobbs, who has worked here off and on for 34 years, and Debbie Shepherd, bookkeeper and daughter of Don Wattenbarger, one of the five sibling owners.
"People used to stand around and shoot the breeze" when they came in to buy their building materials, Shepherd says. "Still do."
Wattenbarger's does a brisk business with local contractors and do-it-yourself homeowners, and the store has maintained a steady clientele of ranchers from Glennville, 35 miles up Granite Road.
"You learn about everybody's lives," Shepherd said.
Hobbs, 70ish with neatly combed gray hair and a zippered jacket, seems to know everyone who walks up to the lumber counter.
"The majority of people who've been here 25 or 30 years believe in Oildale like it used to be," Hobbs said. "To us, you're a person, not a number, not a dollar bill. But it's not like it was. Everybody knew everybody, and everybody was friendly."
Well, not everybody.
Longtime residents speak of a threat, spray-painted on the back of a billboard in some tellings, reading "N-----, Don't Let The Sun Set On You in Oildale." It remained for years, until the early 1960s — and much later, according to some accounts. That slogan did not exist in a vacuum: Stories of harassment and even violence were not uncommon.
"I know older people who would chase you out of town, shooting at you," Hobbs said.
Racism still rears its head. Where there is poverty, there is frustration and resentment, no matter what the dominant race of the neighborhood. Here it is poor, uneducated whites and the Oildale Peckerwoods, a loosely organized white supremacist gang whose name turns up in assault trials now and then. Perhaps that helps explain why Oildale, now as always, is less than 1 percent African-American.
Tolerance quotients aside, the poverty has not gone away: The percentage of residents living below the poverty line is 20.9, which would place Oildale, if it were a state unto itself, at No. 49 in the nation, right between New Mexico (20.6 percent) and Mississippi (21.9).
ARMIES OF RESCUERS
When Linda and Fred Enyeart first came across that "Good Citizens" slogan in a recipe book published for the community's 100-year centennial in 2009 — it was taken from a 1938 letter written to an Oildale businessman — they knew they had to do something with it.
"Oildale gets a bad rap sometimes and we thought these posters would help," Linda says. "We started putting them up and down the street in Oildale. We distributed 275 of them and then Mike Maggard funded us 200 more."
"We volunteer with a lot of groups here," Fred says. "We're trying to make Oildale a better place."
They write and distribute an e-newsletter called the Oildale News that promotes community activities and generally reminds residents that good and noteworthy things happen here.
The "93308 Salute goes out this week to Varner Brothers," a local waste management company, declares the Dec. 8 edition. "If you haven't seen their new and improved look, go by 1800 Roberts Lane. They do so much to keep the Community neat & clean. ... They are a perfect example of GOOD CITIZENS!"
NASCAR racing star Kevin Harvick grew up here, past newsletters have reminded us, and so did Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Cody Kessler, although the family moved to Bakersfield for his high school years.
The Enyearts don't miss a beat when it comes to promoting Oildale, and they are in good company.
The Oildale Community Action Team, Citizens for a New Oildale, the North of the River Chamber of Commerce and several others work with the sheriff, mental health, public health and other county agencies to address a multitude of issues.
"When I'm out there with them, I see it," says Maggard, referring to OCAT, which evolved from a Neighborhood Watch group into a full-fledged 501(c)(3) nonprofit. "It's real. These aren't pussyfooting white-collar workers who are used to air conditioning. They work. The challenge is, how do I keep them all going in the same direction?"
OCAT Vice President Dave Kadel is a former Kern County sheriff's deputy who retired after 30 years and is now the outreach pastor at a church called Life House.
"We're just trying to promote Oildale and bring some positive spin," he says, in the undersell of the century. The members of OCAT bust their tails.
They feed and clothe children, pick up litter and larger debris, eradicate graffiti, promote street art, and conduct "flashlight walks," in which they troop through neighborhoods just after dusk and talk to residents who might be sitting in their yards or walking their dogs down the sidewalk to identify neighborhood issues and solutions.
"There's a poverty mentality there in Oildale that people don't seem to have a way of dealing with," Kadel says. "That's a big obstacle to progress."
He, like Maggard, says the various pro-Oildale groups could achieve more if they worked together better.
"There's no real unity there," Kadel says. "We're trying to address things collaboratively. We try to tell them we can do so much more together than separately."
"Wouldn't it be great," says Donna Clopton, OCAT's president, "if once a year all of these groups could come together and work on one project? Just one thing?"
They might want to include Ben Hanna. He moved away from the desperate poverty of Beardsley Avenue some years ago but never really left: Twelve years ago, he established Church Without Walls, which operates literally under a pop-up canopy on a lot at 114 Beardsley, 400 feet off North Chester.
He hands out blankets, coats, stocking caps and canned goods, and he helps facilitate showers for the aromatic homeless in a borrowed trailer modified for that purpose.
"We've got sky-high rates for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, we've got drugs and illiteracy, and we are number one in California for poverty," Hanna says. "We have 300 or 400 homeless people in our area. So there's a lot going on."
You're doing good work here, I tell him.
"Well," he says, "God is."
ENFORCEMENT CHALLENGES: ‘IT’S LIKE MERCURY’
It's coming up on noon and Anne Clifton is bartending at the Longbranch Saloon. Ken Clifton, her son, bought the Longbranch two years ago in May, she says. He would have liked to buy Trout's, the legendary, now-defunct honky-tonk up the street but it was too expensive and it needed work, so he bought the Longbranch instead for a quarter of the price.
Clifton, 69 and gloriously blond, is sitting across from her friend, Pam, also gloriously blond, drinking coffee with Coffee Mate and a splash of brandy. A disheveled young man in a long Army surplus jacket walks in through the main North Chester Avenue door. "May I have a glass of water?" She nods and walk over to the soda gun, fills a glass with ice and splashes it full of water. He accepts it, and without sitting, drinks it down. Then he's gone.
"His name is Jason Rose," she says. "Comes in sometimes for a glass of water. I always give him one — but just one. He usually asks if there's any work for him to do."
Homeless young men like Jason Rose are harmless. But that's not necessarily the case with some of the druggies who hang out on the sidewalk outside the Longbranch. Still, Anne has a heart for them, all of them. She gives away clothes sometimes. But she can't let them drink alcohol outside the saloon whether it's from the Longbranch or not, and she has a low tolerance for odd or anti-social behavior from any who might come in for beer or a cocktail.
"It's not that I feel threatened," she says. "I just don't want my customers feeling threatened."
She appreciates how difficult their lives can be. Homeless people sleep almost nightly under the eaves of the Country Kitchen 200 feet down the street. "They found one of them this morning pretty beat up," Anne says. "I don't know if he lived or not."
The Longbranch, which has live music every other Saturday night and karaoke twice a week, hosts pool leagues and darts leagues. And, for those so inclined, it's conveniently located right next door to a "pharmacy" staffed by a "doctor" who can prescribe marijuana (but apparently does not dispense it).
Another door farther down, behind an unmarked storefront with butcher paper covering the windows, is an internet casino. It is operating illegally. Three horizontal video screens almost the size of pool tables display brightly animated sea creatures; players — as many as eight at a time — direct their fish to eat other fish. A player can win $40 or more in five minutes and lose it just as fast.
Against another wall, players on laptops play video poker and similar games of chance.
Near the entrance, behind a counter, a short, muscular bald man in a T-shirt looks warily at the out-of-place customer who so far has shown no interest in actually spending money. Cop? Must be.
Two days later, the casino is closed, shut down by the Sheriff’s Office. The butcher paper has come down from the windows to reveal three empty rooms. A small hand-drawn "for rent" sign is tucked in a lower corner of the window.
"It's like mercury," Sheriff Youngblood says of the casino phenomenon. "We close them down and we take their machines and the next thing you know they're back up with new machines in a new location. New machines are always being delivered.
"The penalties are not enough because there's not a lot of fear. We seize the machines, we seize the cash and they're back anyway. More often than not there's drugs involved, and there's a gun in there, too."
Hobbs, from the lumber counter at Wattenbarger's, told me he recalled that years ago Reader's Digest named Oildale the roughest town in the United States, although he couldn't cite a date.
Maybe some things about Oildale haven't changed that much.
CLOSE UP THE HONKY-TONKS
People in Oildale have finally stopped talking about Trout's. They've stopped talking about the classic sign out in front that depicted a flailing trout — a sign that famously went missing after the former manager supposedly sent it out for repairs just about the time the building was sold, the saloon was shut down and he quietly left town.
The locals have moved on from the defunct establishment that beloved songwriter Red Simpson and equally beloved crooner Billy Mize frequented in their semiretirement years. Like so much else of Oildale, Trout's, now unrecognizable, is boarded up.
Bucks Owens' old recording studio on North Chester, the old River Theater that he converted in the early 1970s, is quiet now, too. Merle Haggard's boyhood home, a converted boxcar that for years was the holy grail of any self-respecting Bakersfield Sound tour, still stands, just not on Yosemite Drive anymore. It has been moved just across the dry, empty bed of the Kern River into Bakersfield, to the Kern County Museum; Merle oversaw the move in the last months of his life.
No one pilgrimages to Buck's former Oildale home on Harding Street, or Merle's place on Highmoor Avenue, where he played stepdaddy to Buck's two eldest boys, because almost no one realizes the significance of those houses.
The closest thing to the honky-tonk scene in Oildale these days is the Rustic Rail Saloon, where old-timers and a few middle-timers still two-step to the twang that made Oildale famous. Some will claim Ethel's Old Corral, 4 miles east along Alfred Harrell Highway via China Grade Loop, qualifies as well, and some nights perhaps it does.
The Bakersfield Sound still lives in Oildale, but you have to look hard to find it.
‘ROYALDALE’ AND AMAZON
North Chester Avenue is a long, steady hill that climbs from the Kern River, through south Oildale, past Wattenbarger's to North High School, home of the North Stars. Farther north still is the section of Oildale that locals like to refer to as "Royaldale." That's an exaggeration: Homes here start in the low $200,000s and a few tickle the $400,000s, but they're bigger and newer than the rest of Oildale. Many more are under construction on both sides of Merle Haggard Drive, the northernmost boundary of Oildale.
It is here that Oildale's future lies. An Amazon fulfillment center is well under construction across Wings Way from the William M. Thomas Terminal and Meadows Field and commercial real estate signs dot the landscape. Amazon will be at the center of a new industrial park, and other industrial parks are certain to follow. They in turn will bring new commercial development — restaurants, gas stations, mini-marts and perhaps eventually more. And that will mean jobs.
Whether it's enough to put a measurable dent in Oildale's desperate poverty remains to be seen. But it's something.
Oildale needs more than Amazon. It needs the collective will to escape its cycle of poverty and hopelessness. It needs the people who are there now, working, pushing and caring, and it needs them to all work together and grow their voice.
"My primary goal for Oildale," says Supervisor Maggard, "is for the community to embrace its own conclusion that they can make their neighborhoods a better place. And that is happening. The community has seized that challenge with much more energy than some could have imagined. But there's a lot of work to be done."
Indeed there is. And the work is underway.