Let's get something straight: That lovely and historic home of yours two or three blocks from 100-year-old Jastro Park is not in Westchester.
It may lie "west of Chester," downtown Bakersfield's main drag, but it is not part of the neighborhood that C. Elmer Houchin created out of 300 stump-littered acres almost 70 years ago.
People tend to lump together the tract Houchin acquired in 1945 with "downtown," as the older neighborhood is more accurately known, calling the whole of it Westchester, but each area is unique unto itself. Only the neighborhood north of 24th is actually Westchester, the name bestowed on the tract by Houchin for what now seem like obvious reasons.
The street that unifies them also divides them: 24th Street, inconveniently for the people who live on both sides, is undergoing a somewhat painful and litigious facelift. The city, in partnership with the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, is widening 24th from four to six lanes, softening two of its hard curves and adding a crosswalk so perilous pedestrians will have to take it three lanes at a time.
The widening will be convenient for the rest of us, of course. Twenty-Fourth is the lone urban bottleneck of a single, mostly contiguous highway that extends from the Pacific Ocean (via Highway 46) to the doorstep of Death Valley (via Highway 178). Twenty-Fourth will still be a bottleneck, especially when Westchester children have the audacity to activate the new pedestrian traffic signal so they can navigate the crosswalk and continue to Franklin School, but it'll be much less of one.
To accomplish the widening, the city had to purchase and raze more than a dozen of the homes that bordered 24th Street — all on the Westchester side. That irked a few Westchester residents, who felt project officials were making a value judgment on the merits of each neighborhood, Westchester vs. the Jastro Park section of downtown. In terms of real estate value, of course, they were.
The city also had to deal with opponents of the widening project who argued, long past the point of inevitability, that the project bypassed environmental review standards and ignored the merits of what they considered superior routes elsewhere. The group, known as the Citizens Against the 24th Street Widening Project, won a court judgment in March ordering the city to pay its legal fees, and the battle continues: CA24WP has filed a CEQA lawsuit over the removal of two crosswalks.
In 1945, when Houchin acquired those 300 acres from the Kern County Land Co. — property that would become the Westchester tract, the Montgomery Ward-anchored shopping center and other commercial property near the north end of F Street — 24th was a two-lane street of less connective importance than 19th and 21st.
His ambitions as a community builder changed all of that. Houchin, who moved to Bakersfield from Huntington, W.Va., in 1908 and took a job with the transformative Miller & Lux Corp., branched out on his own in 1913. He bought the Pioneer Market in Taft but was never going to be content as a small-town grocer. He used the market as a base for ventures into auto financing, oil development, farming and real estate. He mapped out the town site of Buttonwillow, at the time not much more than a Miller & Lux office and general store that stood starkly alone amid thousands upon thousands of cultivated acres of cotton. Houchin provided the town's initial 350 home lots.
Most will associate Houchin with his most enduring and vital contribution, the Houchin Community Blood Bank, which a group of local physicians convinced him to fund in 1951. At that time, Kern General Hospital, now known as Kern Medical, was the only facility equipped to draw and test blood. For Houchin, who had been driving his mother to Los Angeles once a week for leukemia-fighting blood transfusions, the need was real and personal. The blood bank, which he named for his mother, Sarah Alice Houchin, opened its doors — on G Street property he donated — in April 1952.
When Elmer Houchin died the following year, at just 69, the story received a banner front-page headline in The Californian.
Billie Houchin admits to having been a bit nervous around her uncle because of his prominence, but she remembers him as an unassuming man with West Virginia humility and tastes.
"At lunchtime, he'd eat whatever you had," said Mrs. Houchin, 91. "I remember one time, when we lived out on the ranch (in Buttonwillow), I had made roast beef the night before. He came by at lunchtime and I served him corned beef hash." And he was grateful.
The first, modest homes were built in Westchester in the late 1940s. The most famous went up in 1949 at 2500 Beech St., a picture-perfect "Ozzie and Harriet" two-story whose grand unveiling drew a number of celebrities. The residence was one of 73 identical homes built around the U.S. that were modeled after the house featured in the 1948 Cary Grant film, "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," a blockbuster for RKO Pictures. The editors of Better Homes & Gardens magazine featured the collection of copycat homes in one edition that year.
It wasn't until 1951 that Uncle Elmer, who had reserved lots for family members, including Billie and her husband Okey Houchin (from West Virginia, not Oklahoma), picked up the pace. Mrs. Houchin still lives in that same house — she believes she's the only original homeowner still living in the Westchester neighborhood — and her daughter Pam Houchin Hornbuckle is just a few doors down. "We used to roller-skate through this kitchen," Mrs. Hornbuckle said, giving a tour of the house she grew up in.
Over time, the trees grew taller and stronger, the neighborhood children graduated from Bakersfield High School or Garces Memorial High School, and families moved away. New families moved in, and they in turn were replaced by subsequent generations.
Twenty-Fourth Street graduated to four lanes — and traffic speeds increased commensurately. Now, 24th is expanding to six lanes, and residents on both sides are bracing for freeway speeds — although the posted speed limit will be 45 mph, just a click up from the 40 mph it had been.
"Now it's going to be three lanes (in each direction) and they'll drive even faster," said Judith Harmiman, who lives at Alder and 24th. "Turning in (from 24th) and turning out will be more difficult. The traffic lights pace you until you get to F Street, then you come around the corner and it's just this wide straightaway. I believe they're going to drive even faster."
Because of those speeds, she is concerned about the planned crosswalk at Pine and 24th. Pedestrians will negotiate it by activating a newly installed traffic signal, crossing three lanes to a protected median, where they will activate a second traffic signal for cars coming from the opposite direction, and then crossing the remaining three lanes.
"I wouldn't cross that," she said.
Neither would Hornbuckle. "No," she said, laughing. "No way."
Neither would photographer Greg Iger, who voiced concern about the crosswalk several months ago. He endorsed my suggestion — a pedestrian footbridge, which of course would be significantly more expensive.
"I was quickly disposed of by the 'too expensive' ruling," he wrote in a March email. "'Shut up! You don't know what you're talking about. It would be way too costly!' What is the cost of one 8-year-old child's life? I grew up in that area and many of my best friends were on the other side of 24th Street. I realize times have greatly changed, but the crosswalk idea is ridiculous. It's a waste of money and opens the city up to more, not less, liability. I agree that a tunnel or overpass are currently the best solutions."
He suggests an enhanced, park-like structure spanning 24th with benches and gardens — which would be even more expensive, but certainly distinctive and noteworthy.
Harmiman and others do see at least one redeeming feature of the widening project, as far as residents are concerned. The sound wall — a dark, faux-brick barrier that muffles traffic noise and lends a pleasing uniformity. Except at the east and west ends of the project, however, the soundwall is only on the Westchester side of the road.
"I like it a lot," said Marci Honesto, who lives at Pine and 24th. "I have to admit it's beautiful."
Residents seem to love almost everything else about Westchester — the leafy, wide streets, friendly neighbors and sidewalk lemonade stands.
And they recognize, mortgage payments or not, that Westchester is only theirs for now. Time will deliver its suburban idyll to another generation soon enough.
Teresa Adamo, who moved into the neighborhood 27 years ago with husband Felix, the retired, longtime chief photographer for The Californian, understands that. Shortly after they moved into their Bay Street house, built in 1948, the Adamos replaced a wall that a previous owner had removed. Mrs. Adamo decided to assemble a little time capsule and insert it in the wall.
"Inside it, what I can remember: a note about our family and how/when we got the house," recalled Mrs. Adamo, whose family later moved into their current Beech Street home, built in 1952. "A grocery ad — I thought the cost of food items could be fun for someone to see in the future. Some TBC articles — I believe the O.J. Simpson case was ongoing at the time. And a TV Guide — I thought future residents might like to see what kind of TV programs were around then, but now it’s really funny because they’ll probably wonder more, 'What the heck is a ‘TV Guide'?"
She hopes, although the world will have changed, the story of a young family that loved its neighborhood will ring with encouraging familiarity.
"That’s how I view my time as a Westchester resident — it’s simply 'my turn' to appreciate the homes, the streets, the trees, the Westchester vibe," Mrs. Adamo said. "Just as the residents before me have, and just as those who will come after me will — it’s a circle-of-life thing, but a circle of Westchester life. And we truly, completely love 'where we live.'"