Ford Fairlane 500 parked on the corner of Chester
Ave., and 19th street in downtown Bakersfield,
Calif., on November 3, 2015.
Calif. — Jutting skyward, adding impressive verticality
to low-rise downtown Bakersfield, the Fox Theater’s
tower presides over the H Street bustle and hum with
stolid, deep-rooted grandeur. Scalloped and columned, a
handsome marriage of Spanish colonial revival and art
deco, the tower invites your gaze up beyond its concrete
base, past its red-lettered signage, tapering to its
ornate clock face where …
on. That clock. The big hand is on the 10, the little hand
near the 6.
reads 5:50, several hours off from the light-emitting
diode numbers on your wrist. Come back a few hours later,
and nothing has changed. It is still 5:50 at the Fox. It
is always 5:50, for the clock hands remain riveted in
place — accurate twice a day, as the old joke goes, but
rendered hopelessly behind at all other times.
perhaps too easy, to impart deep meaning about Bakersfield’s
civic soul from the clock tower’s defiance of the
immutable laws of physics. You can be all dismissive and
call it a town stuck in time, amberized like an insect.
You can be as snarky as The New York Times, which once
proclaimed this San Joaquin Valley kiln a "a sleepy
Nowhereseville in which laborers … saunter around with
unironic trucker caps perched high on their heads."
can be self-satisfyingly snooty, in other words.
there is an undeniable charm to downtown Bakersfield’s
fossilized, late-1950s feel. If you want modern
conveniences — an Applebee’s and an Apple store; a
Chipotle and a Nordstrom — alight to the 150-square-mile
sprawl of the city’s outer, strip-mall-saturated
regions. Downtown Bakersfield clings to the past with
buttons and buckles, not Velcro. Sure, there’s a fancy
arena and a few chain hotels anchored on Truxton Avenue.
But on the grid, streets numbered and lettered with
straightforward humility, the past isn’t even the past,
as Faulkner wrote.
is a good thing. This is downtown Bakersfield’s charm.
It’s always 5:50 here, always 1958 (with its distinctive
late-Eisenhower, early "American Graffiti"
down 19th Street between H and M streets, the heralded
Antique Row, and you are transported to a more innocent
age, when blenders had only three speeds, when pinafore
aprons were worn by housewives for utility, not by
cross-dressers for campiness, when waxed platters of 45s
were the MP3 downloads of the day.
out the well-preserved former Weill’s Department Store
building, now housing a Western Union office, a jeweler’s,
a Farmers Insurance branch and a bridal shop. Look across
the street at the Kress Building, circa 1930, its art deco
masonry intact and gleaming. Step into the Woolworth
Building, now housing the Five and Dime Antique Mall, but
retaining the original open floor plan, black-and-white
diamond terrazzo tile flooring, rows of fluorescent lights
and ceiling fans and, most impressive, the original red,
cursive signage of the erstwhile F.W. Woolworth empire.
Venture farther in and sidle up to Woolworth’s Diner,
its red vinyl counter stools buffed to a shine and a
bow-tied, black-capped "soda jerk," pad and
pencil poised, ready to take your grilled cheese and
chocolate milkshake order.
few blocks west, near the Fox, is downtown’s other
history-steeped sentinel, The Padre Hotel. It is a hulking
1920s Spanish colonial once owned and (sort of) operated
by the irascible Milton "Spartacus" Miller,
whose battles with city code inspectors became so heated
that he installed a mock missile on the roof, pointed at
City Hall, and once unleashed a flock of turkeys in the
City Council chambers. Reopened in 2010, under new
management, the post-Miller Padre is a monument to
tasteful gentrification. The character of the original is
preserved right down to rococo wallpaper with gushing oil
derricks, cowboy hats and cattle skulls, but the interior
has been gussied up and boasts high-end eateries and bars,
one of which is adorned with a ceiling mural of Miller
bearing the inscription, "Spartacus Gladiator Against
All Forces of Oppression," above the pool table.
just a little farther afield, yet still considered
downtown, to the Kern County Museum, a loving repository
of the Greater Bakersfield area’s history. Included in
its 16-acre outdoor space are preserved homes and civic
buildings, neon signs from long-shuttered businesses,
Southern Pacific engines and cabooses, oil-drilling rigs,
pump jacks and, its latest addition — still under wraps
behind a green fence — local country crooner Merle
Haggard’s childhood home, an old boxcar that goes a long
way in explaining Merle’s rough-edged musical oeuvre.
The unveiling of Haggard’s home has yet to be
determined, said Lori Wear, curator of collections.
yes, the museum has a wing devoted to the vaunted
Bakersfield Sound, the anti-Nashville, Telecaster-driven
country subgenre that, like downtown itself, peaked in the
late ‘50s. But a visit to the museum’s "Black
Gold Exhibit" is proof enough that the real
Bakersfield Sound is the hydraulic creak and wheeze of oil
wells and bobbing pump jacks.
tribute to fossil-fuel technology is advertised to be
interactive, but perhaps that’s based on 1950s
standards. No fewer than six of the
"interactive" displays were out of order on a
recent visit, as hastily scrawled signs taped to the
dormant video screens attested. Others only offered
crackly audio from blacked-out screens, including the
introductory 10-minute film in the re-created movie
theater. The biggest disappointment: The much-praised by
Yelpers "simulated travel under the sea in a diving
bell to learn how oil is formed" exhibit was closed,
a sign with an arrow promising "More To See This
Way." Wear, by way of explanation, said the diving
bell and other repairs "are contingent upon a
donation to fund the necessary repairs."
there was more to see. All manner of heavy machinery, from
the tri-cone milled tooth rotary drill bit to channel
wrenches and biscuit cutters, were displayed, along with
vintage metal oil company signs and cans. The videos (or,
in many cases, just audios) that were functioning served
as a celebration of all things petroleum-based. A wall
featuring "Everyday Products made from Petroleum:
Imagine what life would be like without them" showed
Styrofoam cups, Hefty twist-tie garbage bags, plastic
McDonald’s "Happy Meal" toys, Tupperware
is as if the past 40 years of environmental awareness of
how landfill-bloating these non-biodegradable items can be
had not occurred. One video showing a burger in a foam
container began with a stentorian narrator right out of an
elementary-school film strip intoning, "What does
this big, juicy cheeseburger have in common with this home
under construction? Give up? Everyday, millions of people
all over America are served meals in containers made from
a special plastic substance called Styrofoam, polystyrene
thermoplastic. Although we take them for granted, foam
containers are really quite remarkable. They’ll keep
your burger piping hot and your salad crispy cold and your
nachos won’t make them sag. … This is the same as the
insulation material (used) in the housing industry."
video ended with this tagline: "In the world of
petrochemicals, good things happen when the chemistry is
showed a hard-hatted, flannel-shirted driller on a rig. He
looked dead-on into the camera and said, with G-dropping
folksiness, "We’re gonna need to drill a lot more
if our country’s gonna become more energy independent.
We’re gonna do our part. That’s a promise. Thanks for
out of the Black Gold exhibit, blinking into the
brightness of another hot, hazy Bakersfield afternoon but
nonetheless bathed in the warmth of nostalgia, you get a
hankering to keep the mood going by dining at the
Woolworth luncheonette counter. It’s only a mile or two
from the Kern County Museum and, along the way, you pass a
series of businesses and organizations you didn’t know
still existed. Such as Bakersfield Cash Registers,
"NRC Authorized Service" on 24th and Chester
streets; Josten’s "Caps, Rings Letterman’s
Jackets" on 20th; and Going Underground "Records
and 45s" on 19th.
this point, you wanted downtown Bakersfield to go all-in,
as they say, to own its 1950s vibe and pass a city
ordinance to banish the juice bar, sushi joint, Starbucks
and Pilates/barre studio from downtown to the sterile
suburbs. But the old-school mood returns once you step
into the Woolworth’s Diner. Owner Jeremy Trammell, in
white shirt and black bow tie, wipes the counter and hands
you a paper menu. The prices aren’t exactly ‘50s cheap
($8.87 for a thick turkey sandwich and iced tea), but
certainly not big-city rip-off high, either.
you stroll the aisles of "vintage" items, from
clothing to furniture to pencil sharpeners, and run into
Evelyn Merriman, 82, who manages Five and Dime Antique
Mall for her nephew, owner Mark Sheffield.
in love with this building," she said. "We got
an award about five years ago for being one of the best
art deco buildings in California. The certificate is on
the wall over there."
the three-story Woolworth’s finally closed in 1994,
Sheffield snapped it up, Merriman said, aiming to preserve
it in mint condition and give it new life as an antique
began renovation but there was absolutely nothing to be
done," she said. "It was so sound and in such
good shape. Almost everything you see is original. … I
remember as a young person working downtown having to wait
in line out in the street waiting for a stool. The best
part about the building is that Woolworth’s let us keep
the signs. Those are quite valuable, those signs."
lunchtime browser, Lauren Montana, who works at the
clock-stopping Fox Theater, said she liked the
nostalgia-tinged Woolworth’s vibe, even though, at 30,
she is far too young to have experienced it firsthand.
but I know of it," she said of the history. "The
outside of the building is like stepping back in
is one of those young professionals that cities pine to
have live downtown, and she talks up trendy local places
such as Chef’s Choice Noodle Bar and Luigi’s, and the
fine dining and bar scene at The Padre. But Montana, a
native who graduated from California State University,
Bakersfield, acknowledges that, to outsiders, Bakersfield
will never be a hip urban milieu. But she’s fine with
that you saw a T-shirt worn by a millennial with the
tagline, "Bakersfield: It’s Not That Bad," and
I mean, really, we are the armpit of California," she
said. "What I mean by that is the air quality and
temperature. … For people who aren’t so conservative,
maybe they do want to get out of here. But it’s cheap to
live and it’s all right. I like the history."
further and you’ll discover that downtown Bakersfield
isn’t even the oldest part of town. That designation
goes to Old Town Kern, a section on the east side in the
erstwhile burg of Sumner. Its collection of pool halls,
ramshackle corner markets and gunmetal-gray warehouses
makes downtown look uber-sophisticated.
Old Town Kern is home to the area’s top Basque
restaurants, Noriega Hotel (established 1893) and the
Pyrenees Cafe (motto: "Where men are men and the
sheep know it"). The latter is known for its
sourdough bread; the former for its family-style dining
with such delicacies as pickled tongue, leg of lamb stew
and oxtail stew.
were originally a hotel, but back in 1940, we added a bar
and restaurant and that handball court out in the
back," said Linda Elizalde-McCoy, whose family runs
what about that old-timey handball court, three stories
high and encased in chicken wire?
it pretty much now is a kids playpen," she said.
"We lock the door so they can’t get out. Or we use
it as the adult smoking section. Nobody plays handball
like the stopped clock at the Fox tower, the salvaged and
restored oil jacks at the Kern County Museum and even the
famous Bakersfield sign, which once arched over Union
Avenue at the entrance to downtown but now has been
re-created near Highway 99, the handball court endures
because it is just so, so Bakersfield.
Padre Hotel: 1702 18th St.; www.thepadrehotel.com
Noriega Hotel: 525 Sumner St.; www.noriegahotel.com
Diner: 1400 19th St.
and Dime Antique Mall: 1400 19th St.
County Museum: 3801 Chester Ave.; www.kcmuseum.org
Cafe: 601 Sumner St.
Theater: 2001 H St.; www.foxtheateronline.com