The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bakersfield, once the butt of jokes, is booming. So are many other inland California cities.

Panorama Park in Bakersfield, Calif., as seen at sunset on June 18. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — For this pass-through city, long a favorite target for jokes from late-night comedians, the small stuff turns out not to be small at all.

Highway 99 races through almond groves and oil fields here, then bends north toward Fresno and the flat croplands of the Central Valley. This high-speed vantage provides the blurry view of bobbing derricks, fuel storage tanks and fast-food billboards that has defined the city for Californians and tourists traveling between the sunny coast and the Sierra.

There’s a relatively new side-of-the-highway sign that now notifies drivers that maybe, just maybe, there is something more here than the freeway vista offers. It reads, “Bakersfield — Next 13 Exits,” a kind of invitation to a large and growing city once shorthand for a place to avoid.

“It tells people we’re not just a Jack in the Box,” said David Lyman, a gray-bearded PhD who runs the city’s tourism bureau. “The challenge has never been to get people to come. It’s been to get people to stay.”

Many Californians often dismiss inland cities such as Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced and other drive-through towns that seldom made the state’s tourism maps, languishing behind the allure of the coast. But there’s a transformation happening in the Central Valley. These second-tier cities, once known primarily as the core of the nation’s agricultural engine, are drawing new businesses and young people away from cosmopolitan enclaves, where the high cost of living has priced them out.

The dynamic underscores a priority of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s relatively new administration: In recent years, California’s traditional north-south rivalry has given way to an east-west divide over government policy and resources. Newsom, a Bay Area liberal, pledged during last year’s campaign to make closing that gap a priority.

Soon after taking office, Newsom (D) placed the coastal leg of the state’s proposed high-speed rail system on hold. At the same time,  he  affirmed  that the 119-mile stretch linking Bakersfield and the Central Valley city of Merced will be the first to proceed.   The   project   will  cost $20.4 billion and take at least seven years to complete.

“We can’t have two Californias,” said Lenny Mendonca, Newsom’s chief economic and business adviser, who was raised in Turlock, just up Highway 99 from here. “We have to have more housing development on the coast where the jobs are arriving, and we need more job production in parts of the state where the population is growing. And that is in the diverse, interesting east of the state that people usually fly over.”

California’s population grew 0.47 percent last year, the lowest rate in state history. But here in Bakersfield, the growth rate was more than double that, making the city of nearly 400,000 the second-fastest-growing of the state’s large metro areas. Sacramento, also far from the coast, was first.

Many of those arriving — and staying — are young people. The median age of Bakersfield residents is just over 30 years old.

The youth migration is infusing this traditionally conservative area with a new ethic — part cowboy, part craft cocktail — that is propelling a revival of downtown districts.

There always has been a country culture here, marked for decades by the “Bakersfield sound” of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, whose names adorn major avenues and landmarks. How to make the era of “Hee Haw” — the twangy variety show Owens co-hosted for nearly two decades — into something more modern is the challenge for developers.

A Lululemon yoga apparel store has opened downtown, and a vintage former bank building has been restored skillfully into a hot new restaurant of exposed brick walls and standing-room-only crowds.

But longtime landmarks such as Zombie Apocalypse Gear and beer-for-breakfast Guthrie’s Alley Cat bar remain fixtures on the urban landscape, which probably will not be too difficult to keep weird.

“Our community needs to learn to love itself,” said Jacquelyn Kitchen, a Bakersfield native and proud millennial who at age 35 was just named Bakersfield’s assistant city manager. “We’re our own toughest critic on social media and beyond.”

There are challenges to Bakersfield’s new appeal. The weather is wood-oven hot in the summer, the air quality often abysmal with oil-field pollution caught between the Sierra and coastal ranges. The place gets shaken, as it was twice recently by major earthquakes, which knocked out power in more remote parts of the county.

There is a drug problem and a homicide problem and a homelessness problem, which last year prompted usually conservative voters to approve a sales-tax increase to address them. It was revealed this month that more than 13,000 barrels of oil and water have spilled since May from a Chevron-run field outside Bakersfield.

The changes are apparent, too.

Bakersfield’s emerging frontier hipness can be seen in the Padre Hotel, a historic landmark with a red-neon sign that is the primary feature of the evening skyline in a city that has always grown out, never up.

The hotel opened in 1928, a luxury spot for the Bakersfield oilman, and has since traced the city’s uneven trajectory. Shuttered for years, the Padre reopened in 2010 as a boutique attraction after a renovation supported in part by government-backed loans. The new-Western vibe has become something of a model for the city’s rediscovery.

A pop-art design of a cowgirl looking over her shoulder, the slogan “That Dog’ll Hunt” as caption, covers the wall behind the registration desk. At happy hour, the Brimstone lobby bar is packed, the red-felt billiards table occupied for hours.

The question Rachel Parlier heard many times during her senior year at San Diego State University, where she majored in marketing, was: “Why do you want to go back to Bakersfield?”

After graduating from Ridgeview High School here, Parlier headed for the Pacific coast, usually a one-way trip for the city’s teenagers.

But she returned, to what locals call Bak-o, astonishing her college friends. At 22, she is now the digital media marketing manager for the Bakersfield Condors, a popular minor-league ice hockey affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers.

“If you’d have asked me that question my freshman year, I’m not sure how I would have answered,” Parlier said.

San Diego, along with the Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas, posted the highest inflation rates of any cities in the country during the past year. Housing prices, in particular, are driving the increases. The median home price in Bakersfield is $237,000; in San Francisco, it’s $1.2 million. Recently, a start-up began offering a bunk in a bunk bed in San Francisco for $1,200 a month.

Parlier  missed  home. The nowhere-better chicken-fried steak. Her family. What she calls the “big city, country feeling” that is Bakersfield’s signature.

“We’re growing so fast now I don’t know if we’ll keep that country feeling,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

Indeed, the Padre will soon have more competition.

Three hotels are being built across the city and three more are in the planning stage. The surge has made Bakersfield the hottest hotel construction market in California.

This in a city that, for decades, Johnny Carson ridiculed on “The Tonight Show” as the definition of provincial dullness. Carson admitted that he once bombed in a Bakersfield nightclub and never entirely forgave the city.

“We’ve always been extremely defensive when people say negative things about our community,” said Nicholas Ortiz, president of the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce. “Traditionally, inland California has been a part of California, but also apart from California.”

Ortiz, 37, was born and raised in Bakersfield, then headed — without a thought of returning — to school at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He met his future wife there, also a Bakersfield native, and the two began careers in the tech mecca of San Jose.

At the time, a little more than a decade ago, the couple was paying  $1,100  a  month for a 900-square-foot apartment. Ortiz said it was a stretch.

He visited San Jose recently. The same unit is renting for three times that amount, while he and his wife are paying less for a 2,700-square-foot home with a pool in Bakersfield. Ortiz and his wife have two children, now 6 and 7 years old, and Ortiz said that if they had remained in Silicon Valley, they probably would only now be considering starting a family.

Among other projects, Ortiz has been working with city officials on a new Bakersfield branding campaign. It will be a way to sell the city to those who still think of it as the butt of a joke.

The goal is to broaden an economy still largely reliant on the volatile agriculture and oil industries, appealing in part to a tech sector that is finding its political stock falling in many coastal communities. Bakersfield’s oil fields — and those of surrounding Kern County — account for more than half of California’s oil production.

“How much do we move toward an urban-L.A.-type model while respecting the fact that our resource-intensive economy is what we rely on?” Ortiz said. “At the same time, how do we diversify our industries to protect against downturns?”

The city’s fledgling tech industry received an enormous vote of confidence last month when Bitwise, a Fresno-based technology hub, announced plans to open a new operation in Bakersfield.

Irma Olguin Jr., 38, was born in a small town outside Fresno. She co-founded Bitwise in 2013, and it has since trained 4,000 students in coding and brought 1,000 tech jobs to Fresno. The company announced recently that it had secured $27 million in new investment, which will finance its expansion here.

“The story of Bakersfield and the problems it has faced are so similar to the ones Fresno faces,” Olguin said, adding that the “grittiness and scrappiness of the people resonates.”

“For too long young people in the Central Valley left to pursue their careers,” she said. “We want to make sure they don’t have to do that anymore.”

Young people like fun, never something Bakersfield exuded. But if the microbrew metric is any measure, the city is evolving quickly along with its population.

Temblor Brewing Co. occupies a large warehouse-style space along Buck Owens Boulevard, where the late country star’s Crystal Palace remains the city’s top tourist attraction.

Temblor is more San Francisco than Central Valley, with its stainless-steel tanks and leather couches. It hosts the Bakersfield Jazz Workshop on Tuesday nights.

“The more young people that move in, the more demand there is for better restaurants and beer and other things bigger cities have,” said Francesca Colombo, Temblor’s 31-year-old operations manager, who moved back to Bakersfield from San Francisco.

Since Temblor opened four years ago, three other local breweries have started up across the city. Colombo doesn’t mind the competition because of what it says about Bakersfield and where it is heading.

“It’s just not as boring here as it used to be,” Colombo said.