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By Robert Price
A New York Times reporter came to town last month and invited me to coffee. She was writing about our quaint little corner of California and wanted my read on our collective cultural makeup.
I told her the same thing I told a writer from The New York Times Sunday Magazine over coffee just a year or so before: "Still hardscrable on the fringes, but at least now kinda proud of it."
Two profiles by the Grey Lady in little more than a year? And semi-complimentary portrayals to boot? Why does NYC care about Bakersfield so much all of a sudden, anyway? Could it be that hardscarbble is now cool, and nobody does hardscrabble better than Bakersfield?
Bakersfield is everywhere these days. In music, most obviously. When Mick Jagger sang in 1978 about driving through Bakersfield early one Sunday morning, it wasn't because he thought the city was cool, it was because Gram Parsons had been his friend and Gram Parsons thought Bakersfield was cool. But today we're legit, cool in our own right.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville held over its 19-month exhibit on the Bakersfield Sound for another year, presumably because of its immense popularity, Vince Gill's lastest album of songs, called Bakersfield, was apparently such a hit he added some songs to the play list and reissued it. And we've seen a half-dozen books on Bakersfield's country-music legacy hit shelves in the past year, including Buck Owens' postmortal autobiography. At least one more book is coming soon.
But Bakersfield is showing up in some other interesting contexts, most of them positive. An upscale, three-restaurant chain called Bakersfield has just announced plans for a fourth restaurant in Charlotte, N.C., to open this summer (joining Indianapolis, Columbus, Ohio, and Cincinatti, where the chain is based) and there's a fifth, unrelated, hoity-toity restaurant called Bakersfield in the Chicago suburb of Westmont, Ill. Might either consider a franchise in this city? If the owners have kept track of our skyrocketing cool quotient they will. But would either restaurant, fine as they are, automatically be the best thing in town? Not necessarily. Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times consistently raves about local cuisine on his occasional forays north of the Cultural Desolation Line, so the bar has been set pretty high.
This city is making strides in more concrete ways, too. The last U.S. Census revealed that Bakersfield had moved into the top 10 in terms of population ranking among California cities, at No. 9. Anaheim and Santa Ana, bumped to 10 and 11, were somewhat peeved. Their mayors had only recently started participating in the League of Cities' committee of the state's 10 largest cities, known as the Big 10. I doubt Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall cares whether he has a place at the table or not, though. When your city is as cool as his, you have better things to do anyway.
Sometime in the next 20 years we're likely to move past Fresno, the state's fifth-largest city. Taken with the fact that the San Joaquin Valley is the state's fastest growing region, that's more potential influence. And more potential cool.
But it's hardly assured. Bakersfield entered the national consciousness as a hick town 50 yeara go, thanks to Johnny Carson, and some upstart talk show host could send us back to Loserville tomorrow. And too much growth could actually detract from our charm. If Bakersfield gets too big and sophisticated (a difficult concept to grasp, I know) could it lose some of its positive vibe?
For now, though, it's all good. Hardscrabble Bakersfield might now be in the midst of its golen age of cool. Hop on the bandwagon quickly because we can't be sure how long the ride will last.