BAKERSFIELD — Ag town, oil patch, Okieville. Folks around here like the title boomtown better.
They've got good reason. Houses are sprouting these days, as fast as cotton in the hot San Joaquin Valley sun.
And this town of humble roots, bad air and the pungent smell of dairy farms has seen its population explode as national builders have moved in to plant dozens of new subdivisions.
Over the last year alone, no large city in California has grown at a faster rate than Bakersfield, which averaged 36 new residents and 12 new houses every day.
And no metropolitan area in the nation has seen housing prices rise faster than Bakersfield, where homes sold for 34% more in the first quarter of this year than a year before.
"We've never seen anything like this in Bakersfield," said oilman Gene Voiland, 58, who arrived in 1969. "We've had little spurts. But this is unprecedented."
It may be hard to believe, but this Depression-era boomtown -- better known for country singer Buck Owens and oil-field roughnecks -- has overcome blistering summer heat and chilling winter fog to emerge as a vibrant center of California growth.
Increasingly, it's a city of good restaurants, trendy shops and the stylish new golf course communities so familiar to many Southern Californians. More than ever, it's a city of commuters to jobs in Santa Clarita and the Los Angeles Basin, a retirement destination and a real estate opportunity for investors.
Since 2000, Bakersfield has added nearly 50,000 new residents, more than every other city in California except the three largest -- Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose -- and Elk Grove near Sacramento, which expanded partly by annexing a neighboring community.
With nearly 300,000 residents, Bakersfield is now the 11th largest city in the state.
In addition, a Cal State university campus that opened in 1970 is growing steadily, and sophisticated newcomers have arrived from big cities across the nation as the oil industry has rebounded, farmers have prospered and Bakersfield has become a crossroads for goods distribution. After three decades of steady -- and now explosive -- growth, Bakersfield is no longer mentioned most often as the butt of a Johnny Carson joke.
"I remember when Bakersfield went through its last boom, when the price of oil went up in 1974," said demographic researcher Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History."
"I called it an Okie Abu Dhabi," he said. "It was a place very distinct from Los Angeles, and the notion of Bakersfield as kind of an extension of Los Angeles was unthinkable. But now it's becoming part of the L.A. solar system."
As with previous booms -- oil at the turn of the 20th century and the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s -- newcomers are moving to Bakersfield for economic opportunity.
Mostly that means affordable housing: with condos and houses selling for $220,000 in the first quarter of this year, a median price less than half that of Southern California.
But buyers are not just retirees and young families priced out of the coastal housing market. About one of every four is a speculator, quick to flip properties for a profit, according to property appraiser Gary Crabtree, who regularly surveys the market. About half of the investors are from outside the Bakersfield area, he said.
"My flip of the week," said Crabtree, "is a house that closed escrow for $431,500 in April, was put back on the market, had three bidders, and is now in escrow again for $675,000."
A sign of how quickly the market is moving, Crabtree said, is that the average sales price of a single-family home in Bakersfield was $275,237 in May, and the average list price of 910 homes on the market last week was $387,911.
A San Francisco finance research firm, Loan Performance, recently ranked Bakersfield ninth in the nation for investor loans, which made up nearly 19% of all mortgages in the city in the first four months of this year.
Bakersfield businessman Bellete Gashaw, a 40-year-old from Ethiopia, is one of those investors, having purchased two homes he intends to sell.
"When I got my first house last year, it was $139,000; now it's worth $300,000," he said, while examining model homes at an entry-level subdivision in south Bakersfield, where the lowest-price house was $260,000. He had brought along a friend, a civil engineer from Santa Clarita, who was also looking for investment opportunities.
"I'm surprised by these prices," Gashaw said. "I don't think I'm going to buy any more."
Speculation is so rampant that many Bakersfield builders now refuse to sell to investors, fearing that they will only drive prices up and take the profits. The builders require that owners occupy the homes and hold them for at least a year or pay a financial penalty.