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Bakersfield, an Appreciation

The dusty burg is finally getting noticed -- as a real estate hot spot.

June 09, 2005|Dianne Klein | Dianne Klein, a former Times columnist, is writing a novel.

Just last week, an old friend from Los Angeles rang me on her cellphone. She was going maybe 80 mph on Interstate 5, blurring past the place I now call home, en route to a chic soiree in San Francisco. She wasn't stopping -- they rarely do -- but wanted to let me know she was thinking of me.

It was the sign that did it, again. "Bakersfield," it says.

Then there's the other sign the state government has posted close by. "Severe Dust," it warns.

But that's all right. According to the latest federal report documenting Bakersfield's housing price surge, I got me a piece of the hottest patch of real estate in the whole U-nited States!

People here don't really talk that way, but now that we've left even Las Vegas in our dirt, we can yank a few chains. It feels good. When I daydream, that is.

Instead of being linked to summer's suffocating heat and winter's soupy fog, to that pungent, heady aroma of dairy and oil year-round, let the rest of the nation imagine the residents of Bakersfield fanning themselves with greenbacks. I tell you, nothing can make you feel as appreciated as real estate appreciation.

Did I mention we're No. 1? Numbers released this month put us at the top of the heap as to housing price jumps, up 33.67% over the last year. (News flash: This is not Santa Monica.)

Not that I, personally, would snatch the money and run. Every day, I blithely toss into the trash entreaties from real estate agents begging me and my neighbors to make their day and their commissions.

But it was love that lured me, my husband and two daughters to this fair burg 10 years ago, and love that keeps me here today. (Although my husband recently bought a fancy shotgun. For skeet shooting, he says.)

As for the thousands of people who are snapping up tract homes, million-dollar mansions on golf courses and even dumpy office buildings with a speculative gleam in their eyes -- or maybe it's dust -- well, I don't pretend to speak for them. They do just fine on their own.

This is a city of boosters, of people who'll take that chip on their shoulders and toss it like a cow patty at anyone who dares suggest that maybe John Steinbeck called it like it was in "The Grapes of Wrath."

And only in death has old guard Bakersfield forgiven Johnny Carson, he of the occasional Bakersfield barb.

Although that one was close. A local columnist reported that a longtime resident has in her possession a 15-year-old videotape in which Carson says he was just kidding about Bakersfield after all.

But, truth be told, now that we've appreciated again, I'm left feeling a little cheap. All the newcomers aren't flocking here in the hope of glimpsing majestic mountains through the smog, or because Buck Owens has built a crystal palace. They're coming because the price is right. The median price of a house in Bakersfield is still less than half the $500,000 for California as a whole.

Never mind that the panorama on the city's Panorama Drive is a moonscape of oil derricks, or that in a survey last month by a national business journal, Bakersfield ranked sixth from the bottom in brainpower. Life here is changing. Now that we've appreciated, we've even started to talk back. We recently got our politicians to finally hire lawyers to tell Los Angeles and Fresno to take their sludge and shove it.

And Wal-Mart, so far, can't occupy its latest store because residents told them to hold on a minute there.

Life as it should be. That's Bakersfield's new civic motto. I am not making this up.

May the bubble never burst.

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