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Back Off, Bakersfield

The city's proposal to name a street for music legend Merle Haggard sets off a dust-up with the singer's hometown of Oildale, which is just plain tired of being dumped on.

April 02, 2006|Gerald Haslam | Gerald Haslam is a contributing writer for West and the author of 25 books, including "Workin' Man's Blues: Country Music in California."

BECAUSE HE STILL WRITES AND SINGS about it, Merle Haggard's past is never entirely behind him, especially in Kern County, where he was born and raised.

A few years ago, when a new Amtrak station opened in Bakersfield, some residents asked that it be named for Hag. Letters to the editor immediately bombarded the Bakersfield Californian and made it clear that his youthful indiscretions--and time in San Quentin--had not been forgiven in this self-consciously Christian county. Several of the missives suggested that the hoosegow would more appropriately be named for him.

Despite that, Don Jaeger of the Greater Bakersfield Convention & Visitors Bureau recently urged that a 500-foot section of S Street--essentially a long driveway into the train station--be named Merle Haggard Way. This awakened folks in Oildale, the unincorporated community north of Bakersfield where Haggard actually grew up. Said one resident there, "That's the pattern: Get successful and Bakersfield claims you." A group called Citizens for a New Oildale, as well as Tom Clark, the recently retired general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, formally protested. Clark, who had planned to propose recognizing Haggard in their hometown, realized that this was much ado about something: a little burg's battered pride.

In the eyes of some, Oildale itself is as much a problem as Haggard. Said a letter to the Bakersfield Californian in response to Jaeger's idea, "Haggard exemplifies the stereotypical resident of Oildale. . . . I would like the Citizens for a New Oildale to consider my suggestion to name a facility, such as the county's Lerdo Jail, for Haggard." His rare talent, for which he'd just won a lifetime achievement Grammy, was not the stereotype the writer referenced; she apparently had not gotten past "breaking and entering" 50 years ago.

Hypocrisy is alive and well in Bakersfield. The irony is that we Oildale boys know Haggard's real crime was allowing himself to get caught. Let's just say he wasn't the only kid to climb through the wrong window in those days.

WHAT MAY BE CALIFORNIA'S MOST FAMOUS boxcar sits on the back of a lot on Yosemite Drive in Oildale. More than 60 years ago the Haggard family lived there while the father, James, worked for the railroad and his younger son, Merle, joined pals to stalk the surrounding streets. Unprosperous as it was then, the neighborhood seems to have slid further downslope today, with too many adults home all day, too many decrepit cars in front of rented houses and too few diplomas anywhere. It feels absent of hope.

That's only one neighborhood in a solid, working-class community with good schools and ambitious kids, but burdened by an enduring reputation for deep poverty and accompanying crime. The odd thing is that Oildale's poverty rate is virtually the same as Kern County's and only slightly higher than Bakersfield's, but it has continued to be cast as a pit of privation. That reputation lingers because the poor in Oildale are overwhelmingly white (the code word is Okie); they threaten racial illusions in a county with plentiful black and brown destitution.

Supposed bigotry is another burden the community bears. Oildale grew early in the last century near the Kern River oilfield, a collection of company camps and small settlements--Oil Center, Standard Camp, Riverview--that coalesced. At that time, dairies and farms, the Kern River and a certain frame of mind separated it from Bakersfield. Most early residents were Southwestern males who didn't give a hoot for genteel aspirations; the new town quickly developed a reputation for roughness and racism.

During the Great Depression, the San Joaquin Valley attracted hordes seeking agricultural work, but didn't much reward them until World War II heated up the state's economy. Well into that war, along Oildale's south border, the Kern River, a large Hooverville was filled with desperate migrants. Many of the children raised there became the first in their families to finish high school and to enter the middle class. Many have climbed much higher.

Nevertheless, Oildale was to Bakersfield what Bakersfield was to Los Angeles, a convenient punch line: Blowing your nose with your fingers was an "Oildale handkerchief." A fiancee in Oildale was called "sister." And on and on and on. Those slights have left scars. Locals remain pugnacious, resisting suggestions that they allow Bakersfield--which nearly surrounds the smaller town--to annex it. (Some newcomers, though, pretend that Oildale doesn't exist; they live in "North Bakersfield," whatever that is.)

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