`Shake 'N' Bake' Or Desert Paradise?

The week I moved to Bakersfield, Calif., late last year, the police charged Daniel Czubko with stalking and raping his ex-wife. When apprehended, Czubko was wearing a wig, a hot-pink skirt and matching jacket, a white ruffled blouse, and pantyhose in which he had stashed a .32-caliber revolver.

Asked if she was surprised about her former husband's cross-dressing, the complainant said: "I should have guessed; his favorite movie was Mrs. Doubtfire."

In the newspaper business, that's what we call a story. Bakersfield, a funky, misunderstood place, has a zillion of them. I moved here to become one of the editors of The Bakersfield Californian, a daily. When I read about Czubko, whose case is still pending, I knew I had landed in an unusual place.

There's something every week. The next headline grabber was about an immigrant Taiwanese farmer prosecuted for running over three kangaroo rats that happened to be members of an endangered species, while tilling a field. Now, weird news is good news for me, but my neighbors must get a little weary of reading, as they did in June, that not only did we have an outbreak of bubonic plague--kangaroo rats aren't suspected carriers--we're also headed for a bumper year of encephalitis. And wait till they read the story we're working on about an HIV-positive lesbian activist who was once a Playmate of the Month.

While Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County are something of a journalist's paradise, one is tempted to ask why anyone else would live in Bakersfield, let alone move here, as did 22,400 souls last year. Companies such as State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. are opening major offices here because of a conservative business climate that has kept wages low. There's plenty of land, housing is cheap, and Los Angeles is close enough--111 miles--that 6,000 residents commute there daily. In short, Bakersfield is becoming one of America's new breed of "edge cities"--satellite communities that have found thriving niches on the outer rims of metro areas.

BLAZING? The success of this city of 213,000 comes in spite of its reputation, developed and spread by those who have traveled through here bound for either Los Angeles or San Francisco, as a blazing hellhole that stinks of oil and is renowned only for its world-class rednecks.

They're right about some of the specifics, dead wrong on the stereotypes. Bakersfield did report 46 days last year of 100-degree heat or worse. And the air near the Texaco Inc. refinery out on Rosedale Highway does get a bit ripe at times. Sure, there are plenty of pickups with gun racks. Country legend Buck Owens is probably our most famous citizen, and Merle Haggard our most famous ex-citizen.

It's not just oil, heat, and El Caminos that shape Bakersfield's reputation. Old Shake 'n' Bake, as some of us call the place, sits 40 miles east of the San Andreas Fault. The Californian runs a weekly Seismo-Watch to show how many noticeable and unnoticeable quakes occur.

In the winter, there's also the pea-soup fog. Highway pileups abound. And some folks gripe about valley fever, a local ailment that can rot your bones if you're unlucky enough to breathe in the primeval spores tossed up by wind or bulldozers working virgin land. Jurassic Park meets Outbreak. In fact, some of the landscapes around here are so otherworldly they've been used in everything from Jurassic Park to the upcoming megabuck Kevin Costner epic Waterworld.

Frankly, I don't get all the negatives one hears about Bakersfield. Call me crazy, but I find it a pretty nice place to live--and not just because the news gets a little wacky.

My only fear is that people are beginning to figure out that the stereotypes don't apply. Kern County's population of 637,500 is expected to double in 15 years. No wonder. The median housing price is $85,000, cheapest in the state and less than half that of Los Angeles. I rent a new three-bedroom, air-conditioned house with pool, spa, and, jacuzzi for $1,200 a month, including pool maintenance and gardener.

JOADS? I can hear the chorus starting now: It might be a great deal, but you're still in Bakersfield. So let's address this perception of being in a backwater. Telling people that we're the country's 88th-largest city somehow doesn't seem to help. Nor does history. The Weed Patch camp that John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath is just up the road. Folks still think half the people here are relatives of the Joads. Not so. Many Okies moved on as the war economy of the 1940s opened up factory jobs closer to Los Angeles; others became wealthy on the oil fields. Steinbeck's settlement is called the Sunset Labor Camp now. Its farm workers tend to come from Texas, not Oklahoma, and they're likely to be Hispanics driving shiny new pickups.

Hick image aside, I've found that people here are plugged in. "I follow foreign affairs all the time," says Jack Pandol, "I have to." He's president of Pandol Brothers, which sold $125 million worth of grapes, oranges, and apples last year, including substantial amounts to Japan, China, and other countries involved in trade disputes with the Clinton Administration.

You might not know there's a trade ban on Iranian pistachios, but people in Kern County do, since it's the home of the No.1 pistachio processor in the world, Paramount Farms. If Clinton bends to pressure and lifts the ban, livelihoods here will be affected. Kern County also produces the best cotton in the world. Japan is the biggest buyer. Chump change for the Japanese, but cotton was worth $312 million to local growers last year. Oh, and about that refinery: Kern County produces more oil than any other county in the country.

In your neighborhood, the arrival of a movie crew might cause folks to pause and gawk. People around here have gotten kind of blase about such spectacles. They "seem to appreciate them being here without going goo-goo," says Janet Wheeler, a location specialist. With mountains on three sides (the Sierra Nevadas, the Tehachapis, and the, uh, Temblors), a couple of deserts, and the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley to pick from, location scouts have selected Kern County since the days of John Wayne's early westerns. Remember the scene where Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis drive their T-bird off the cliff at the end of Thelma and Louise? Kern County.

Actually, people here do have kind of a thing about vehicular violence--but it's good, wholesome violence. We saw a beaut of an accident when I took my 8-year-old son, Alex, to a nationally televised Super Trucks race at the Mesa Marin track last month. Alex' favorite part was when the in-your-face winner purposely spun his pickup around at the last minute and came across the finish line backwards. Indy 500 legend Rick Mears grew up here.

That figures. We're a fast town--four raceways plus, on the eastern edge of the county, Edwards Air Force Base, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier and, to this day, sometimes takes up a new plane for an unofficial spin. We don't watch the traffic lights change; we watch the Shuttles land when Florida is rained out.

DRY HEAT. So let's see, we've got a good tax base and a great business climate. We're one of the safest cities in the country. We've got Buck Owens' country music giant KUZZ-FM. You want symphony? We got symphony. We have glamorous visitors from Hollywood, lots of rodeos, terrain ideal for everything from hang gliding to white-water rafting, perfect springs and falls with wildflowers everywhere, and gorgeous sunsets.

We do have the vagaries of nature to deal with. But when it's 105F, it's dry heat. That deal with the bubonic plague is well in hand. We get little blips in Mr. Richter's scale, but we haven't had a bad quake since 1952. And what's a little oil in the wind? Ever been to New Jersey?

No, what really worries me is a plan for a high-speed rail link to Los Angeles by the end of the century. With L.A. just 40 minutes away, that would seal our fate as a bedroom community. Sounds like paradise lost.

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