I went to the Hen’s Roost downtown farmers market recently and met a local author who wrote a darling children’s book called “Simone and Ruby Lou (How to) Make Pizza.” I ate Hen’s Roost Thai fries, which might be my favorite guilty pleasure. I watched residents play pickleball in the parking lot. I shook hands with the Baker’s Outpost owner and came away with the most delicious blueberry muffin I’ve had since, well, maybe forever.
I strolled by Front Porch Music on the way out and saw a group with guitars playing twangy country music outside on the sidewalk.
I immediately thought of the judge I used to work for in Los Angeles, back in my law clerk days, who was enthralled with the fact that I came from Bakersfield. He mentioned it constantly. He loved that my hometown was the birthplace of the Bakersfield Sound. He often blared Buck Owens and Merle Haggard from his chambers for all of his clerks to hear. He said I gained grit and good work ethic since I was Bakersfield born-and-bred. He liked me. He taught me to stand up a little taller and speak with pride when I describe where I am from.
Sometimes it takes a little outside perspective to help us realize the raw cool-factor this place possesses. And now that I’m back, I see it everywhere.
Big cities in the U.S. are more homogenized than ever as lifestyle trends reach across the country quickly. People are looking for authentic experiences that can more easily be found in smaller cities. Perhaps it’s because the more one city starts to look and feel just like every other city, the less reason there is to visit.
Bakersfield does not look or function like any other city in California, and we should celebrate that. In Bakersfield, you can (still) belly up to the Wool Growers bar and enjoy a Picon Punch with a Basque sheepherder.
When the inland Texas capitol launched their “Keep Austin Weird” campaign 18 years ago, they knew what they were doing, capitalizing on the city’s authenticity — the ways in which Austin is different from every other place.
Heather Laganelli, owner of Locale Farm to Table Eatery and all-around inspiringly passionate foodie, recently commented to me: “I’m here because of the people. This place is filled with some of the nicest, most genuine humans I’ve ever known. It’s a big small town, and nowhere else I’ve lived feels quite like it.” Heather touched on part of the identity that makes us unique: the people. That’s a big part of why residents enjoy living here. The relational ties in our city are strong, but I also spoke with Heather about the fact that we don’t celebrate enough the physical environment — natural and man-made — and the history and culture that make us unique.
Cities with a strong sense of place are more successful, and property values are higher.
Countless surveys have looked into what makes a city appealing to residents, visitors and businesses. Cities are often ranked based on sustainability, innovation and efficiency, but Edward T. McMahon, a leading authority on sustainable development, explores the importance of community character, and why it’s one of the key elements to a city’s economic success. McMahon says that what’s most important to economic sustainability is community distinctiveness, a city's sense of place.
"A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provide meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one city or town different from another, but sense of place is also what makes our physical surroundings worth caring about,” McMahon explains.
If you think of Beverly Hills, you picture grand homes and palm-tree lined streets; San Francisco has the Golden Gate bridge and row houses; Palm Springs claims mid-century architecture and desert landscapes; Nashville has country music; New Orleans has creole culture and Mardi Gras; Morro Bay has Morro Rock; Big Sur has sea-edge cliffs.
McMahon argues that planners need to concentrate less time focused on facts and figures and more attention on defining and developing the distinct characteristics and quirks that make a city its own. Joseph Cortright, a leading economic development authority, says that "the unique characteristics of place may be the only truly defensible source of competitive advantage for communities."
Getting people to visit is one part of the equation, and getting new residents to move here (whether they’ve called this place home in the past or not) is another.
A recent article by Richard Florida in The Atlantic about residents returning to Rust Belt cities explains: “While most research on migration stresses the role of two key factors — economic opportunity and family — our interviews emphasize the role of place itself. While the decision to return home is an emotionally charged one that often invokes economic opportunity or family — either individually or in combination — it is powerfully shaped by the qualities of home itself.” This is called “place character,” the deep, authentic character of a city or region.
This place character does not have to be landscape-related. Paris, France, is an example of a place with human-created character, and no real natural beauty. Paris isn’t beautiful because of the mountains, oceans, or landscape views. It’s attractive because of the buildings and boulevards, the art and culture. It’s a city’s city. On paper, the land Paris now claims has nothing going for it, but people had visions to create a great city.
I’d argue we have a lot going for us that even Paris doesn’t have. We’re in a thriving, fertile valley close to scenic hiking trails, mountains, rivers and more. We’ve got unique food, culture and a music history like few others. Let’s carry on the legacy started by our city’s founders, the pioneers with a vision to turn this swampland into a thriving city.
What Bakersfield lacks is not a distinct sense of place. We often lack the vision to market our place character well. We need to spend more time focusing on the values, customs, characteristics and quirks that make this place worth caring about.