From Bakersfield, You Can See Forever

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

From Yosemite Valley to the Golden Gate, California boasts extraordinary vistas. But if you’re looking for the state’s most thought-provoking view, skip the beaches and mountains, and head for Bakersfield’s Panorama Park.

When you walk through this narrow neighborhood park atop the Panorama Bluffs on Bakersfield’s northern edge, you don’t actually see everything. It only seems like you can. 

When you take in this panoramic view of northern Kern Country, you are not just looking out upon our nation’s greatest valley. You’re also witnessing how California’s past and present might converge to create a different future. 

The view also provides undeniable evidence that in California, you really can defy the laws of chemistry: oil and water do mix here, and all too well.

The water appears first. The Kern River meanders below the park’s bluffs, amidst willows, cottonwoods and sycamores. This pastoral river can feel like an oasis amidst the larger, drier landscape. But it’s also a portal into the past. 

The landscape you see from Panorama Park used to be one of California’s wetter places, with rivers and lakes. In heavy rains or heavy snowmelt in the Sierras, the middle of California would become an inland sea.

But in the 19th century, farmers began taming those volatile river and lake waters, eventually creating today’s drier landscape. Dams and canals went in. From Panorama Park, you can see two of the first: Beardsley Canal and Carrier Canal. Water supplying the Carrier Canal also feeds the Kern Island Canal—Bakersfield once had so much water around it that its name was Kern Island. 

Bakersfield is still an island—perhaps California’s largest isle—in politics and culture. It’s a redoubt of reactionary Republicanism in a blue state, and an oil economy surrounded by the more agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

The vista from Panorama Park demonstrates this. Beyond the river, oil fields stretch north, further than your eye can see. The stretches of oil derricks, like the trees in Sequoia National Park, are too big to fit the human field of vision, or to be easily photographed.

Kern River Oil Field turned California into America’s leading oil producer in the early 20th century. It brought people from around the world, to work and live here. From Panorama Park you can see Oildale, where Merle Haggard grew up in a box car, and wrote a song about it:

The oil tanker train from down on the river

In Southern Pacific and Santa Fe names

Would rumble and rattle the old boxcar we lived in

And I was a kid then and I loved that old train

Haggard popularized the brand of country music known as the Bakersfield Sound. You can visit his family boxcar at the Kern County Museum. Poor people, successors to the Haggards, still live out there, and still pay too much for sub-standard housing.

The Kern River Oil Field has produced two billion barrels and counting. But its output has fallen dramatically since 1985; production was propped up by pushing steam into the wells to draw out the remaining sticky oil. This is a costly practice, both economically and environmentally, and support for the oil business is not bottomless, even here. A court recently ordered Kern County to halt new oil permits. From Panorama Park, you’re looking at an industry in decline.

Bakersfield is changing in other ways, too. If you stand in the park and turn away from vista, you’ll see Alta Vista-La Cresta, one of the city’s older neighborhoods. The Alta Vista tract was first designed by Donald McClaren, son of John McClaren, who put together Golden Gate Park. Once a distinguished place, it has been fading ever since Bakersfield expanded west of Highway 99, and richer people bought houses in Seven Oaks.

The Panorama Vista—specifically, the area between the bluffs and the oil fields to the north—has been the focus of restoration efforts for a quarter-century. It’s been called the Panorama Vista Preserve since 2004, and visitors there enjoy trails and a native plant nursery. 

It’s not hard to imagine the preserve growing larger as California fights climate change and turns against oil. In the 50 years, the oil fields might be replaced by park space, solar energy farms, or new homes. And since water is a more precious commodity than oil, some might want to again fill this land with it. Will dams be removed? Will the vista become wetter again?

The view from Bakersfield really makes you think.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. 

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