It's time for a change. Walking around downtown, you won't find skyscrapers; trolleys or the elaborate shopping districts of say San Francisco, San Diego or Los Angeles. What you will find is charm and the heart and soul of what makes Bakersfield life. From beautiful boutiques selling the latest in designer fashions to classy art galleries and emerging new restaurants, downtown is finally starting to blossom.
During the summer we saw downtown burgeoning with its First Thursdays, an all-encompassing event spearheaded by The Downtown Business Association. Centered at the corner of 19th and Eye streets, First Thursdays was downtown's kick-off to the weekend. With the option of businesses in the surrounding areas to stay open later than usual, First Thursdays' goal was to attract more foot traffic to the area. "It's essentially the same idea as the street fair, without having to close down the streets," said DBA President Cathy Butler.
While downtown is the heart of the city, Butler could easily be called the heart of downtown. Born and raised in Bakersfield, Butler has gone the extra mile of giving back to her hometown; she's determined to restore downtown's unique charm and livability. “We are on the verge of creating a beautified downtown shopping and arts district,” she says. “We just need the business owners, property owners and city officials to believe in our potential.”
With sketches of possible projects, artistic banners and blueprints scattered across tables and desks within the Association's downtown offices, Butler can tell you everything you would ever need to know about downtown and her hopes for its future.
"We have beautiful artistic banners from the Arts Council of Kern that we would like to hang from the light poles in downtown, but we don't have the proper hardware to hang them," Butler says. "Everything costs so we have to start small to create interest. Hopefully that interest grows and we can move along and begin to build and grow." Still, so much has already changed over the past 20 years.
From her fondest memories of sitting on her father's shoulders watching the annual Bakersfield Christmas parade, to her most recent meeting with downtown property owners, Butler is quite satisfied with downtown's growth.
The former Wine Seller in downtown had been shut down, and the building space showed no sign of life for quite some time, but Don Martin's mind was racing with ideas. With his eye for great style and design, Martin was quick to roll up his sleeves and turn a run-of-the-mill space into a modern art gallery on the corner of Eye and 20th streets. The road getting the gallery to where it is today was a welcome adventure for Martin, and he says he still has some tricks up his sleeve.
"The story of the gallery is really a convoluted one," Martin says. "But my decision to embark on this journey came at a time when I felt burned out from working in television. I needed something to put my creative energy into."
An art collector since his early 20s, Martin wants to share his passion with the rest of the community, especially the downtown community as it slowly creeps toward becoming an extravagant arts district.
Martin has been working to make his Metro Galleries the best modern art gallery possible by opening the space for private receptions, functions and entertainment concerts.
"I want to be the best contemporary gallery that will show only the best of California's artists," he says.
It only took him a month before the gallery's design was finalized and reconstruction of the space took off.
"I literally gutted the place," he says. "I had a vision and I went with it."
As part of his plan, Martin wanted to give the downtown art scene a new look. He says it's been his experience that people are sometimes leery of walking into a gallery because of a so-called "snooty" perception people have of art and galleries.
"I have pieces in here that start at $80 and go to $10,000," he says. "Art is for everyone. It's about the emotional charge you get from a piece and what that feeling means to you. Whether it is good or bad, art should have deep feeling."
In fact, Martin wants more than anything for you to find a piece that speaks to you. He'll even let you take a piece home for a trial period.
"Of course the customer has to leave a credit-card number behind, just as insurance," he says.
Martin says downtown is on the cusp of becoming a fantastic arts district. "Bakersfield sometimes gets a negative rep, but the people here are really trying to make it the best it can be," he says. "We're trying to create the heart of the city here in downtown."
For the longest time, the once classic movie theater The Nile was boarded up under construction. Curious eyes could peer through the cracks of the plywood shrouding the work, wondering what would become of this once treasured landmark. The wait is now over and The Nile is back.
Clarke Garl has spearheaded every change, alteration and modification of this building. For 2˝ years, he worked as fast as he could to open a premier nightclub/restaurant/entertainment venue in downtown. After acquiring the New Yorker apartment complex, Garl walked past the dilapidated building that was once The Nile Theater and thought to himself "that's an interesting building."
"I walked past the building a few times," he says. "I crossed the street and looked at it and decided I want it. I want to make something special out of this old place."
Originally from Santa Barbara, Garl says making his home in Bakersfield has been well worth it. Seeing The Nile finalized is a sight he says really makes him feel proud.
Walking into this building is a sight straight from Los Angeles' Sunset Strip. A bar stocked and piled high with every mixing concoction you can think of is enough to make you smile as you turn your bad day into a good night. Hardwood floors, smooth and freshly painted walls and flashing lights make The Nile like no other destination in town. But walking through the front door isn't as easy as it sounds.
A strict but refined dress code is enforced each night after 9 p.m. For men: slacks, khakis, classy jeans, collared shirts and dress/casual shoes are allowed. No hats, baggy clothing, sandals or tennis shoes are permitted under any circumstance.
For women, a simple dress-to-impress image is required.
"We want everyone to feel comfortable and want to come in and know they are going to be having a great time," Garl says. "The dress code also sets the bar for the downtown scene. We are a classy venue, not just another bar in downtown."
So if you are looking for the place to be and be seen, The Nile is the place.