Monday, May 31, 2010

'Steam' Building Over California High Speed Rail Route

No doubt, California’s high speed rail project is a hot topic. There’s a lot to love and hate with this project. Earlier this year, I wrote an opinion article in The Bakersfield Californian about Bakersfield competing for a test track and heavy maintenance facility. (“High-speed rail prize awaits the valley community that has its act together,” by John Hardisty)

In the Sunday, May 30, edition, Californian reporter Steve Mayer wrote about the controversy swirling around proposed high speed rail routes. In his story, the routes through Bakersfield were delineated with “blue” and “red” lines, but both basically follow an existing railroad alignment.

The plan is for the route to enter Bakersfield from the northwest, stop at a downtown terminal and exit to the east on the way to the Antelope Valley and beyond to Southern California.

Because of the speed, both routes deviate a bit – in a sweeping curve – from the existing railroad alignment. Likely historic homes and buildings are in its path, causing controversy in the city. But Bakersfield is not alone in raising concerns about the path high speed rail will take. Farmers up and down the San Joaquin Valley are expressing concerns. Battles have broken out in the Bay Area and Southern California.

Bringing a high speed rail line through Bakersfield will be disruptive, as well as beneficial. Issues of safety and noise will need to be addressed for either the blue or red lines. Rather than deciding that the exact alignment will be where the preliminary study lines have been drawn, the design engineers and environmental reviewers should be refining a route that would least impact the community.

Wherever possible, they need to avoid schools, hospitals, homes, businesses and churches.

In the end, perhaps the alignment can follow some of the blue and some of the red route noted in The Bakersfield Californian’s story. As they get down to the details of design, you can bet they won’t follow any proposed route 100 percent.

Although this project has been in the works for more than a decade, it has been more "theory" than "fact." Voters approving a nearly $10 billion bond measure in 2008 and then the Obama administration recently pitching in another $2.6 billion (thereabouts) has moved the project into the "possible" category. That means people are now bickering over the details, like where the tracks will go. If you think getting a freeway alignment adopted is tough, you ain't seen nothing yet. This could be a bigger battle.

John Hardisty (Jack) retired as the Bakersfield city development services director in 2004. He is now a court mediator and planning consultant. His comments appear on The Bakersfield Californian Website and on his Planning Beat blog.

Blood donations made at Houchin in Bakersfield, Calif., may end up on Iraq, Afghanistan battlefield

Houchin Blood Bank / John Harte

Writing in today’s Bakersfield Californian, Maureen Buscher-Dang reveals that people who donate blood at their local community blood banks may be helping U.S. soldiers on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As an example, she notes that during the past 18 months, Houchin Community Blood Bank in Bakersfield, Calif., has sent six shipments – each containing 15 units of blood products – to the Armed Services Blood Bank Center in Tacoma, Wash.

The center’s primary mission is to support the nation’s military operations, explained Victor Shermer, the center’s donor recruiter and public affairs officer. Shermer also is a retired Army major.

Shermer told Buscher-Dang that within a week of being drawn from a donor in Bakersfield, or someplace else in the United States, a unit of blood may be helping a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The Armed Services Blood Program relies primarily on military personnel, military families, federal employees and participants in universities’ reserve officer training corps for blood donations. But like with their civilian counterparts, sometimes there is a special need for a rare blood type and inventories run low. The Armed Services Blood Program then sends out a call to purchase units from civilian centers, such as Houchin.

“December and January are the worse months of the year,” explained Shermer. “Soldiers go home on leave. They are not available to donate. When we do not have enough to meet our quota, we purchase it.”

Maureen Buscher-Dang is a Bakersfield public relations consultant, who represents Houchin Community Blood Bank. She is passionate about donating blood and supporting our troops. Until his recent retirement, her husband, Alex Dang, was a member of the Army Reserves and completed a tour of duty in Iraq.

About the author: John Hardisty (Jack) retired as the Bakersfield city development services director in 2004. John Hardisty of Bakersfield is now a court mediator and planning consultant. His wife, Dianne, is an associate in his firm South Valley Solutions. They also write together. Dianne Hardisty posts many of their stories on her Examiner page.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bakersfield Offers California White Water Rafting Experience on the Kern River

Late season storms in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and a thick blanket of snow have white water rafting operators on the Kern River, in Central California, celebrating.

Water on the Kern River is at its highest level in years, said Darron Nilsson, operator of River's End Rafting & Adventure Co. in Bakersfield, Calif. Nilsson predicts rafting on the river will continue through Labor Day.

In recent, drought-plagued years, rafting operators were lucky to squeeze a July season out of the Kern River. But with the snow pack this year at 143 percent of normal, the river is raging. Last year’s snow pack was only 34 percent.

Most tourists think about heading into the Kern Canyon, more than a 30-minute drive on a twisting mountain road east of Bakersfield, to raft the Kern River.

But Nilsson’s company, which is located at the mouth of the canyon, in metropolitan Bakersfield, offers a quality and convenient experience for novice and experienced rafters, alike. Nilsson rates the rapids in the Rio Bravo stretch of the river he rafts as averaging Category 2 and 3.

Telephone 1-866-360-RAFT or click on the River's End Rafting website.

About the author: John Hardisty of Bakersfield retired as the city's development services director and now operates the consulting firm South Valley Solutions. John Hardisty is a once-a-year white water rafter who looks for adventure, but doesn't want to kill himself on the mighty Kern River. He discovered that River's End Rafting & Adventure Co. offers just the right balance of excitement and safety.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hunting for Bakersfield's 'historic character'

John Hardisty spent nearly 30 years guiding the city of Bakersfield, Calif., forward as its development services director. He managed the city’s Planning Department as Bakersfield grew to include about 143 square miles and serve a population of nearly 340,000 people.

During those years, his focus was on the present and the future. Now retired from the city and working as a planning consultant and court mediator, Hardisty’s focus is also on the past, as he writes an occasional column for The Bakersfield Californian .

Beginning with his May 23 feature on the turn-of-the-century home of the late Louise V. Olcese, a Bakersfield capitalist, Hardisty will write about the historic, significant and sometimes downright strange homes and buildings in Bakersfield.

Bakersfield, at the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, has a rich history rooted in oil and agriculture. It also has a hard-scrabble reputation born of the struggles of the Depression-era Okies, who flocked to the community.

Known for its brand of Country Western music and Basque food, Bakersfield can be as sophisticated as any city – and mind you, it’s California’s 11th largest – but it can also be a bit quirky.

Hardisty’s occasional column will highlight such attractions as Bakersfield’s tallest building and explain why at 12 floors it was required to obtain a variance from the city’s height limitation. He also will interview the architect of Bakersfield’s futuristic-looking triangle building and recall the 1970s battle waged to get city clearance to build the “funny looking thing.”

At the center of what was once the city of Kern (east Bakersfield) is a sprawling, formerly elegant train station. He will tour readers through the now mostly boarded up and weather-beaten structure, which is used by the railroad to house a skeleton staff and store supplies.

“To keep moving forward, it is important for every community to understand its past,” said Hardisty, explaining the focus of his column. “To attempt progress without an understanding and respect for history is like building without a foundation.”

This sensitivity to history is particularly important to Bakersfield. The city was hit in 1952 by an earthquake that destroyed much of its downtown and many of its public buildings. Some contend Bakersfield’s historic character was turned to rubble by the earthquake. But if you look closely, you will find some remnants have survived.

Hardisty’s column will take readers on a treasure hunt for Bakersfield’s historic character. The articles will be reprinted on this blog beginning with the May 23, 2010 feature about the Olcese House.

History Hunt: Olcese House Shows Bakersfield's Character

Jack Hendrix jokes that he needs a 12-step recovery program. He’s a compulsive collector.

He collects furniture, statues and pottery. He even collects old family photos of people he doesn’t know. He finds them in second-hand stores and hangs them on the walls of the old houses he collects in east Bakersfield.

On a recent warm spring morning, I sat on the porch of the “Olcese house,” one of Hendrix’s most interesting and historic East Bakersfield homes, and discussed his compulsive collecting.

Hendrix, 69, is a retired educator, who spent most of his career as a teacher and counselor at East Bakersfield High School. An Oklahoma native, who moved to Bakersfield to live with relatives in the 1950s, Hendrix remembers watching his father work with tools as he built cabinets. That inspired Hendrix to begin collecting tools and fix-it books.

To supplement his teaching salary, Hendrix started collecting fixer-upper Bakersfield homes and turning them into rentals.

“I like to work with my hands and it was a good diversion from teaching,” he explained. “In the summers, I would work in construction, doing repairs for other people. I thought, ‘Why not acquire my own property. I love old houses.’”

His interest in buying houses shifted from those built in the 1930s and 1940s to some of the city’s oldest houses -- those built at the turn of the century in east Bakersfield.

He said he spent hours talking to the late Judge Frank Noriega in an unsuccessful attempt to buy the family’s vintage home on Baker Street, which has been renovated and turned into a reception hall.

It was during those long chats that Hendrix learned about the histories and myths of the neighborhood’s other landmark buildings, and Hendrix set his sights on the Olcese house at 528 Monterey St.

Weather-beaten and in need of repair, the house was built by Louis V. Olcese for his bride in the late 1800s. The city’s register of historic buildings did not pinpoint the construction date. During the century that followed, colorful and sometimes tragic stories unfolded within it walls.

Before telling some of those early stories, I’ll skip ahead to the present. Hendrix bought the house in 1983, after it fell briefly into the hands of a real estate speculator. The speculator had given it a quick lick of paint, leased it to a preschool and then placed it up for sale again. While he worked on its restoration, Hendrix moved into the house. He lived in there for the next 18 years, before buying another fixer upper at Flower and Baker streets, where he lives today.

The Olcese house now is called Griffins Gate, a 26-bed home for men dually diagnosed as mentally ill and substance abusers, operated by Hendrix’s non-profit organization Casa de Amigos. The stately rooms have been converted to dormitories, offices and dining halls. But the exterior is restored to a condition that would surely please its original owner.

Hendrix has pieced together most of the home’s history from the stories told by Judge Noriega and neighbors. And occasionally people will walk by to take a look and share their memories.

Olcese, the son of Italian immigrants, moved to Bakersfield as a young man from Northern California. The railroad line had reached East Bakersfield. Basque shepherds were settling in the area. Fortunes were being made lending money and outfitting settlers in this emerging commercial hub.

Olcese went into the mercantile business with Beneditto Ardizzi. Hendrix was told Olcese lived in a lavish apartment above his store until he decided to marry a young opera singer. He built the house on Monterey Street as a wedding present for his bride.

In the city’s historic resources inventory, consultant Christopher Brewer describes the Olcese house as “an excellent example of vernacular architecture.” With Hendrix’s subsequent restoration, Brewer concluded it would be eligible for inclusion in a historic register or district.

Hendrix acknowledges that Olcese spared few expenses as he combined several architectural styles. The home has a vented gablet, a turret, an oval window overlooking a covered porch that is supported by round columns, boxed eaves and gables, and double-hung windows.

Shortly after Olcese’s marriage, his bride left for a European singing tour. By all accounts that Hendrix has been given, in her absence, Olcese found a young live-in maid irresistible and a baby boy was born. Olcese and his bride divorced when she returned from her tour. He sold the Monterey Street house.

Olcese’s wealth grew. He bought acres of land that he ranched. He form a bank. But in 1929, at a relatively young age, he dropped dead in San Francisco en route to visit his sister, who lived in Piedmont. An obituary published in The Modesto Bee described him as “one of the wealthiest men in Kern County.”

Two years later, a story in The Bakersfield Californian reported Olcese Kramer, a naval officer who claimed to be Olcese’s “natural son,” reached a court settlement with Olcese’s sisters and brothers to share the estate. Although settlement details were not revealed in the news story, an attorney said “the ramifications are so great” that it would take “some time until the whole affair is settled.”

Hendrix said the Olcese house passed first into the hands of a wealthy couple. The husband was a county official and the wife a physician. He said neighbors and Noriega told him about patients walking up its stairs to be seen by the doctor.

Preoccupied by both their daughter and by “appearances,” the couple borrowed against the home to pay for a lavish wedding and to buy furniture. When they could not pay their bills, Hendrix said they lost the home to foreclosure.

An investor bought it reportedly for $1,700 and gave it to his newlywed daughter and son-in-law. Over the next several decades, the childless couple lived in the home their entire marriage.

Eventually a gas lighting system was replaced by electricity. But neither air conditioning, nor heating systems were installed until the then widowed owner sold it in the late 1970s to the real estate speculator who resold it to Hendrix.

“The neighbors were shocked,” Hendrix said, explaining that they thought the woman was wealthy. They chalked up the home’s lack of maintenance, the owner’s unwillingness to install air conditioning and her habit of wearing layers of clothing during frigid winter months to her being eccentric.

In fact, the woman was living off the property she inherited from her investor-father. As she needed money, she would sell off a house or commercial building. Reportedly she was running out of money when she sold the Olcese house for just $16,000. Hendrix paid $90,000 for it when it was resold a short time later.

Hendrix credits the woman’s poverty for the home’s historic integrity. She simply did not have the money to “modernize” the structure.

“The thing I love about old houses it that everything has a story,” Hendrix said, admitting that restoring them is costly, time-consuming and just plain hard work.

His advice to others who might be tempted to buy and restore a turn-of-the-century home: “Do it only if you can do most of the work yourself. And do it for love, not to make money.”

This article by John Hardisty (Jack) appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on May 23, 2010.