BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) —A big sigh of relief for worried parents in one of Bakersfield’s poorest neighborhoods.
For months, kids have been on their own as they crossed one of Kern’s deadliest streets to get to school. No crosswalk, no lights, no crossing guards.
The Camellias Apartments are a rent-subsidized housing community and home to more than a thousand kids. Down the street is Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School, with one of the most impoverished student bodies in Bakersfield. Between the apartment and the school is So. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, a four-lane highway with a deadly history and no way to cross it.
Kids who live in the Camellias Garden apartments are supposed to walk a quarter mile to Belle Terrace to cross over South MLK Jr. Blvd at a stop light. Then from there walk to Citadel St. where the school is located which is directly across the street from the apartments.
But very few kids do it.
Most take their chances jogging across the four-lane South MLK Jr. Boulevard, where the speed limit is 40 miles per hour but many drivers fly by at 60.
“Oh, it’s too long, too long,” Carlos Roman a homeowner on South MLK Jr. Boulevard for 17 years said. “You see the apartments are right there. Nobody wants to walk all the way there and it’s just not going to happen like that. You can see all the kids cross every time over here.”
There has been no crosswalk between the apartments and the school. No warning lights. No crossing guard.
The area is outside the city limits.
But after stories from 17 News and dozens of complaints by parents and community members, the county has prioritized construction.
It’s underway and it’s going to be more than just a crosswalk.
Instead, a four-way stop is going up at the intersection too. The stop signs will be equipped with flashing red beacons. But that’s not all, warning signs with yellow flashing beacons are going up to warn drivers of the new four-way-stop intersection too. At the intersection, streetlights are being installed to provide access to the crosswalk 24/7.
The Bakersfield City School District is even hiring a dedicated crossing guard for the safety of students.
“This is a four-lane high speed road so making an all way stop the speeds will slow down because they all will stop and providing a crossing guard will make it a lot safer for kids to be seen and cross safely,” Sal Gomez the engineering manager with Kern County Public Works said.
However, neighbors say the improvements are overdue.
“I mean they put them everyplace else especially around schools,” Willie Vickers a homeowner on Cheatham Avenue said. “I think yeah we should have had this yesterday.”
The four-way-stop intersection, lights and signs are all temporary. According to Kern County Public Works, there will be even more improvements next summer, when everything at the intersection will be replaced with traffic lights. However, some neighbors say these traffic lights are needed now.
“Intersection lights to stop cars,” Sylvia Tavera a mother of three on Cheatham Avenue said. “Seriously because cars won’t even stop at a crosswalk it’s not enough.”
The area is one of the poorest in Bakersfield. Most of the people living at the Camellias Apartments receive public housing assistance. Most are Black or Hispanic.
These apartments are owned and operated by Winn Residential. It’s been working closely with the Homeless Collaborative, the Bakersfield Homeless Shelter, and Flood Ministries. Rent for a one-bedroom is as little as $374. A four-bedroom, two bath can go for as little as $1,058.
Martin Luther King Junior Elementary opened in the Fall of 2021. It teaches about 700 kindergarten through sixth grade students with more than 93% of them on free or reduced lunch.
Hundreds of kids, some as young as 6 years old, have to get across South Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to get home.
“The children at the community over there there’s a lot of kids and they’re running and dodging traffic and all this,” Vickers said. “So it’s real dangerous for the kids coming and going to school here.”
Even though upset parents and community members voiced their concerns since the school opened last year, nothing happened.
The county said, it wasn’t able to start the crosswalk project sooner because of money concerns and said the Bakersfield City School District could fund the project if it wanted to get the job done sooner.
The school district told parents to complain to Kern County Public Works since it is a county road and to California Highway Patrol to enforce the speed.
California Highway Patrol says enforcement in the area is minimal because they don’t have enough personnel but if enough speeding reports are made they could send an officer to write tickets, but it would be limited in time and not every day.
The crosswalk is in Supervisor Leticia Perez’s district. Her office was contacted multiple times for comment about the crosswalk, but Perez did not respond for this story.
“We don’t need someone to die,” Ramona Helfer a homeowner on South MLK Jr. Boulevard said. “We don’t need a kid to get hurt, to get injured, in order for them to put a crosswalk. It needs to be done before something happens.”
Making the walk to MLK Jr. Elementary
I walked the same paths as parents and kids to get to the school. Three different times, from the quickest but most dangerous route to the slowest but safest route. All of them recorded, and timed beginning from Camellias Apartments and ending at Martin Luther King Junior Elementary.
I started with the path kids and some parents run, the quickest but also the most dangerous. From the apartments directly across the street, I then went down Mardi Gras Court, straight to the school in about four minutes.
The second path I took was the new advised route, the coming crosswalk on Cheatham Avenue In total it took seven and a half minutes to walk.
Lastly, I took the previously advised route the Bakersfield City School District told parents and kids to take. This one was the safest but longest route, crossing at East Belle Terrace. I walked directly from the apartments North to the intersection, waited for the walk signal, then went West across the street at the light until I got to Citadel Street, I crossed the street again where normally a crossing guard is stationed during school hours and arrived at the school in almost double the time of the previous routes. In total it took about 13-and-a-half minutes.
South Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd has a dark history riddled with accidents. It used to be called Cottonwood Road and a quick search of public records found a trail of tragedy going back decades.
In the last 10 years alone, there have been two separate fatal accidents right where the new crosswalk is going. One in 2013 and one in 2018, before the school was built. A cyclist was also hit at this same intersection in 2017. He survived but suffered major injuries because of reckless drivers and speeders, which neighbors say speeding is common in this area.
“Some just really speed,” Vickers said. “Like you know, life doesn’t matter. You’re in my way and I’m in a hurry, I gotta get to where I’m going. But these kids’ lives are at risk, and I mean small, tiny ones also.”
According to the county’s Geographic Information Systems data, South Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard sees thousands of vehicles every day. The speed limit for road is 40 miles per hour but neighbors say people go much faster than that.
“There’s cars that would stop and there’s others that just don’t care,” Tavera said. “They’ll bypass other cars and there’s times that they almost hit kids. You know that’s very scary for a mom that’s gonna assume my kids are going to get home safe and then to get a call one day, ‘your child has been hit by a car.'”
Some kids and parents still might not use the crosswalk, but the county is encouraging all parents in the area to get their kids to cross the street safely.
The Camellias Apartments could help by closing their back gate so kids aren’t encouraged to run across the high-speed road to get home quicker.
If you notice speeders, you can file a speeding report with the California Highway Patrol Bakersfield Division. An officer could be dispatched to enforce speed in the area during those times reported.
You can reach them by calling 661-396-6600.
We’ll continue to follow this story as new updates to the intersection happen.