BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — They’re only a block apart, but 18th and 19th streets, east of Bakersfield’s Chester Avenue, are increasingly worlds apart. But now the city is trying to do something about the disparity. The city of Bakersfield will dedicate an initial outlay of $1 million to improve downtown streets, and council members have decided 19th Street, between L and N is the place they want to start.

That’s because the two-block stretch of empty storefronts, pawn shops, tattoo parlors, fire damaged low income apartments and the infamous Cinema 19 adult movie theater is very much in need of a reboot. Ward 2 Councilman Andrae Gonzales says these two blocks will be getting new trees, better street lighting and sidewalk and curb repairs.

“We wanted to work on the most challenged blocks in downtown Bakersfield,” he said. “In my opinion, these two blocks on 19th Street between L and N streets are the most challenged areas. And so this is where the work begins.”

Gonzales would like to see 19th street return to its former bustling glory, when these storefronts did brisk business and what was then the Virginia Theater, owned by one of Gonzales’s long-ago city council predecessors – showed more wholesome entertainment. To restore that lost energy, people must be encouraged to get out of their cars and explore.

“We want downtown Bakersfield to become more walkable, more bicycle friendly, more skateboard friendly,” he said, just as two skateboarders clackety-clacked past him on the sidewalk. “We want opportunities for people to be more active in the downtown area. Right? To get out of their vehicle, to walk throughout the downtown core.”

Gonzales would like that part of 19th, with the help of City Council-approved general fund money –  to look more like that booming success story one block south – 18th Street, or as many call it now, Eastchester. Offbeat and unique restaurants, bars and art studios seem to pop up weekly. 

Johnny Ramos, who runs Modern GiGi, an art gallery, says he hates to see 18th Street’s old Chinatown identity fade – but he  acknowledges its profound transformation.

“I feel like it’s the Melrose of here in town,” he said. “And we’re hoping it goes that way. As soon as Cafe Smitten popped up, then the condos popped up right across the street, now those are popping up –  yeah it’s definitely coming up again.”

Antiques dealer Chris Vanderlei, who’s across 18th from Ramos and right next door to the popular Cafe Smitten, has been on 18th Street since before 18th Street was cool. Everyone wants in on the action now, he says.

“On a regular basis there’s people here looking for a place to rent up and down 18th Street,” he said. “‘Is there anything available?’ And I think it’s spilling over into 19th Street.”

Eight weeks new to the area is 18th Street Bar and Grill, in the previous home of Goose Loonies and the historic Far East Cafe before that. Coming soon – new tenants in the space previously occupied by the late, great restaurant Dot and Ott. And sometime this summer The Cue, market rate housing that could match the success of 17th Place Townhomes, three blocks west. There’s actually pedestrians on the 18th Street sidewalk – unthinkable here a decade ago.

Can 19th Street, a block over, catch some of this magic? Probably not exactly the same kind of magic but almost anything would be an improvement.

Seventy years ago, Bakersfield City Councilman Manuel Carnakis owned the theater we now know as Cinema 19. Seventy years later, Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales is trying to change the look of 19th Street.