From being a place for community events and familial gatherings to being abandoned, Martin Luther King Jr. Park is finally getting what one community member considered long overdue attention.
Emprezz Nontzikelelo is a Bakersfield resident who witnessed the changes in MLK Park and saw the gradual deterioration of the area.
“It never should have been allowed to get in that condition in the first place,” said Nontzikelelo. “I don’t understand; how did it get there? How did it go from being a beautiful, thriving family park to the condition that now we’re trying to rescue it from?”
She believes this happened because beyond the park and into the community that surrounds it, the City of Bakersfield and Kern County did not show interest in investing in the area.
“The city and the county, but more so the city, had not been investing in that community like it should have been. The only thing they want to do is police that community rather than serve that community,” said Nontzikelelo.
Recently, she shared that she was around the park and started crying, thinking about one of the houses near there. She told a story about a woman named Mrs. Henry who was elderly, and her house was falling apart. Nontzikelelo believed the city could have done something to help her back then, and even now, the house has become what she called an “eyesore”.
“She’s passed on now. The house is sitting there burned out. It’s a real eyesore. Now why? I stood there, and I cried,” said Nontzikelelo. “This is one of the things I have been bringing to their attention time and time again. Helping us rehab the aging homes and repaving the streets instead of patching them. They just don’t invest.”
Nontzikelelo stated that now the money is coming to the community, but they should not have had to beg for this to happen.
“We’re going to get what we’ve been begging for and being humiliated,” Nontzikelelo stated. “We should never have to beg. We should have the same investment in that area, MLK Park included, that all of the other areas in Bakersfield have.”
She continued to reminisce about what the park used to be in the past, explaining that it used to be full of barbeques and events, including one called Good Neighbor that took place every October.
“There was a stage, and families would come out, and vendors would be there. The grass was well maintained, the swimming pool was thriving, and we would go, and the children were taking lessons,” said Nontzikelelo. “I used to play tennis there with my granddaughters and baseball games. The gatherings that we would have. We came out to that park, and we had a great time.”
Nontzikelelo explained that there wasn’t the gang violence and homeless encampments that the park is known for now. She stated that it was a family environment that they knew they could use for anything they needed.
“It was a beautiful thing. I used to love to go to that park. It was well-kept, well attended by families,” said Nontzikelelo.
Now, she hopes to see the bathrooms fixed, the lawn taken care of, better lighting, the swimming pool revamped, a trail for her to walk around the park, and festivals taking place in the park again.
She mentioned a fitness program that used to take place in the park and how people who were not in the community were coming to use the program.
“They stopped the program because people from the outside said they feared for their lives. Before that program was stopped, it was something I was taking two or three buses to get to,” she stated, explaining the program. “The people were starting to come. They were in wheelchairs, they were on walkers, and they were starting to take advantage of a program being right there in the area that we lived. The people that did not live there got the program stopped. I want to see the program reinstated.”
She also expressed that any programs that come to that area also need to be affordable to those living there because it is considered a low-income area.
“That means programs should be tailored and customized for the lower socioeconomic residents that are living in this area and make it accessible. We need those programs there. I want to a wonderful family-oriented park again,” said Nontzikelelo.
While she wants more investment from the city, she also spoke to the need for those living in the community to take care of the area.
“I remember when that park was brought in, and it was more balance between the ethnicities that were living in the area. That has changed drastically. So it’s going to take an approach to gather the new residents that are there to instill, to educate about how to have a beautiful park again, a family park, and about how to share.
Speaking about community leaders, Nontzikelelo mentioned Rick Anthony, Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Bakersfield, and said she has to give him props for how instrumental he has been in the changes coming.
“Rick has a heart; he wants those changes, and he’s been able to work with the city officials and prod them to do the right thing. As we go forward with elections, we need to elect people in those wards who truly truly care, who really are going to do their job, and advocate for those services that need to be there,” said Nontzikelelo.
Anthony spoke to Kern Sol News about what is coming to MLK Park, stating that they plan to completely revamp the park. Some of the changes include:
- Community center becoming larger
- New swimming pool with a slide
- Splash pad
- Two multi-purpose courts
- Pickleball courts
He stated that within the first few months of being in his position, he heard about the disappointment the community held regarding the park.
“It’s pretty common knowledge the perception and the reputation that MLK Park has had over the years. It certainly was a place that we felt like we needed to make a priority in terms of renovating our older parks in certain areas of the city,” said Anthony.
Similar to the concerns raised by Nontzikelelo, Anthony stated the community expressed being upset that it had not been invested like other areas and patrolled on a regular basis.
“I understood the issue, and I saw it as well. So, it was something that we wanted to address. That’s one of the reasons that we brought the ranger patrol on. When we brought the rangers in, it began to kind of chip away at those issues that historically plagued MLK Park,” said Anthony.
Along with the patrolling, Anthony spoke about the outdated infrastructure in the park and stated that it is what happens when a park is not invested in for 30 to 40 years. Since the patrol started, Anthony stated that the overnight encampments and littering have decreased.
“I think it’s a huge investment for our entire city. This is something that we already know will have great benefits not for just the mental health of the community, the physical health of that community, and the ability to have additional resources,” said Anthony.
The plan for the community center, according to Anthony, includes resources such as technology, tutoring spaces, family and health resources, exercise rooms, and separate multi-purpose rooms with a kitchen. As of now, the hope is to have the park done and ready to open in 2026.
“You could imagine just the opportunity to be able to have that hub of healthy activities and social activities in that community is something that’s very significant. In my opinion, it will be a catalyst for revitalizing that entire area,” said Anthony.
According to Nontzikelelo, other benefits coming to the area include a community garden that will be starting on Rosten and MLK. The garden will have vegetables, fruit, flowers, and space for events. She plans to have the youth come out and learn how to garden. They will be giving the food to the community, and she hopes it will change disease statistics.
She stated that the food will be priced; however, it will be affordable in order to sustain the garden and continue growing the garden.
“The community can have their own spots so that they’ll take pride in growing their own food and keeping it looking beautiful. A peaceful, serene place. It’s going to be a beautiful spot.” said Nontzikelelo.