Bakersfield businesses blast classical music to chase away panhandlers

A mural stands tall on the side of an insurance company over downtown Bakersfield. Businesses across the city are using loud classical music to tell panhandlers to move on.
A mural stands tall on the side of an insurance company over downtown Bakersfield. Businesses across the city are using loud classical music to tell panhandlers to move on.

Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, it’s not. More like Mozart and Bach.

On the streets of Bakersfield, birthplace of the hard-driving music that made Merle and Buck country legends, a new sound has become a hit with local businesses.

Here businesses blare operatic arias and classical strings, not honky-tonk twang, from outdoor speakers to chase loiterers and panhandlers away from their storefronts.

But Bakersfield business owners say the music is making a difference, clearing the way for customers potentially driven away by the people hanging around outside.

“It’s becoming more of a city-wide thing,” Mark DeLeon, owner of Bakersfield’s Mad Dog Tattoo, who uses the tactic, said Thursday after conducting an interview with a local television station. “There are a lot more people who have contacted me who want to do it.”

Retail chains also are latching onto the idea. Drug store chain Rite Aid is testing it out at stores across California, including at some Bakersfield locations, said Rite Aid spokesman Christopher Savarese in a statement.

Classical music is played outside at least three of Rite Aid’s Bakersfield locations, the Californian reported.

“The playing of classical music is a test in certain California stores – based on customer feedback – to discourage panhandling and loitering and provide a more comfortable shopping experience for our customers,” the Rite Aid statement read.

DeLeon’s methods are more blunt, his music played for maximum effect through a 600-watt Peavey cabinet. His latest artist of choice: art-rock singer-songwriter Jarboe.

But he’s experimented with a variety of styles over the years.

Death metal by bands like Cannibal Corpse.

“They seemed to like that,” he said.

Abba? Not so much.

Then, there were the days he would play “La Macarena.” All day. On a loop.

“I played it over and over and over. Ten hours a day,” he said. “It would drive them crazy.”

DeLeon is a polymath of sorts. Professional rock musician, tattoo artist, car enthusiast; he ran for Bakersfield mayor in 2008 and again in 2016.

His Mad Dog Tattoo sits on 19th Street between an adult movie theater, a parking lot and a residency hotel he says is home to the self-medicating mentally ill, parolees, the down-and-out.

He said he’d shrugged off criticism that the loud music gambit was hostile to the homeless. DeLeon said he’d held cookouts in the same parking lot to feed the neighborhood’s street people before community pressure forced him to close the outdoor kitchens.

But the parking lot had become a hub and hangout for trouble.

“They were buying drugs, people were smoking crack, defecating, (urinating) in the doorways,” he said.

All bad for business.

For now, DeLeon said, the music – all 600 watts of it – seems to be working. That more businesses across Bakersfield are using loud music to tell panhandlers to move on speaks to a growing unease in the city, he said.

“They see (the music) as a simple way of making people feel more comfortable,” DeLeon said. “They see a tent city in Los Angeles and in Bakersfield, you’re seeing it more and more. People in Bakersfield are a little sick of it, a little tired of it. The attention this is getting it’s just hitting home with people.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.