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Modesto Made It Immortal but Now May Ban Cruising

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The noise on McHenry Avenue is deafening, a jarring blend of thrumming mufflers, roaring engines and car radios blasting rap and heavy metal. The traffic is bumper to bumper, approaching gridlock. The acrid fumes from idling engines and the smell of grease from countless fast-food restaurants mingle in a nauseating blend.

Many Modesto residents view McHenry Avenue as a street to avoid at all costs, an urban nightmare. But Rich Brown, who surveys the scene from the lofty heights of a jacked-up Nissan Hardbody truck, sees only a boulevard of unlimited possibilities.

“This could be an excellent night,” said Harris, 18, scanning the crush of cars surrounding him. “No cops and lots of chicks.”

It is 10:30 on a Friday night and Harris is participating in Modesto’s most famous activity--cruising. Cruising has been accorded near-sacred status since George Lucas set his 1973 movie “American Graffiti” in Modesto and immortalized the rites of cruising on “the strip,” a street similar to McHenry Avenue.

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Now, up to 5,000 teen-agers from all over the San Joaquin Valley descend upon McHenry Avenue on weekend nights for the mechanized mating ritual.

But cruising has become too popular in Modesto, city officials say. Responding to complaints that the pastime has become a menace, some officials are trying to ban it.

“The days are long gone when a couple hundred local guys drove up and down the street looking for girls,” Police Chief Gerald McKenzie said. “There’s too many cruisers out there now and they’re causing too much trouble.”

McKenzie is drafting an ordinance to eliminate cruising on McHenry Avenue, which he plans to present to the City Council in March.

Cruising was once considered an adolescent rite of passage, an innocent symbol of small-town life. But more than 20 California cities--including Los Angeles and Sacramento--have passed ordinances to eliminate cruising, charging that the drivers attract drug peddlers and gang activity and create massive traffic problems.

Other cities may have banned the activity, but these communities don’t have the cruising tradition of Modesto. Outlawing cruising in Modesto, car aficionados say, would be like banning the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

Modesto is a city that takes the automobile very seriously. There are dozens of car clubs in Modesto, including a Christian one--United Christian Street Rod Assn.--and a car club for car clubs, Central California Coalition for Car Clubs. Many of these groups have vowed to fight the proposed ban.

Modesto’s one claim to fame, members say, is that it’s known as the Cruising Capital of the World. Take away cruising, they say, and Modesto has no more cachet than, say, Turlock.

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“Cruising is part of our history, part of our life style here . . . they can’t just outlaw it,” said Phillip (Tiny) Stuart, a 280-pound auto mechanic and past president of the Modesto Area Drag Racer’s Assn. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to fight it.”

But those supporting the ban--mainly merchants and residents of the McHenry Avenue area--say cruising is ruining their neighborhood. On Friday and Saturday nights, business drops at motels and family restaurants on McHenry by up to 30%. There have been incidents of gang violence and drug sales, and last year there was a shooting death after a fight. Residents say the cruisers keep them awake at night and vandalize their property. Some said they wished George Lucas had picked another locale for his movie.

“American Graffiti” was set in 1962, and the movie celebrated the optimism and innocence of a generation on the cusp of a forbidding new era. Modesto was a small valley town of about 30,000 in the early 1960s, a town where everyone seemed to know each other and, as depicted in the movie, the only stranger was a young farmer in a souped-up ’55 Chevy looking for a race. Today Modesto is a fast-growing city of 160,000 that has attracted commuters from all over Northern California because of the moderate housing prices.

And now, because so many nearby cities have banned cruising, and because of Modesto’s reputation, many of the teen-agers on McHenry Avenue don’t even live in Modesto, Mayor Carol Whiteside said.

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“Modesto will always be identified with cruising. . . . You can’t change that any more than you can change where Lincoln was born,” Whiteside said. “But people have to realize things have changed. It’s not the small-town, innocent atmosphere any more that you saw in ‘American Graffiti.’ ”

When George Lucas was a teen-ager in Modesto, the place to cruise was on 10th street--called “draggin’ 10th” at the time. But in the late 1960s, the route moved uptown to McHenry Avenue, a road designed in slavish obeisance to the automobile. Lined with fast-food restaurants with drive-in windows, motels and used car lots, McHenry has none of the character of “the strip,” the popular downtown cruising spot in the movie. (Although set in Modesto, most of the movie was filmed in Petaluma in Marin County.)

Today, almost three decades after the “American Graffiti” era, you still need the right car to make an impact. But instead of a “Mystery Motor” Chevy 409, the “radical ride” now is a Nissan or Toyota truck jacked up so high it looks like a rolling outhouse. And “the system"--a high-tech stereo with a booming bass and at least four 12-inch speakers--is as important as the car.

The majority of those on McHenry Avenue are traditionalists who still follow cruising etiquette that has remained unchanged since the 1950s. The guys generally still make the first move, and the girls still play coy.

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“If the guys like you they’ll, like, flash their brights and pull up right next to you,” explained Arlene Wells, 17, a high school student from nearby Manteca, taking a cruising break with her two friends at the Jack-in-the-Box. “If he’s, like, ugly, you don’t look over at him. But if you like him you’ll kind of smile, and then he’ll stick his head out the window and ask you to pull over.”

But not everyone respects cruising etiquette these days. On a recent weekend night in Long’s Drug Store parking lot, one of two “turnaround” spots on McHenry Avenue, a few guys from Modesto High School were standing beside their cars comparing stereo systems when two girls in a blue Mustang slowed down and lifted their blouses for a few seconds.

The boys stood there for a moment in silence, stunned. By the time they regained their composure, the girls in the blue Mustang had burned rubber and disappeared into the night.

Cruising began in rural areas when young men from farms drove into town for the evening, said Pat Ganahl, former editor of Hot Rod Magazine.

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“There usually wasn’t much happening in these towns, so they’d just drive around in their cars,” Ganahl said. “Because the towns usually only had one main drag, they’d end up driving down one end and back the other. Pretty soon the girls on the farm started borrowing daddy’s car and heading for the main drag, too.”

In the 1950s, Southern California contributed hod rods and custom cars to the cruising phenomenon, Ganahl said. Originally the hot rodders rebuilt their cars strictly for speed and spent all their time racing each other. But as cruising grew in popularity in Southern California, the hot rodders began designing their cars for appearance.

“You can cruise in any car, but the nicer, the shinier, the flashier car you have, the more attention you’re going to get,” said Ganahl, now editor of Rod and Custom Magazine. “It had a lot to do with creating the whole custom car movement in Southern California.”

Modesto is proposing an ordinance prohibiting cars from passing the same spot in the road more than once every four hours. Similar ordinances are enforced on Hollywood and Sunset boulevards and along the street that is a legendary among Southern California cruisers--Whittier Boulevard.

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Modesto car club members say the city has only itself to blame for the popularity of cruising on McHenry Avenue. After the popularity of “American Graffiti,” merchants began promoting Graffiti Night, held every year on the first Saturday night after high school graduation. The event, a nostalgic celebration of 1960s-style cruising and antique cars, became so popular there now is a Graffiti Week, which would not be affected by the proposed cruising ban.

The Chamber of Commerce sponsors a downtown festival, and there is a classic car show, concerts and dances featuring 1950s and ‘60s music, cruising contests and, in what seems like an anomalous event to attract upwardly mobile cruisers, a golf tournament.

Doug Stark, a member of the Faros Car Club in the 1960s (known in the Lucas movie as the Pharaohs), said Modesto wants to capitalize on cruising one week a year to bring in revenue, but eliminate it during the other 51 weeks and “deprive kids around here of something to do.”

“There’s a lot worse things for kids to do than cruise up and down McHenry Avenue,” said Stark, who manages a tire store. “Cruising doesn’t cause drugs and gangs . . . they’re everywhere these days, and you’re going to have them whether there’s cruising or not.”

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Stark recently rebuilt a 1953 Chevy that he intends to show off on the next Graffiti Night. He hopes that the City Council does not ban weekend cruising because, in two years, when his son turns 16, he plans to turn the car over to him.

Stark wants his son to have the opportunity to cruise Modesto like he and his fellow Faros used to do in the ‘60s. But he doesn’t want him exposed to another activity the Faros were famous for--drag-racing.

So Stark plans to replace the 600-horsepower racing engine now in the car with a modest engine from a Chevrolet sedan.


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