Idled by the Law : As Cities Crack Down on Cruising, Car Culture Aficionados Find Other Outlets

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was nearly sunset on a Sunday night and Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park was jammed with ground-hugging low riders with phat chrome rims and custom imports with booming sound systems.

Young cruisers in modified mini-trucks patrolled the street, hoping to make a connection with the pretty Latinas tooling around in their daddies' cars. The ultimate goal was to impress the opposite sex by rolling in the sweetest set of wheels with the loudest stereo.

Hip-hop, rap and ranchera tunes filled the crisp night air.

The weekly parade of freshly polished machinery was in full effect. That is until two Huntington Park police cadets pulled onto the boulevard--as they do every Sunday night about 7 p.m.--to block off traffic with cones and flares and put an end to the night of cruising.

By 7:20 p.m., the boulevard was silent and nearly empty. Most of the cruisers had called it a night. But some die-hards rolled on in search of another stretch of road to cruise, free of police interference.

That has become harder to find. From Santa Ana to Pico Rivera to the San Fernando Valley, police have launched a slew of new anti-cruising efforts in recent years to put the brakes on this car-loving tradition of driving just to see and be seen.

"Nobody really cruises anymore," said Edward Eng, editor of Import Tuner, a Huntington Beach-based magazine for custom import aficionados. "The police are cracking down on cruising all over Southern California."

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In Santa Ana, South Bristol Street used to attract as many as 8,000 cars each Sunday night, blocking traffic and aggravating nearby residents. That has changed in the past three years.

"We had to take some very drastic measures," Santa Ana Sgt. Raul Luna said. "The manpower we employed was unbelievable. We even put up steel poles at intersections and put chains across the side streets."

Santa Ana police also relied on an anti-cruising ordinance that made it a misdemeanor, with an initial fine of $500, to drive down the same street in the same direction three or more times in any four-hour period.

Now, on Sunday nights, about 150 cars show up to cruise the city's main drag. Police still dispatch several patrol cars to keep the cruisers on Bristol Street in check.

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Cruising in other popular strips, like Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood and Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, also have been dramatically reduced by police efforts.

Police say the crackdowns come in response to an influx of gang violence at cruising hot spots and citizen complaints about traffic congestion. But cruisers say they are innocent car buffs who are being unfairly punished for the sins of gang members and others.

"I don't know of any gang member who will put his pride and love into a car," said Armando Avila, an avid low rider and editor of Low Rider Arte Magazine.

When going after cruisers, police usually rely on one of three tactics: They barricade known cruising areas to all traffic, they enforce an anti-cruising ordinance or they saturate the street with officers who cite cruisers for everything from loud music to expired registration tags.

Ordinances carry fines such as $271 in Pasadena or $1,000 in Pico Rivera and, in some cases, up to six months in jail.

In Newport Beach, traffic around Balboa Pier became so crowded in the 1980s that residents complained they had to ride bicycles to get around town on Saturday nights. Police began cataloging license plates and issuing tickets to those drivers who drove down the street multiple times.

The problem soon was solved. Now, teenagers who are visiting the beach actually park their cars to enjoy strolls and barbecues, Lt. Richard Long said.

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Police restrictions have prompted some street veterans to give up their favorite pastime.

"We don't cruise no more. It's not worth it," said Andy Khandjian, 28, of Pico Rivera, as he stood with his buddies in a Chevron station near the once popular cruising strip on Whittier Boulevard in Pico Rivera.

He used to cruise proudly in his sleek 1996 silver Impala with 20-inch chrome rims and tinted windows, but police hassled him too much. He said police once stopped him and accused him of cruising when he was driving home from his job at a Whittier auto shop.

"We are just innocent guys trying to show off our cars," he lamented.

Now, Khandjian just parks and "kicks it" with his friends in well-lit parking lots or car shows.

Younger cruisers are not giving up so easily.

"If they stop it here, we will just go to another place," said Tino Contreras, 19, as he cruised Pacific Boulevard in the back seat of a friend's black Ford Bronco. "There are enough places to go."

Indeed, police say cruising's popularity is cyclical and will never completely die.

"Cruising is not over and done with anywhere in Southern California," said Santa Ana Police Lt. Mike Foote, a district commander. "Nor do I think it will ever be."

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To some extent, cruising has become more orderly. Car shows and other organized automotive events are still welcomed in cities throughout Southern California.

In Garden Grove, Main Street is closed off each Friday afternoon for an organized cruising event that attracts about 180 older cars and about 1,000 spectators.

"Our car show brings in about $250,000 [in business] each year," said organizer Ron Munday, who started the event four years ago to help revitalize the city's historical district.

"Business owners love it," Garden Grove Police Officer Ben Stauffer said. "We don't experience any problems."

But police restrictions have curtailed ritual cruising for many long-established car clubs with mostly older adult members.

Members of Los Angeles and Orange County Nomads, a club for owners of 1955 to 1957 Chevy Nomads, used to cruise on a regular basis. Now they meet for dinner at local restaurants, hang out in the parking lots and talk about their cars.

As a sign of the tamer times, club members cruised two weeks ago within the closed off streets of the Orange County fairgrounds during a car show.

"That is what it has come to," said Donna Casey, secretary of the club.

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Younger cruisers don't want such a controlled environment. For them, the excitement is in the noise and bustle of real city streets.

Jaime Ramos, 24, was on Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park on a recent Sunday night. A construction worker, Ramos had spent nearly $4,000 on 17-inch gold rims and a six-speaker stereo system for his white and gold 1996 Dodge Ram truck.

But the truck was parked. Ramos said he can't afford to cruise anymore. Police cited him recently because his tires extended beyond the truck body, forcing him to spend several hundred dollars to install custom spoilers to make the tires legal.

"I just park now," he said with a shrug. "Once they clamp down, it's not worth it."

As night began to fall and the boulevard emptied, Ramos climbed into his truck and headed home.

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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The Anti-Cruising Scene

The cruising scene in Southern California has been dramatically curbed over the past few years because of police crackdowns.

Huntington Park

Boundaries: Pacific Boulevard between Gage and Florence

Police tactic: Barricade street on Sunday nights at 7 p.m.

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Santa Ana

Boundaries: South Bristol Street between West Edinger Avenue and Central Avenue

Police tactic: Anti-cruising ordinance

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