Cruising Chrome, Culture, Conflict On the Streets of Santa Fe

On this Friday night along East Alameda Street there is a ribbon of headlights and chrome. Lowrider cars and gleaming pickup trucks are cruising bumper to bumper. Sound systems throb with rap music. The point for dozens of drivers is to be seen here, to be cool and cruise back and forth. For Gabriel Ortiz, sitting behind the wheel of his new lowrider named the Purple Marbleizer, tonight may be his coolest cruise yet. "Tonight is the first night I've driven it on the street," he says of his newly customized and lowered 1982 Ford Mustang with a purple paint job. Inside the car is a sea of upholstered, purple crushed velvet. The driver's seat swivels. Where the tires hit the road, Mr. Ortiz uses wide chrome rims that cost $2,500. "I'm not done yet," he says. You might think he wants hydraulics so he can bounce the car up and down with a custom-lift system, the automotive sign of a true lowrider's pride and humor. But sitting next to him, Jerome Benavidez talks of grander additions. "Yeah, bro," he says, "we need chrome and gold on the undercarriage first." This kind of cruising in peacock cars at night along a specified street - done in thousands of communities around the world - is a kind of four-wheeled cultural ritual for youths. Even in Santa Fe, a town of about 65,000, and known more for exclusive Western art galleries and high-priced homes, young people complain of nothing to do but cruise on summer weekends. But if cruising means an attitude of independence, style, and invention, it can also bring controversy. Sometimes noisy, or traffic stopping, or mixed with beer-drinking and occasional gunshots, cruising is not loved by police departments and city officials. * In Los Angeles, part of Crenshaw Boulevard has been closed to cruising for a month because three people were shot during a recent cruising. Lowriders and cruisers are gathering instead in parking lots and continue to be ticketed by police. * After shootings In Kansas City, Mo., police diverted cruisers from inner-city streets to a new street created in Swope Park. As many as 6,000 cruisers use the street on weekend nights with 30 policemen present to keep the flow of cars moving. * In Albuquerque, N.M., along a busy street, a posted sign warns cruisers that it is "Unlawful to pass this point two times in a three-hour period." * In Las Cruces, N.M., along Paseo Road, police say gang members are gathering in cars and preventing access to businesses along a commercial strip. * But in Detroit, famed Woodward Avenue was the seven-mile-long site of the 1998 Woodward Dream Cruise on Aug. 15. The event attracted 10,000 cars to celebrate cruising, which started there in the 1950s. Many cruisers are not lowriders, which is a style of customizing cars that began in the Latino community in Los Angeles in the 1930s, and has spread. Cruising today is done in just about any four-wheeled vehicle, ranging from

the most baroque, finely detailed lowrider to a teen driving his dad's six-year-old, four-door sedan with rusted fenders. The best of the decorated lowrider cars are sometimes called "butterflies with transmissions" or "land yachts." The experience is simply driving and talking about cars, watching girls, impressing the boys, and just cruising along. This is a "fly right" situation, a street expression used in Santa Fe that means you are looking at a really cool car. In some towns cruising is called "flossing," or showing off a car. Keeping a lid on the excesses Here in Santa Fe, some members of the city council sought recently to restrict the activity. The city was reacting to complaints of noise, clogged traffic, and bottle throwing. East Alameda runs along the Santa Fe River, just two blocks south of the city's famed central plaza with its art galleries, hotels, and restaurants. For some 20 years the city has tried to control or stop cruising here. Various mayors and city councils have never found the right combination to allow cruisers to come and go, and yet keep the lid on excess traffic and rowdy noise or infrequent conflicts. Each weekend now, four Santa Fe police officers and the chief or the deputy chief appear along East Alameda, a presence welcomed by some cruisers. "Listen," says Ortiz, standing by his car in a small parking lot, "we aren't doing anything wrong. The people who have authority on the city council don't know what's really going on here. They just read in the paper when something goes wrong once a month. They never come down here and see for themselves." Beverly Lennen, deputy police chief, thinks the city may have turned a corner in solving tensions over cruising. "We're holding a series of meetings," she says, "between youths, businesses, and neighborhood people. We want them to come up with a solution, and we will help them implement it. Young people have been feeling they are ignored in lieu of tourists, and the city is making an effort to change that perception." The intercultural leadership office of the Santa Fe Community College is coordinating the meetings. "We are working toward a consensus, to get down to one or two options," says Gerard Martinez., Santa Fe's director of intercultural affairs. "The next meeting we're all going to share cruising stories. The majority of cruisers are Hispanic. It is part of their culture, and they want that recognized." Cultural pride meets civic order Ricardo Romo, a cultural historian and provost of the University of Texas In Austin, applauds the Santa Fe approach. "Mediation is always good," he says, "because you can't ban them as other communities have tried to do. Part of the tensions can be cultural, one group not understanding Hispanic culture, and why the guys want to do this with their cars."

At the first meeting held in mid-July in Santa Fe, Peter Jiron, a leader of the lowrider club Forbidden Desires, thanked the police for being a presence on the weekends along East Alameda. He said they allowed the law-abiding cruisers to enjoy the cars and each other. "There is a faction that feels as though they are getting hassled by the police," says Mr. Martinez, "and that may always be, but the issue is larger. Tourists are important to us. They drive the economy, and the youths have to realize this even while youth-service providers here know they have to do a better job of providing youths with things to do." Back on East Alameda, Robert Schwachenwald and Lawrence Valdez watch the cars creep by. "There's nothing else to do here, says Mr. Schwachenwald, a student at Santa Fe Community College. "This is it, man, or partying." He yells at two blond girls passing by in a Lexus. They ignore him, but turn to look back, smiling. "Hey, come back, " he yells, grinning. A glossy red pickup truck passes by, so low to the street that in the semidarkness it appears to be sliding. "That's a fly right," he says, "maybe $40 grand." Asked about his own car, he says, "It gets me around. I'm going to get a new paint job and some chrome rims." He says he's saving money. Then he pauses. "Maybe I'll just put it on my credit card."

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