Hot wheels

In summer, a young person's fancy turns to thoughts of muscle cars and cruisin' the strip.

Just once in each direction, mind you.

A decade of law enforcement seems to have throttled the local cruising menace. People actually drive to restaurants on Alki Beach; traffic flows freely on Lake Washington Boulevard in Kirkland. In Edmonds, the city combined reconfigured parking with enhanced enforcement and chased the cruisers off Sunset Avenue. "We'll get a few calls here as soon as the weather gets nice from people on Sunset," says Edmonds Police Chief Robin Hickok, "but it's nothing compared to what it was 10 or 15 years ago."

Seattle's anticruising ordinance, approved in 1988, limits drivers to one trip down Alki Avenue and one trip back—license numbers are recorded by watching police officers and the repeat lawbreakers face fines up to $250. Kirkland's early-1990s anticruising ordinance, based on the Seattle model, has cleared up the traffic jam alongside the city's Lake Washington beaches. Lt. Greg Edwards of the Kirkland Police says his department rarely writes a citation. "If we see somebody who is obviously cruising, we'll say 'That's it, we don't want to see you.'" The offenders always take the hint. "The education process was a lot more difficult back in the early '90s," says Edwards.

Observers searching for Seattle's lost soul might pause to consider the cruising ban, suggests my friend Jim. "It was one of the first signs that Seattle was becoming too polite for its own good," says the veteran Alki cruiser.

In years past, every city had its cruising strip. Everett kids headed to Colby Avenue, North Seattle teens cruised Golden Gardens Park, Bremerton teens flocked to Pacific Avenue. These were places, according to my friend Dawn, where you would "shout at people of the opposite sex, honk at people you know, show off your hot Impala." It was an activity for teenagers when they really had nothing else to do, and it enabled you to show off your car (and car stereo) and perhaps meet somebody cute from another high school.

Like Alki, the best cruising spots were regional. My friend Corinne describes the key cruising activity as "being flirtatious with people you don't know." A plus, agrees my friend Shirley, is that "chances are you'll never see them again." Growing up in the Lakewood area near Tacoma, the hot cruising destination was—believe it or not—Sea-Tac Mall. "When we wanted to go crazy, we went to Federal Way," she confirms.

MORE AMBITIOUS road trippers could check out the Wenatchee Apple Festival, a summer destination for kids with hot cars and large libidos from around the state, reports my cousin John.

But even the kids who never went there knew of the magic of Alki. "On any late spring or summer day there was traffic backed up in both directions all the way along Alki Point," recalls Jim. "The fact that the traffic wasn't moving at all was an advantage; it gave you time to chat up the people going in the opposite direction."

Of course, not everybody was charmed with the cruising ideal. Police cited problems such as loud stereos, underage drinking, and fights between teens. Merchants claimed their customers couldn't reach them during the profitable summer months. And a mile-long row of cars idling didn't do much for the local air quality.

While we're now protecting our kids from the evils of cruising, there's a vein of nostalgia a mile wide for the summer ritual. Vintage car clubs hold regular cruises, generally at historic (or at least retro) malt shops or burger joints, apparently without incident. (Of course, it's easier to avoid being hassled by the police when you don't have teenagers hunched down in your back seat drinking warm beer.) The Buick Club of America Web site has a list of regular cruises, most of which are in Southern California; punch the word "cruising" into a search engine and you end up at sites such as www.musclecars.net, www.camaros.net, www.vettecruisin.com, and www.hotmustangs.com.

Still, there's hope for the younger generation. Teenage country singer Lila McCann recently told an interviewer how happy she was to skip touring most of one summer "so I can go cruising with my friends and stuff like that." The first hit on my Web search was the personal site of Amy, a Missouri high school student who listed cruising among her favorite activities and included a picture of her '91 Camaro (with T-top and V8). Also, at a recent hearing on fixing Seattle's Teen Dance Ordinance so teen dances can actually be held, the most telling comment came from a young man who simply declared: "This city has too many rules."

There's more than a little sympathy for this opinion from all my ex-cruiser sources. "It's a shame," says Jim, "that there isn't room for a little bit of youthful indiscretion around this town."

 
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