Cruising Is Legal Again in the California Town That Inspired ‘American Graffiti’

The city council of Modesto, California, on July 11 voted unanimously to repeal the 1990 ban on cruising, to the applause of local car aficionados.

Many locals were happy because they believe the car culture promotes unity. They said cruising brings friends and family together. They also see it as an opportunity to bring money to local businesses.

Even though the city council still needs to formally review the ordinance that repeals the “Regulation of Cruising” from the city code, the “Cruising Prohibited” signs are already starting to come down.

“I’m going to be very, very happy when all of this is said and done,” Manuel Wilson, a Modesto local car culture enthusiast, told KCRA News.

Wilson reminisced about cruising in Modesto with his family in the 1970s in his uncle’s Chevy Impala while listening to a baseball game on the radio.

Leading Up to the Ban in 1990

As seen in the movie “American Graffiti” circa 1962, Modesto was once a smaller town and cruising was one of the few social activities where friends could go out together on weekends. It was a time of innocence and optimism for the future.

They would drive slowly up and down the “strip” of road around 10th Street. In the late 1960s, the “strip” moved to the more lively McHenry Street area that was filled with fast food restaurants with drive-in windows, motels, and car lots.

Participating in cruising in Modesto was a teenager’s rite of passage, locals say.

“Modesto will always be identified with cruising. … You can’t change that any more than you can change where Lincoln was born,” said Modesto Mayor Carol Whiteside in the 1990s to the LA Times.

What once attracted hundreds of people, as seen in “American Graffiti,” culminated in about 5,000 people descending on Modesto in 1990. They came from all over the San Joaquin Valley. The crowd clogged the McHenry Street area on weekend nights.

While most cruisers respected the cruising etiquette, there were some who brought drugs, gang violence, and vandalism. There was even a shooting after a fight, which resulted in one death.

At the time, other cities in California had already banned cruising because of these types of incidents. With the efforts of the surrounding McHenry Street residents and business owners, the ban on cruising was enacted in the iconic cruising capital of Modesto.

Cruising Makes a Comeback

Assistant Police Chief Ivan Valencia told CBS News Sacramento that the ban really died around the year 2000. It hasn’t really been enforced since then.

There have always been temporary lifts on the ban during times of the “American Graffiti Festival and Classic Car Show” and other special events during the year.

Working with local car clubs over the past couple of years, the police department softened its stance even further. The people today who are in the cruising culture are older now and more mature, Valencia added.

Before the official vote to lift the ban, there were several cruising nights that went on with no significant incidents. People showed up for the cruise and the car culture. These events helped pave the way for the ban to be repealed.

There was one point Valencia stressed, though—nobody who shows up to cruise will get a pass on vehicle codes.

One Concern

The ban repeal comes at a time when sideshows—that is, impromptu takeovers of a public intersection to perform automotive stunts and tricks—are gaining more traction. The violence and disturbance they bring is akin to what caused the ban of cruising in the first place.

The police said they are treating cruising and sideshows as two distinct activities. Harsher penalties for sideshows are in the works for proposals.

The police department has had an increase in funds that will cover overtime costs if needed to patrol cruising nights. They will be ready to crack down on sideshows and other illegal activities.

Moving Forward

Car culture runs deep in Modesto, ranging from classic cars and hot rods to lowriders. Many locals say that cruising goes beyond just the cars. It touches on tradition and family activities.

Locals have said that cruising goes back to the 1940s and is part of the city’s lifeblood. “American Graffiti” told Modesto’s story through cinema and put Modesto on the map. The car culture is not what it used to be; it’s getting back to family and tradition and is being passed down to the next generation.

“Cruising is a part of Modesto’s culture,” said city spokesperson Andrew Gonzales to KCRA News.

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