The Uncertain Future of Lowriding's Infamous Strip
An odd calm has come over this once bustling, six-lane, divided boulevard. For a large, main street in the heart of South Los Angeles, it's actually almost quiet. "No Cruising" and "No Parking" signs line the curbs, cops on bikes and in patrol cars roll down nearly every block, and Highway Patrol cruisers sit idling in driveways and side streets, ready to pounce. There are almost no lowriders to be found. This is the new Sunday night on Crenshaw Boulevard.
Long regarded as one of the most important and symbolic lowrider cruising spots in the country-and the world-Crenshaw's current place in the culture has recently come into question. Regular riders say the police are cracking down harder than ever before, due to complaints from the neighborhood's residents, who want the car clubs to leave their streets for good. Many of the cruisers now find themselves migrating toward the car show circuit, or just hanging out in parks and parking lots, in order to escape the police presence that now controls the Boulevard.
The situation hasn't always been so dire. Crenshaw's early scene started as a small but popular Friday and Saturday night gathering, whose roots can be traced all the way back to the '60s. The lowrider numbers picked up in the late-'70s, and by the mid-'80s, they eschewed Friday and Saturday nights in favor of Sunday rendezvous. As Individuals member Switchman recalls, the Sunday ritual was quickly established. "The day started out as we'd go to Venice Beach, hang out at the beach, then take Venice Boulevard all the way to Crenshaw, and then hang out on Crenshaw," he laments. Crenshaw afternoons bled into Crenshaw nights, and eventually the police would come by and run everybody off until the next weekend. And so it went in this glorious hey-day, as the scene continued to grow with no signs of slowing down.
Crenshaw began to garner national attention, thanks to late-'80s/early-'90s gangsta rap videos and classic SoCal inner-city films such as "Boyz N The Hood." Around this time, Sundays on the 'Shaw became a wild, massively crowded sort of block party, with entire stretches of road virtually shut down by lowriders. It was, and remains, a primarily black scene, led by a few long-standing clubs, Majestics, Individuals, The Professionals and Mafia IV Life, among them. "On Sundays, we would have traffic stopped," recalls Majestics member Wally Dogg. "We had guys hopping in the middle of the street, double parking. There's obviously residents that are one block away that probably complained. Too many people, too many cars. I wouldn't even say it was getting out of control; it was just unacceptable [to the police] to have that many unorganized gatherings with no one responsible. They couldn't put their finger on 'these people or this organization is responsible for doing this,' because really it was just the wild, wild west. Everybody showed up." The early- and mid-'90s saw a major increase in the number of lowrider clubs centered around the Crenshaw area. That meant even more people showing up to the Sunday scene, which in turn, brought even more cops to the area.
Though there's always been heat from the police, but the first signs of a concentrated Crenshaw crackdown really appeared in the late-'90s, when Sundays on the Boulevard became a cat-and-mouse game between the police and the car enthusiasts. Lowriders would gather at a spot like Chris' Burgers diner, or the Wienerschnitzel stand, hang out, get run off by the police, and then move their party further up or down the boulevard, only to be chased off again. Tickets for hydraulics and small tires were common, and the police presence remained thick and intimidating. Tow trucks and impound lots became common hazards in the life of the Crenshaw riders, frustrating them to no end, and slowly sucking the soul out of the culture. The crowds eventually started to thin, especially around the dawn of the new millennium, as much of the youth segments' (and MTV/BET rappers') tastes turned to luxury rides with large rims. These "Donks" and "Fast and Furious" style import cars, became the hot cars of the moment, making the old-school lowriders take a backseat.
Undeterred, the dedicated lowriders remained true to the 'Shaw, as documented in Carol Strong's 2005 documentary, "Sunday Driver." Shot in the late-'90s and early-'00s, "Sunday Driver" shows what had by then become the standard Crenshaw setup: Hit a nearby park to hang out for the afternoon, then head toward Crenshaw by evening for some cruising and gathering, usually at a spot like Leimert Park. Still, the police hovered around the scene, and sure enough, things got worse. With Crenshaw's increasingly bad community rep, thanks in part to the Saturday night go-fast car crowd, the cops came down on the street again. "Ultimately, they organized," Wally Dogg says of law enforcement's early-'00s action on the strip. "They got their strategy together to basically take control again."
In the years since, Crenshaw cruising has gone through a transition that reflects the changing nature of lowriding itself, and the police are on top of it now more than ever. The so-called "street scene" has moved largely into parks and big-box store parking lots. More and more riders simply take their cars from show to show on weekends; some have even switched to motorcycles. With the general membership getting low in recent years, many in the Crenshaw lowriding community are left wondering if the next generation of youth can keep the scene going as it is, let alone bring it back to what it once was.
In order for outsiders to see the Boulevard party like it used to, those who were there back in the day recommend hitting the strip on New Year's Day or the Fourth of July. On those two occasions, Crenshaw really comes back to lowriding life. The rest of the year, the Crenshaw lowriding community has shifted gears, choosing to organize Sunday gatherings at parks around and near Crenshaw, but not on the strip itself. Not everybody has given up. Surprisingly, a few determined lowriders still roll down the strip on a regular basis.
For some, staying off of Crenshaw is all part of a plan, if only for now. Kevin "Kev" Lewis rolls with Original Riders and is a board member of the National Low Rider Association, an L.A.-based group comprised of area car clubs members that's tasked with organizing the scene into a united force. "The whole point of the association is to get these groups together, put their heads together, and we put a calendar up," he says. "It may not be one club's turn to give something (on a particular weekend), but we all congregate and we'll do a potluck. It's something to keep us from cruising down Crenshaw, so LAPD and (California) Highway Patrol don't jack us up." The NLRA coordinates the schedule, rotating the spot each week between different parks in different areas, most in South L.A. near Crenshaw. For these lowriders, the Boulevard is always looming in the background, both literally and symbolically.
Though he agrees with the current majority vote of keeping away from Crenshaw for now, Kev can't stand by and watch the scene get trampled. "I figure if we let it die down, we'll lose a lot of people," he says. "The guys that (don't) wanna let it die down, we find other places to go and other things to do to keep everybody interested, and give them somewhere to go so we don't lose people. But this is our foundation-everything comes back to Crenshaw. We've got somewhere that's recognized nationally as the strip. We just have to learn and work with the city authorities and officials to try to get something where we can ride." Proposals that have floated amongst members have included permitting lowriding during limited Sunday hours, letting lowriders cruise Crenshaw every other Sunday, or even just allowing cruising one Sunday a month. They hope to meet with city and police officials soon to discuss a formal arrangement.
For their part, the Inglewood Police Department-which has jurisdiction over much of what's considered Crenshaw's main strip these days-claims it's open to sitting down with the lowriders to discuss the issue, but won't make any promises. "It all has to do with complaints from the public, from the residents, and from the businesses about traffic violations occurring on the street," explains Inglewood PD Lt. Mike McBride. "If everybody were on the street and they were obeying the traffic laws, there's nothing that the police could do. But the reality is, whenever these things happen, and the car clubs get there, there's all kinds of issues. There's lots of equipment violations that the cars have and they commit traffic violations. So, when those things happen, we go out there and we do aggressively enforce those things." The police say they're just doing their job, however, the Crenshaw lowriders feel unfairly targeted and believe that they're paying for past associations, as well as the antics of the Friday and Saturday night go-fast crowd. It all results in the currently quiet Sunday nights.
Switchman views this scene with a little less concern than most riders. "It's like anything," he says of Crenshaw. "Just give it a break for a minute, let [the police presence] die down, let the heat go down, and then just pop back up." That's in line with the old tactics regarding dealing with the law, but now that they're organized and the go-fast kids don't seem to be helping the situation, it's debatable whether or not that remains a viable approach to 'Shaw cruising's long-term future.
Regardless of the current conditions, Crenshaw's status as a major symbol of lowriding endures, as does the hope it will rise again. "It's like a tourist attraction now," Switchman explains. "Whenever somebody from out of town comes down here, 'Where's Crenshaw?' is the first thing that comes out of their mouth." But these days, the locals are more likely to be at a show in Ventura, San Bernardino, Orange County or even San Diego than actually on the 'Shaw.
"There's a comment I make in 'Sunday Driver,'" says Wally Dogg. "It's something to the effect of, 'There'll always be a Crenshaw.' That's when I had my chest stuck out. That was what, 10 years ago? And now, 10 years later, could I say that same statement? Will Crenshaw always be there? Probably, in some form or another. Some people might not recognize it as such, but it'll always be here." Wally's words are genuine as he continues, "I'd like to say that Crenshaw will always be the starting point, the Mecca, the Jerusalem, the whatever. And whatever develops behind that or after that is probably yet to come. Who has a crystal ball? Who really can tell the future? We just have to do the best we can, keep some of the traditions alive, and hope things don't change too dramatically." Kevin Lewis sums up the overall sentiment among true lowrider enthusiasts with one simple question. "What's lowriding without Crenshaw?" he asks.