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Albuquerque lowriders convince city to scrap its anti-cruising ordinance

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The KiMo Theater in downtown Albuquerque on Route 66. Photo by Karen Blaha.

Where Route 66 passes through downtown Albuquerque and takes the name Central Avenue, the neon signs of the tourist-laden restaurants and mom-n-pop stores create almost the perfect glow for a windows-down cruise, one enjoyed this past Sunday by drivers of more classics, hot rods, and lowriders than any time in recent memory thanks to last week’s repeal of the city’s anti-cruising ordinance.

“We had an amazing turnout; it was packed,” said Lorenzo Otero, a longtime downtown cruiser. “It was just a celebration.”

Over the last dozen years or so, however, such a turnout to the informal but weekly Albuquerque cruise night would have been nearly impossible. Under the city’s Cruising in Public Streets Ordinance, enacted in May 2005 after reports of street racing, fights among cruisers, and clogged streets, the Albuquerque Police Department set up checkpoints to ensure that cars didn’t repeatedly pass through the city’s downtown area in a given amount of time.

Then, starting last year as a response to reports of engine revving, burnouts, and stunt shows on Central, the APD began barricading streets, first at 8 p.m., then earlier and earlier, according to Otero.

“It got to be as early as six o’clock, five o’clock,” said Otero, who was born and raised in Albuquerque and has cruised its streets for years in his 1966 Chevrolet Impala with the Rollerz Only Car Club.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services defined cruising as “unnecessary repetitive driving” and notes that cruising may provide economic benefits to local communities. “But cruising is not purely harmless fun,” it wrote in a January 2005 guide to “The Problem of Cruising.” “It creates problems for the police, nonparticipating motorists, some businesses, and the community at large. Among them are conflicts between cruisers (including gang-related violence), littering, noise (from vehicle engines, screeching tires, car stereos, and exuberant fans), traffic congestion (including obstruction of emergency vehicles), traffic crashes, and vandalism and unintentional property damage.”

Otero said Albuquerque’s cruising scene, on the other hand, doesn’t create problems. “Everybody gets along, it’s a beautiful scene,” he said. “We’ve got kids cruising their lowrider bikes, it’s a real family thing. We’re just into showing our cars, nobody goes over 25 MPH.” Any racing that doesn’t take place at Albuquerque Dragway usually goes down on Montgomery Boulevard, well north of Central Avenue.

The more recent clampdown on cruising not only inconvenienced the cruisers – which he described as a healthy mix of car enthusiasts “young and old, all genders, all races” – it also led to fewer people downtown and thus less revenue for downtown businesses, Otero said. In response, he and his fellow club members turned to the Albuquerque City Council, where they found a sympathetic ear in Klarissa Peña, who cruises Central in a pink 1959 Cadillac.

“Our current ordinance at the City of Albuquerque says that cruising is a threat to public safety, which I completely disagree with,” Peña told KOB in 2017.

Peña, in turn, helped create a Cruising Task Force that brought together local business owners, Albuquerque government representatives, officers with the APD, and cruisers themselves to hammer out a solution that would allow unfettered cruising but also weed out troublemakers.

“If done responsibly, cruising should be celebrated by the City as being part of the community’s cultural heritage,” the task force wrote in its report, issued earlier this year.

That cultural heritage derives in part from the nearby city of Española, New Mexico, long hailed as the lowriding capital of the world, as well as the state’s acknowledged role in birthing not only lowriders and lowrider culture but also the culture of cruising.

“Back in the Fifties and Sixties, they’d just cruise everywhere,” Otero said. “It moved on to California, but we’ve taken it to a whole ‘nother level, especially here where we’re always asked to be in parades and to come out for city functions and fundraisers. For us to not be able to go out and cruise, it’s almost impossible because lowriding is deeply embedded in the community.”

The task force thus came up with a number of recommendations, the first of which called for the city to repeal the anti-cruising ordinance “and utilize existing definitions in other sections of the Traffic Code and add additional definitions modeled off of other municipalities to more effectively regulate irresponsible driving behaviors among all motor vehicle operators.” Other recommendations ranged from education on local traffic laws to analyses of the economic impact of cruising to ongoing communication among city officials and cruisers.

The city council voted last Monday to repeal the 2005 ordinance after noting that it duplicated prohibitions against irresponsible driving already put on the books in a 1994 ordinance. At the same time, the council voted to set up a program aimed at recognizing local car clubs as well as encouraging cruisers and local business owners to coordinate cruising times and locations.

While the task force acknowledged that other cities across the United States have created zones specifically for cruising, it made no such recommendations to the Albuquerque City Council.

(h/t to Route 66 News)