NATIONAL CITY — More than seven years ago, when a police crackdown was putting the brakes on bumper-to-bumper cruising along National City's Highland Avenue, lowriders were forced to do some "strip" searching if they didn't want to be hassled as they displayed their ornate, souped-up, metallic machines.
Today, National City Police Chief Terry Hart says cruising along the strip, which was listed in the now-defunct Low Rider magazine as a prime cruising spot, is now 10% of what it was during the lowriding heydays of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"We don't intend for it to get back to how it was," Hart said.
Lowriders say the loss of San Diego County's main "boulevard" greatly contributed to the overall fading of the lowriding scene in the San Diego area. But they are quick to point out that although the time-honored tradition has undergone some changes, it is not dead.
Informally, the once supplemental strip along Logan Avenue in San Diego has succeeded Highland in popularity among die-hard lowrider enthusiasts and spectators.
But San Diego Police Sgt. Nate Caplan, who has worked the Logan Heights area for five years, said that with the exception of seasonal increases during summer and certain weekends, he hasn't noticed much change in the amount of cruising. Unless the cruising begins to "interfere with traffic flow," the four to six police officers supervising the area don't interfere with the activity, Caplan said.
"I think it stays pretty steady," he said. "It maintains a pretty set pattern."
Rigo Reyes, 29, president of the 9-year-old Amigos car club, said there are not necessarily fewer lowriders, just less cruising.
Owner of an elaborately painted and upholstered 1959 Chevy Impala, Reyes, who says he's spent close to $7,000 on the car, observed that most "serious lowriders" have turned to entering car show competitions, rather than cruising, mainly to avoid getting citations for vehicle violations ranging from using illegal tires to having a hydraulics system installed in the car.
"(Cruising) has been more or less slowing down basically because of the police and the tickets," Reyes said. "It's become too expensive, and a lot of the old veteranos have given it up because of that."
By Reyes' count, the car clubs that were the center of the culture of the late '70s have largely disappeared. In 1979, there were 16 clubs in San Diego, he said. Now, there are nine, four of which date from before 1980. That means 12 clubs have disappeared.
Lee Contreras, 27-year-old vice president of the now disbanded Traffic car club, said the citations caught up with him in 1981. He said they forced him to consider becoming a spectator of lowriding and to give up the silver 1969 Chevy Impala he cruised along Highland.
To be sure, times have changed from 1979, when the City Council of National City authorized the sweep arrests after a homicide and a stabbing along Highland. Those were the days when, according to National City police, more than 600 vehicle inspections were conducted, 85 citations were issued and about 10 vehicles were impounded in a six-month period from late 1979 to early 1980.
Some things, however, haven't changed, according to Reyes and Contreras.
The tension between cruisers and police is still prevalent, and lowriders claim they are still taking a bad rap; that they are being stereotyped as gang members by police and the media on the basis of actions by a few people.
"To some extent, I think they are harassing," Reyes said. "They're still into the stereotype idea of lowriders, categorizing them as gangs and trouble. Whether we want to realize it or not, the reality is that in every group or in any bunch of people that gets together there's going to always be some people that do cause problems. But again, they're stereotyping in the sense that they are treating everybody as gang members."
"Of course, you're going to have people who are a little off in the brain," Contreras said. "But there's no way you could have a righteous-looking lowrider and be a (gang member)."
Their sentiments reflect the complaints Herman Baca, chairman of the Committee on Chicano Rights, made seven years ago against the way National City police handled the situation on Highland, which early in September, 1979, was the scene of 170 arrests, 80 of which involved teen-agers.
"You can't break the law to enforce the law," Baca complained then, charging that the sweeps violated constitutional rights, including the right to assemble, the right to travel and be free from illegal search and seizure and equal protection under the law.
Baca still gets upset talking about the 1979 sweeps. Asked recently about the sweeps, he called the police action racist, and asked, "Where did they get this power to violate these constitutional guarantees?"