PICO RIVERA — Sheriff's deputies have started blocking off about a mile of Whittier Boulevard on weekend nights in hope of driving away hundreds of cruisers who have been clogging the streets of this city for months.
Deputies set up the barricades at 9 Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, allowing only area residents who show identification to drive on Whittier Boulevard between Paramount and Passons boulevards, Sgt. Susan Perez said. The boulevard is reopened between midnight and 2 a.m.
The shutdown began May 21 and will continue as long as cruising is a problem, Perez said.
Deputies issued 246 cruising-related violations outside the restricted area during the Memorial Day weekend, she said.
Since July, 1987, more than 4,500 such citations have been issued, she said, and the city has spent more than $90,000 for police overtime to fight the cruising problem.
"We want the word to get out that we're going to use this approach until we're satisfied they're going away," City Manager Dennis Courtemarche said.
In addition to weekend problems, the boulevard has been crowded on Wednesday nights, and blockades may be required then, too, Perez said.
Similar tactics have been used to fight cruising gridlock in Montebello, Hollywood and other areas.
City officials have wanted to shut down Whittier Boulevard since late last year, but they had to get approval from the state Department of Transportation because the thoroughfare is a state highway. Until Caltrans gave verbal approval about two weeks ago, only the Sheriff's Department had authority to close the boulevard when gridlock occurred, usually about midnight.
Mayor James Patronite said the city had not pressed Caltrans for its approval when the cruising problem was not so extreme. The city also had to assume economic liability in case a Whittier Boulevard business sued for loss of revenue due to the closure.
But in the meantime, angry residents regularly showed up at City Council meetings to complain of loud music, congested streets and litter.
"Everybody has the feeling that if anything will work, closing the boulevard will," said Zoe Taylor, executive director of the Pico Rivera Chamber of Commerce.
"I think (merchants) understand it, but they don't like it," added Patronite.
The barricaded section of the boulevard includes an area into which the city has poured more than $36 million in redevelopment money since 1974 in hopes of recruiting new businesses. Taylor said the cruising problem was alarming new merchants in the area.
"They came into the city, and then their volume dropped way down," Taylor said. "But they do realize it's not an easy problem to address."
Patronite formed a Public Safety Committee to address the cruising problem and other issues, and sheriff's deputies have held two meetings with business leaders to explain the restrictions. Access to about 10 Whittier Boulevard businesses, mostly restaurants, will be blocked on weekends.
"Obviously, they'd be happier if there were limited access," Perez said. "But then a lot of times the people who are congregating in their parking lots aren't giving them business either."
Courtemarche said it may not be necessary to blockade Whittier Boulevard once street improvements begin this summer. Work is expected to take about six months. "That should be the best weapon we have," he said. "The street will be torn up for a long time. It will not be conducive to cruising."
Officials and business leaders remain puzzled about why the cruisers have descended upon their city.
"I really wish I knew how they manage to all travel around the county for no apparent reason," Patronite said. "It's weird."
Taylor, who has ridden with police to observe how they handle cruisers, said she was amazed to see young people from as far away as Palm Springs cruising the boulevard in Pico Rivera.
"We want to advertise our city, and we want people to come here," she said, "but not this way."