PALM SPRINGS — The air was balmy, the streets were jammed and the reviews were decidedly mixed as Easter weekend brought an end to the tamest, chilliest and most rule-ridden Spring Break in local memory.
"This is 100% better than we heard it would be," laughed 25-year-old Mark Budde, scanning the sidewalks Saturday under sunny skies.
"I mean, see?!" And his head jerked halfway around to follow the trajectory of a blonde in a bikini top.
But while Mayor Sonny Bono and other proponents of this year's crackdown pronounced the break the most orderly and successful in years, T-shirt merchants and others catering to the young crowds declared the week a disaster.
"We were all depending on this Spring Break to get us through the year," said Patrick Elalouf, owner of a gift shop with a conspicuous display of T-shirts lampooning the city's new "Bono No-Nos."
"Now I don't know if there will ever be Spring Break again," Elalouf mourned.
After about 50 years of Easter Week revelry--and mayhem--Palm Springs got tough this year with a flurry of new laws drawn up at the behest of a task force of fed-up citizens.
Concerned about the serious injuries that occur each year and haunted by a 1986 riot that erupted when a girl flashed her breasts to a crowd, the city put the campus world on notice this year that it planned to keep the party under control.
Streets were narrowed with concrete barricades to discourage bumper-to-bumper cruising. Public nudity laws were strengthened with a local ordinance to ban "mooning" and to ensure that women in buttock-baring "thong" bikinis stayed in the pool and off the streets. Poolside drinking was banned after 11 p.m. to cut down on rowdy hotel parties. And private security was beefed up by hotel managers tired of losing money to freeloading guests.
From a crowd-control standpoint, city officials said, the new laws were a success, despite at least three violent incidents, two of which involved suspected gang members. By dusk Saturday, police were reporting a record-low number of arrests--271 for the week, about 85% of them alcohol-related, said Palm Springs Police Sgt. Ron Starrs.
Four violations of the nudity ordinance also had been logged during the week, none of them for thong bikinis. Starrs said two women had been cited for baring their breasts on the street, and two others for displaying their buttocks suggestively in a pair of high-cut cutoff shorts.
A 19-year-old University of Washington football player, Donovan Schmidt, was stabbed in the thigh last Sunday after confronting a group of youths who had insulted his girlfriend. Police said the attackers were local gang members.
On Friday night, Niels Roberts, a 20-year-old UC Davis student, was shot and critically wounded after an argument on a side street with youths in a car. Police said Roberts, who was shot in the face, escaped brain damage but is expected to lose his left eye.
Also late Saturday, a 23-year-old Indio man was stabbed in the chest during a fight with a cruiser on North Palm Canyon Drive. Details were sketchy, but police said the victim was in serious condition at a local hospital.
Despite the serious nature of those incidents, police said enforcement seemed to be working well. The arrest total was about equal to a single busy Spring Break weekend in years past, Starrs said.
But by midweek, many in this low-key tourist town were having second thoughts about cracking down on Spring Break. Between the unseasonably chilly weather and the equally frosty reception, students seemed until this weekend to be staying away in droves, and merchants who rely on Spring Break for business were anything but happy about the highly publicized new laws.
"This has been the worst Spring Break in nine years," said Erich Langmann, owner of the Palm Springs Travelodge, president of the local hotel association and a now-rueful member of the task force that came up with this year's rules.
"The kids have the impression they're walking into Buchenwald, and the result is that a lot of my regulars aren't back this year."
Langmann said that this weekend's 80-degree weather boosted business Friday night, but even with sell-out crowds, he won't come close to matching previous years.
Gift shop owner Elalouf added that his sales have plummeted 65% from this time last year.
"I don't know if I'll be able to stay in business," he said.
But city officials contend the Spring Break merchants are shortsighted in their complaints, noting that if Palm Springs becomes known for hosting kinder and gentler Spring Breaks, the reputation could attract new tourists.
"I don't think we've, you know, just--WHOMP!--wiped out Spring Break. But I do think the kids who came to be totally out of control will take a pass from now on," said Bono.
"Some of these merchants don't follow logic. Sure, some kids may stay away, but they'll be replaced eventually if we're able to tell people they can come to Palm Springs on Easter Week--and bring their families."