As the souped-up muscle cars, restored classics and lowriders cruise through the old Rydell Chevrolet lot on Van Nuys Boulevard, Reid Stolz takes stock of a scene that was familiar to anyone growing up in the San Fernando Valley a generation ago.
"Remember when we were young and the cops were old?" said Stolz, 51, watching an LAPD patrol car glide by. "Now the cops are young and we're old."
After a 28-year break, Stolz and other car lovers have brought cruising back to "The Boulevard," though the drivers are now more likely to be middle-aged guys with graying hair and grandkids, driven by nostalgia rather than teenage vanity.
The cruising scene on Van Nuys Boulevard once was so popular and rowdy that it all but paralyzed the area and was seen as a menace by merchants and local residents. Police shut it down when turf wars and illegal races got out of hand.
Now, a generation later, recession-battered shopkeepers and the owners of eateries hungry for customers are thrilled by its return. The well-heeled baby boomers that cruising attracts are filling empty restaurant booths, ringing up registers and awakening a street that longs for traffic.
One coffee shop, Four 'n 20 Pies, is so happy to fill its booths each month that it posts a sign outside welcoming cruisers. During one cruise night in September, the diner ran out of food.
"It's definitely made an impact," said Sean Drummond, a server at the restaurant. "In late summer, we had people lining up at the door."
Los Angeles police, too, are on board -- at least for now.
"It's organized as opposed to before when people just showed up and hit the boulevard," said Tony Cabunoc, a supervising LAPD officer for the Van Nuys area. "If we do have problems, we go to the organizers and get it resolved."
In the 1960s and '70s, Van Nuys Boulevard was the epicenter of California's car culture, drawing thousands to its broad lanes every Wednesday night. Teenagers eager to flaunt their wheels and check each other out showed up in droves.
The boulevard became so popular that traffic jams choked the streets in surrounding neighborhoods. Emergency vehicles couldn't get through. Vandalism, street racing and drunken fights got out of hand. In 1981, the Los Angeles Police Department blocked the streets off, ending an era.
It was more than just a scene, it was an iconic ritual that was imitated, written about in hot rod magazines and captured on film. Cruise night came to represent a Southern California lifestyle that young people in the Midwest and the world over could only read about. Cruising the boulevard on a Wednesday night was about adolescent freedom, a sense that anything was possible and, above all, fun.
Back then, young people just showed up every Wednesday night. Girls and boys by the hundreds milled on sidewalks as candy-colored cars blowing rubber smoke streaked by blasting Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd from eight-track stereos.
Guys revved their engines and spun their tires to catch the eyes of girls wearing tight "Dittos" jeans and a Farrah Fawcett hairstyle. Street racers unloaded hot rods from trailers in the Bank of America parking lot and rolled out into the traffic, leaving a whiff of nitro behind. For a three-mile stretch, six lanes were packed with an astounding variety of cars, vans, trucks and bikes.
Today's version is a more sedate affair. Cruising takes place once a month, on the second Wednesday, and was centered around the Rydell lot until it was sold in late December. Cruisers lined up their cars in the lot and chatted -- not about girls and fast times -- but about chrome grills and suspensions.
Cruise nights have become common all across the nation. But Southern California's car-centric ethos and great weather has made it practically a rite of passage. Websites such as www.socalcarculture.com list places a street rodder can roll every night of the week.
But cruise night on Van Nuys Boulevard was one of the earliest and biggest. Hollywood made a 1979 film about it, "Van Nuys Boulevard," depicting a sex-and-drug-laden era of young people in cool cars.
The tradition dates to the late 1950s when high schools in the San Fernando Valley held club meetings each Wednesday, said Jon Billesbach, 67, of North Hollywood.
Youths in car clubs would head to the boulevard after the meetings ended for street racing, he said. Later, everyone gathered at the Bob's Big Boy restaurants in Toluca Lake or Van Nuys.
Cruising reached its zenith in the 1970s, and the boulevard was its own teenager universe.
In those days, the GM auto plant to the north employed more than 4,000 workers and proudly displayed its newest product on a lighted pedestal out front. Multiple car dealerships dotted the southern end, and an endless string of storefronts and restaurants filled the space in between.