- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

HIGH POINT, N.C.
They've driven here for years, creating a hard-wax river of souped-up cars, hydraulic-raised trucks and low-riding beaters. As many as 2,000 vehicles cruise North Main Street's unremarkable five lanes every Friday and Saturday night. Onlookers pitch lawn chairs beside the road.
Hair-pulling civic leaders, who trumpet High Point as a furniture hub, concede that the city has gained a parallel renown as the Southeast's "cruising Mecca." Mostly in their teens, cruisers are lured to North Main's fast-food, chain-store terrain by a hormonal mix of car love and the opposite sex.
"People show off their cars and race on back roads, and park and meet people," said Alexis Brooke Price, a college student from Winston-Salem who cruised High Point throughout high school. "At 15, what else can you do?"
But cruising's tradition in the heart of NASCAR country Richard Petty lives 20 miles away could be closing. A recent police crackdown has reduced traffic this month to a manageable nuisance of a few hundred cars. While many said the dwindling turnout was temporary, others foresaw the end of an era.
Priscilla Decker, a 16-year-old who cruised here from Thomasville with friends, nodded toward a 1 a.m. trickle of cars that a month earlier would have been bumper-to-bumper. "They don't want us to have fun anymore," she said.
They, or at least many locals, don't want the hassle anymore. Once celebrated as a quaint rite of passage, cruising has been reluctantly endured here in the past few years. The scene is viewed by many as more threatening than nostalgic, more "The Fast and the Furious" than "American Graffiti."
Problems with drugs, vandalism and violent crime have grown along with the roar of four-cylinder Japanese cars baroquely modified to race stoplight-to-stoplight against more muscular eight-cylinder rivals.
Over the years, High Point has absorbed cruisers from a half-dozen North Carolina towns that chased them away with ordinances or vigilant hassling. Word-of-mouth via Internet chat rooms draws others from Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina. Police estimate that less than 40 percent of the weekend crowd is from High Point.
The last straw for a lot of locals came in August: Four out-of-towners in a Lincoln Navigator were arrested for playing a pornographic video on a screen visible to everybody around it. When one suspect told the local paper, "We were just cruising; we went up there to meet girls," alarms went off all over High Point, a Bible Belt city of 76,000, centrally located in North Carolina's rolling Piedmont.
Extra police patrolled North Main for three straight weekends in September. They were armed with a zero-tolerance policy and a magistrate. The first weekend saw citations for 60 traffic violations, 50 trespassing charges, 10 noise violations, one drug charge and one count of carrying a concealed weapon. Cruising nose-dived.
"Complaints reached a fever pitch this year," said Al Andrews, a High Point police department lawyer who formed a coalition of businesses and parents to confront the problem.
"A lot of parents have this 'Happy Days' image of cruising," he added. "They don't know how predators now mix in with the cruisers. They're there to rob them, sell them dope, buy them alcohol. They take advantage of this swirl of humanity, mixing in like sharks in a pool of fish."
Among steps taken to control the scene: Many merchants installed "no trespassing" signs in parking lots where cruisers gathered, while others (including the local Bentley car dealership) chained off their lots' entrances. It has helped.
Longtime cruisers resent the crackdown. This is a region where a love of cars is a birthright and working on cars almost a genetic predisposition. Cruising in High Point validates all that.
"It keeps me out of trouble," said Steve "Twitch" Scott, 21, who often comes here with a 60-member car club from Winston-Salem. "It's something to do like girls collecting shoes."
Jeff Smith stood nearby in a parking lot filled with idling cruisers, their car hoods raised for walk-by gawking.
"Some people like to play basketball in the middle of the day. We like to stand in the parking lot in the middle of the night," he said. "I'd rather come here than go to a bar. It's cheaper."
"Most of the guys up here, cars are their love," added Ty Nguyen, 21.
Tired of fighting them, some locals have joined 'em. Bruce Hopper, minister of Greenwood Hills Wesleyan Church on North Main, for years spent weekend mornings picking up trash cruisers left in his parking lot. So this summer he invited them to the lot, handing out soda, hot dogs and a little religion. Church volunteers in "Pit Stop" T-shirts oversee it from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Even after the recent crackdown, the church lot was jammed with as many as 100 cruisers grateful for a no-hassle zone.
"We could either join the anti-cruising coalition or do something positive," Mr. Hopper said. "As the volume of cruisers increased, there were more predators who gave it a bad name. Most kids on our lot are just looking to be with friends."
Mr. Hopper planned to close his lot at the end of the summer, but the program has been so successful he's continuing it through the fall. He hopes other merchants do something similar next year.
"Some would like to do away with cruising altogether," he said. "I don't see that happening."
Few do. The lure here of cars and guys with cars, and girls who like guys with cars is too entrenched in the culture. As High Point police officer Brad Smith put it, "The mice are going where the cheese is."
Chris Giannopoulos, a North Main restaurant owner who cruised in his teens, recently blocked his parking lot to deter vandalism. But he understands why youths are here and doesn't think they'll go away.
"There's 5,000 girls here. I'm 18. I have a nice car. Where am I going?" he said. "I'm not going to get 20 guys together and drive to Thomasville so we can stare at each other."
For many, High Point is cruising. Said Keetha Plummer,18, of Winston-Salem, whose mother used to street race, "If it wasn't for us, High Point would be a hole in the wall."
Told that might be exaggerating things, that High Point bills itself as the "furniture capital of the world," Miss Plummer shook her head with a barely tolerant form of adolescent exasperation that's everywhere on this street.
Heading toward her juiced-up '98 Honda Civic, she asked, "Who wants to come to the furniture capital of the world?"

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